2020: A year to remember(?)
There's no doubt about it: This has been an eventful year.
Oregon weathered the onset of a pandemic the likes of which we haven't seen in more than 100 years; a wildfire season without precedent in our state; a bitter election season that continues, weeks after President-elect Joe Biden's victory, to be contested by the outgoing president and many of his supporters; a sudden and sharp economic downturn; massive street protests against police brutality and discrimination; and more.
The statewide and national issues are familiar. They've dominated the headlines all year, even in community newspapers like the one you're holding. They've affected nearly every aspect of our lives.
But there have been dramas and developments at the local level, too.
The year in Forest Grove began with the sudden departure of the city's popular police chief. Janie Schutz later told the News-Times that she had been pressured into resigning in exchange for a cash settlement and an agreement not to sue the city amid an escalating conflict between her command staff and the city manager's office.
Schutz's resignation was effective Jan. 9. But it took days for city officials to publicly acknowledge it before finally putting out a statement thanking Schutz for her service.
The city government attempted to deny the News-Times access to public records related to Schutz's tumultuous final months and departure from the police department. District Attorney Kevin Barton ultimately stepped in and ordered the city to release most of the records, after the newspaper appealed the decision.
While Schutz upheld her end of the agreement not to take Forest Grove to court, she did take the city to task. Schutz testified in a virtual meeting in July before a panel of state legislators, leveling accusations that city officials undermined her leadership and commissioned an investigation into her late in 2019 as a fig leaf to justify forcing her out of her position at the police department.
Schutz also disclosed that she had filed a human resources complaint against City Manager Jesse VanderZanden for gender discrimination in 2018. That complaint was resolved through mediation.
Mayor Pete Truax rejected Schutz's allegations, describing them as baseless and disputing her version of events. City officials pointed repeatedly to an employee survey, results of which were obtained by the News-Times, that found Schutz was widely disliked within the police deployment.
For her part, Schutz acknowledged friction between her and some longtime employees during her time as chief, but she argued that was an inevitable and even necessary consequence of her commitment to changing the culture of the police department and rooting out unacceptable conduct.
This wasn't the last time the Forest Grove Police Department would feature prominently in the public consciousness in 2020. Read on for more.
Everything changed in March. The first case of COVID-19 in Oregon was detected at Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro in late February, but it was followed by dozens more in the weeks that followed.
Gov. Kate Brown ordered ordered schools to close in mid-March, so students headed off to spring break with no idea when they'd be allowed back in classrooms. They're still waiting.
Many businesses were also forced to shut their doors, as public health experts warned that the virus was being transmitted in settings like restaurants, churches and gymnasiums. McMenamins alone laid off close to 3,000 workers, including from its locations in Washington County, as the public health situation rapidly deteriorated and local hospitals braced for a potentially overwhelming wave of cases.
Brown also ordered a temporary halt to evictions, prohibiting landlords from kicking out tenants for failure to pay the rent. While widely cheered, that order met with consternation among property managers concerned that they, too, would be left without any income for the foreseeable future.
Oregon's decisive actions may have averted a larger crisis in the spring. But the immediate effect was widespread economic pain, with hundreds of thousands of Oregonians filing for unemployment.
Congress acted with unusual speed, assembling a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan CARES Act into law on March 27, providing an unprecedented shot in the arm for the economy and guaranteeing stimulus payments of at least $1,200 for most adult citizens.
But in the view of some frustrated landlords, that stimulus meant tenants no longer had a valid excuse for not paying their rent on time. One such landlord landed in hot water in April, when a tenant republished a series of text messages demanding payment and disclosing that they had entered the tenant's personal information on the IRS website to track the progress of his stimulus check.
Austin Goodrich filed a federal lawsuit on April 22 against his landlord, 2275 W. Burnside LLC, and property manager, TLC Bookkeeping and Tax Prep Inc., for invasion of privacy and unauthorized use of the federal tracking system.
The civil suit is still pending in U.S. District Court. The defendants filed a response in October denying Goodrich's allegations and claiming Goodrich gave them permission to track the status of his stimulus check.
After months of congressional gridlock, a second round of stimulus checks will be going out in the coming weeks, after President Trump signed an omnibus and coronavirus relief package into law on Dec. 27 — although not before railing against several provisions of the bill, some of which his own administration had negotiated to include, and suggesting for days he wouldn't sign it after all. These new checks are expected to be only $600 per individual, although both Trump and congressional Democrats have insisted they should be $2,000 instead.
Things went only somewhat more smoothly in Salem. The Democratic-controlled Legislature met in a special session — which dozens of protesters picketed, some of them smashing glass windows and assaulting journalists and police officers, and several Republican lawmakers boycotted — in December to pass several last-minute relief bills. One of them extends the residential eviction moratorium through June while setting up a "compensation fund" for landlords.
Landlords have already filed a lawsuit over the extension, arguing it constitutes an unlawful form of eminent domain.
The coronavirus did subside somewhat during the summer months, although it didn't die down completely. Gov. Brown was concerned enough about the situation to order schools to postpone in-person instruction in most cases instead of beginning as usual in September.
If not for that, the week of Labor Day would have been even more chaotic than it was.
On Labor Day, traditionally the last day off before the start of school, western Oregon was pummeled by unusually fierce winds out of the east. Hot air blasted through the canyons and gullies of the region, taking down trees and powerlines and whipping up simmering wildfires in the Cascade mountain passes.
One wildfire south of Henry Hagg Lake was sparked by a felled transmission pole. The Powerline Fire, as it was dubbed, prompted hundreds of evacuations. All residents of the nearby community of Cherry Grove were told to leave their homes as firefighters attempted to regain control of the situation.
And south of Hillsboro, the Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak Fire started from an improperly extinguished campfire on private property. The fire spread rapidly. Evacuees were sent to Groner K-8 School, and then Mountainside High School in Beaverton as Groner's parking lot reached capacity.
Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue officials said the fire was estimated at close to 2,000 acres. But mercifully, aerial observations prompted them to reassess: The fire was actually less than half that size, and with the help of firefighting aircraft, it was brought under control later that week before it could threaten Newberg to the south.
No homes were destroyed in either of Washington County's two major wildfires. But firefighters and volunteers alike from Washington County were scrambled to assist with larger, more dangerous fires elsewhere in Oregon.
Some of the TVF&R units demobilizing from the Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak Fire were immediately redeployed to Clackamas County, where a massive fire complex menaced Molalla and Estacada. Others helped battle the Echo Mountain Fire near Lincoln City.
In total, wildfires burned more than 1 million acres in Oregon, destroyed more than 3,000 buildings and killed at least 11 people. Washington County got lucky.
In Portland, one of the protest capitals of the United States, demonstrations became a nightly event after George Floyd, a Black resident of Minneapolis, died while being detained by Minneapolis police officers in an incident that was recorded by a bystander and went viral on social media.
Floyd died in May. The incident was ruled a homicide, and the officers involved were fired and charged with felony crimes in connection with his death.
Washington County saw protests as well, albeit on a smaller scale than in Portland — and with no reported instances of vandalism or violence. Unlike in Portland, the Trump administration didn't see fit to deploy unidentified federal agents to crack down on demonstrators in places like Hillsboro and Forest Grove.
But the protests had largely subsided by Oct. 31, when an off-duty Forest Grove police officer pounded on the door of a residence early in the morning and demanded the home's occupants come out and fight him.
Steven Teets, who was eventually arraigned Dec. 1 for criminal mischief and disorderly conduct, appeared to have become agitated by a "Black Lives Matter" flag flying above the home's driveway, according to a civil lawsuit brought against him by resident Mirella Castaneda. Castaneda claims Teets specifically targeted her and her family because of their beliefs.
The incident again focused attention on the Forest Grove Police Department.
The department was already dealing with the aftermath of an altercation earlier in October in which an intoxicated man was stunned with a Taser while reportedly resisting arrest, went into cardiac arrest, and later died at the hospital. While prosecutors have yet to determined whether the police's actions were justified in the death of James Marshall, it marked the first lethal use of force by Forest Grove police in years.
The incident over which Teets is facing criminal charges and a civil suit, as well as Forest Grove police's response to it, drew significant criticism. Henry Reimann, who replaced Janie Schutz as police chief, announced he had asked for an outside investigation into how his department handled the incident. The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, which broke the news, reported that Teets was picked up and given a ride home by fellow officers after Castaneda called 9-1-1.
In a commentary published in the News-Times in December, Brendan Curran, lead pastor of the Forest Grove United Church of Christ — one of the city's oldest and most prominent institutions — called on city leaders to fire Teets and begin taking steps to address systemic racism.
Both the charges and suit against Teets are still pending. Teets remains on desk duty with the Forest Grove Police Department.
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