Year in Review:

The top local stories that made the news in 2016

By Cameron Rasmusson
Reader Staff

It’s been quite a year.

From its first days to its dying gasp, 2016 was a year marked by turmoil on both a national and local level. We won’t understand its full impact for many years to come, but in the meantime, it’s worth reflecting on the events that shaped Sandpoint along the way.

The refugee crisis 

From the very first days of the year, North Idaho was divided over the controversial issue of refugee resettlement. As the humanitarian crisis in Syria heated to a boil, U.S. refugee policies fell under increased scrutiny. Proponents argued that the U.S. had a moral responsibility to help those displaced by the conflict, while opponents argued that refugees were a security risk due to inadequate vetting mechanisms. The policy attracted its share of conspiracy theories, with some claiming resettlement was a deliberate effort to reshape America’s cultural, ethnic and religious make-up.

Already a hot issue after Bonner County commissioners passed a December resolution urging the halt of refugee resettlement in Idaho until proper vetting could occur, the outcry persisted in January when a Bonners Ferry tolerance rally drew counter-protesters. When Sandpoint officials introduced a resolution welcoming refugees into the area, opponents packed the council chambers to resist it. The extreme reaction led council members to drop the resolution.

Both the Bonner County Board of Commissioners and Sandpoint City Council resolutions were pure political theater. No refugees were or are proposed for relocation in Sandpoint. But the issue was an early look at the deep divisions at the heart of North Idaho.

Excitement and acrimony at the polls

That division resurfaced in the contest between Republican incumbent Heather Scott and Democrat challenger Kate McAlister for District 1 Representative Seat A. One of the hardest-fought general election races in recent memory, it also unearthed accusations of dirty dealing on both sides.

The Idaho Democratic Party alleged that Scott supporters stalked and harassed a young field operative, telling him to “watch his back,” following him to the house he was staying at and recording his license plate number. Party officials ultimately pulled him out of the region.

Likewise, Scott refused to participate in media-hosted candidate events, claiming they were designed in bad faith to trap her in her words. She bowed out of a KRFY Morning Show interview, a Facebook Live event hosted by the Bonner County Daily Bee and a candidate forum hosted by the Sandpoint Reader and Sandpoint Online.

The election itself produced few surprises. In District 1, Scott won re-election to the legislature, as did the accompanying suite of Republican incumbents. The most significant change to local government comes from newly elected Republican commissioners Dan McDonald and Jeff Connolly.

The drama of local and state elections swept into the national presidential race, too. In the primary elections, Bonner County voters favored Ted Cruz but fell behind Donald Trump for his eventual Election Night win. And Democrats experienced the highest primary caucus turnout in years, with the substantial majority supporting presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. It’s an open question how that surge of populism will manifest itself in 2017’s political climate.

Finally, one of the most consequential ballot decisions was not for a candidate but rather a series of proposed construction projects. Voters roundly rejected a Lake Pend Oreille School District plant levy that would have collected $55 million over six years from property owners. The levy was intended to replace or dramatically refurbish several school buildings throughout the district that inspectors gave failing marks.

For LPOSD planners, it’s back to the drawing board as they consider new approaches to replacing the dilapidated buildings. And they’ll need to be careful in separating the supplemental levy—which funds nearly a third of school staffing and operations—from the plant levy when they ask voters to renew it next year.

The changing face of Sandpoint

This year laid the groundwork for a transformation in the way we navigate and enjoy Sandpoint. From a changing street plan to new infrastructure, the work of 2016 paves the way for major changes in 2017.

This summer, the city introduced a new parking plan designed to alleviate congestion on key foot-traffic streets while providing options for downtown employees. Under the new system, downtown workers can park for 24 hours in one of the city’s several lots, leaving timed parking open for diners and shoppers. This plan might require further tweaking if an agreement materializes to lease city parking spaces to Kaniksu Health Services for its potential downtown expansion. However, Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad sees it as a good start.

The eventual switch to two-way traffic on most downtown streets in 2017 will usher in yet more dramatic changes. Work started this year to funnel U.S. 2 traffic out of downtown Sandpoint, an outcome that will lead to city control of Pine Street and First Avenue. It’s a necessary step for several recreational and infrastructure improvements called for in the Sandpoint Downtown Streets Plan and Design Guide.

Sandpoint saw the demolition of the cherished 50-year-old Memorial Field grandstands this year, an outcome that’s been anticipated for many years. In its place, a new grandstand project will boast a higher capacity and a longer anticipated lifespan, setting the stage for many high school graduations and Festival at Sandpoint lineups to come. The new grandstands should be completed before high school graduation in late spring next year.

While some familiar places are changing, locals are hard at work to make sure others stay the same. The Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness celebrated U.S. Sen. Jim Risch’s introduction of a bill preserving the Idaho mountain range as wilderness. It’s now in Congress and President Elect Donald Trump’s hands to enshrine the bill as law.

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