By Ben Olson and Cameron Rasmusson
2015 was a busy year for us here at the Reader. In two more issues, we’ll have been back in publication for a full year. How did it pass so quickly?
As is customary this time of year, we’ve decided to take a look back over the past 12 months at some of the biggest stories and issues that have affected us. Enjoy!
Ben’s top stories from 2015:
Wildfire in North Idaho
It’s hard to imagine a forest fire when we’re knee deep in fresh powder and dealing with sub-freezing temperatures, but last summer’s fire season was one for the record books.
With over 50,000 acres burned and more than 300 fires reported in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, 2015’s fire season was called the worst since 1926 by the Idaho Department of Lands. At one point during the season, over 125 individual fires were burning simultaneously across North Idaho, taxing manpower and resources to the limit.
“If we had the same acreage burning with just one fire, it would’ve been no problem,” said Jason Kirchner, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service. “But having to respond to all those fires taxed resources.
At its peak, the season saw over 27,000 firefighters mobilized in the panhandle.
“We reached a point where there was nobody else to call,” said Kirchner. “We brought in firefighters from Australia, Canada, parts of Europe. They came from all over the world.”
The extreme fire season was due mainly to a dry, warm winter that left little snowpack in the mountains, followed immediately by a dry spring. By June, the forests were tinder dry, and the fire danger rating was listed at “Extreme” from Aug. 5 to Sept. 2, an unprecedented streak.
Mass shootings increasing
Looking back, it’s hard not to think that 2015 was dominated by violence. Though there is a running debate as to what exactly constitutes as a “mass shooting,” it’s generally agreed upon that the events showed a marked increase during 2015.
A study published by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center showed that mass shootings were on the rise, as opposed to instances of domestic and gang violence.
“Those [shootings] look like they’re ‘contagious’ much more than the intimate partner violence ones,” said Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s David Hemenway in a Washington Post article.
In the Harvard-Northeastern study, mass shootings are defined as those in which four or more people are killed. The FBI, on the other hand, defines them as when three or more are killed, excluding the shooter.
A crowd sourced data site, Shooting Tracker, recently made waves when they claimed there were over 350 mass shootings that had occurred in 2015 alone. Shooting Tracker defines any incident in which four or more people are shot as a mass shooting, regardless of whether they were injured or killed. However, some critics have pointed to numerous entries that invalidate the claim, such as non-lethal incidents involving kids using air rifles.
Perception of the Police
2015 saw a change in the perception of police officers across the U.S., mainly due to the increase in the amount of negative interactions caught on body cameras, dash cams and cellphone video.
We’ve all seen the videos. Some of the most notable incidents seem to begin with a benign traffic stop or police contact that escalates quickly.
In April, North Charleston police officer Michael Slager stopped Walter Scott for a non-functioning brake light. Slager ended up shooting the unarmed Scott in the back as he ran away. Slager is currently being held without bail for the charge of murder.
In July, a man was killed by a University of Cincinnati police officer in what was called an “entirely preventable” shooting.
Chicago continues to see turmoil over the fallout of videos released of the Laquan McDonald shooting last year. Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot teenager McDonald 16 times as he moved away from police in the middle of the road holding a knife.
We’re no strangers to police shootings here in North Idaho, either. The shooting of troubled pregnant woman Jeanetta Riley last year brought the issue to our front doors. Though the officers involved in the shooting were cleared of any wrongdoing, the body camera video of the incident continues to haunt this small town.
Whether police shootings of unarmed suspects is increasing or not is hard to tell, but the ubiquitous presence of cameras brings the incidents to the eyes of the world.
As the New York Times noted, however, videos “that show respectful, peaceful interactions do not make the 24-hour cable news.”
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled to legalize same-sex across the U.S. once and for all. The court ruled that states cannot ban same-sex marriages, handing gay rights advocates their biggest victory yet.
The landmark decision comes nearly half a century after a riot at New York’s Stonewall Inn ushered in the modern gay rights movement. In the 5-4 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote an opinion that spoke eloquently of the most fundamental values of love, family and liberty.
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family,” wrote Kennedy. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were.”
The ruling has continued to come under fire from critics, including the prominent case of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples even though she was legally obligated to do so. Davis spent five days in jail for contempt of court and emerged still defiant of the ruling.
Cameron’s top stories of 2015:
The city of Sandpoint’s 2015 elections were revealing in several respects, showing divided attitudes toward local government. While mayoral candidate Shelby Rognstad carried the day with 1,116 votes versus opponent Mose Dunkel’s 618 votes, Dunkel attracted a significant minority of voters dissatisfied with the status quo at City Hall. More than any other topic, the question of whether officials maintained sufficient transparency and encouraged public participation in city business defined the election.
On the one hand, the election generated high interest compared to previous years, prompting vigorous discussion online and in community forums. On the other, the 48-percent voter turnout is only impressive when considered against other recent local elections. What’s more, far fewer residents decided to throw hats in the ring, resulting in only two mayoral candidates and all three City Council incumbents running unopposed.
If the 2015 election was intriguing, it’s only an appetizer to what awaits in 2016. With several key state legislative seats on the line, local Republican partisans are hurtling toward what could be a bruising primary election. Meanwhile, with District 1 representative seats filled by far-right politicians Heather Scott and Sage Dixon, Democrats have an opportunity to sway moderates to their side in the general election. Suffice it to say, 2016 is shaping up to be a fascinating year in Bonner County politics.
Sandpoint hires a city administrator
Local officials’ decision to hire a city administrator was tangentially linked to the 2015 election. That’s because for some, it was emblematic of a lack of public engagement, the issue that characterized the Dunkel campaign. The controversy of the new position and its six-figure salary aside, however, the new position is a transformative change in city government, alleviating the mayor and department heads of some managerial responsibilities in favor of a top-down approach.
The biggest question that dogged the city administrator hiring process was whether or not the city allowed for sufficient public input. Calls for a public forum where residents could meet and question candidates came in letters to the editor and Internet posts. However, Mayor Carrie Logan instead formed a selection committee to choose the final candidate.
That candidate ended up being Jennifer Stapleton, who was approved by the City Council on Dec. 16. She brings with her almost 20 years of administrative experience and is motivated by a longtime desire to live in Sandpoint.
Community deals with tragic losses
This year saw the world and our country absorb tragedies aplenty, and Sandpoint was no exception. Several recent suicides among local youth forced Sandpoint students to grapple with some difficult questions and overwhelming grief. This prompted several Sandpoint High School students to form the Ten Seconds of Kindness movement, which aims to inspire selfless acts of generosity and secure help for students struggling with depression.
Several influential community members also died this year, some quite unexpectedly. In July, community activist, frequent political candidate and prolific volunteer Laura Bry passed away suddenly, prompting shock and sadness from local residents.
After a long and dynamic life, Dr. Forrest M. Bird died in August at 94 years old. The inventor of several lifesaving respiratory technologies and a legendary aviator, Bird’s death was noted by national media outlets across the country and drew a large crowd to the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center for his memorial service.
In a shocking and tragic turn of events, Pam Bird, the wife of Forrest Bird, died weeks later along with her friends Tookie and Don Hensley in a plane crash. An industrial adviser, advocate for inventors and a writer, Pam Bird was en route to visit family when her plane crashed on Round Top Mountain.
Local landmarks receive second life
On a happier note, 2015 also saw some beloved Sandpoint locations preserved for coming generations.
In June, the newly renovated Sandpoint Train Depot was formally dedicated for public use once again. The celebration capped off a long construction process and an even longer negotiation with BNSF Railway and Amtrak, in which local officials and history enthusiasts fought to preserve the venerable depot. The result is an aesthetically pleasing and functional monument to Sandpoint’s history as a train town.
Voters also approved a local option tax measure in November that will allow for improvements to Memorial Field and the reconstruction of its aged grandstands. The setting for innumerable athletic events, graduations and three decades of the Festival at Sandpoint, Memorial Field has seen more than few cherished memories spring up on its grounds. According to the city of Sandpoint, the five-year tax means that tradition will continue for future generations.
Predictions for the future:
It’s hard to predict the important news stories in the future, but we’ll give it a shot anyway.
The year 2016 will be a big one for Idaho elections. On the national level, Sen. Mike Crapo’s term is up, as are those of representatives Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson.
In state elections, Idaho Supreme Court justices Jim Jones and Roger Burdick will be on the ballot, as will Court of Appeals Judge Molly Huskey. All three District 1 legislators—Sen. Shawn Keough, Rep. Heather Scott and Rep. Sage Dixon—have seats up for election.
The county elections will see Bonner County commissioners Todd Sudick and Cary Kelly’s seats open for election. Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler and Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall’s offices will also be on the line. Magistrate judges Debra Heise and Lori Meulenberg will be on the ballot, and all precinct committeemen will be determined in the primary election. [CR]
New Approach Idaho
The Boise-based organization New Approach has been gathering signatures all year to support legalizing medical use of marijuana in Idaho.
The grassroots organization has already gathered the minimum number of signatures required for District 1, but are still working to gather the required total of 47,000 statewide to put the initiative on the ballot. If they succeed, voters will have the chance to usher Idaho in as the next state to legalize medicinal usage of cannabis.
Currently 23 states in the nation allow medicinal usage of cannabis, while Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska and Washington D.C. currently allow recreational use of marijuana. [BO]
Downtown streets will switch back to two-way
It’s almost a daily occurrence to see an out-of-town license plate driving the wrong way down a one-way street.
For some of you out there, Sandpoint has always been a city of one-way streets. For those a little longer in the tooth, they remember how the city used to have two-way traffic along the downtown corridor.
In the fall of 2016, the change to two-way traffic in the downtown corridor will certainly affect daily life in Sandpoint.
Cedar, First, Fifth and Pine will all go from one- to two-way traffic, perhaps making possible the first time in recent history a situation where locals drive worse than tourists.