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We say farewell to a uniquely turbulent year that will have a long-lasting impact in Columbia County (and beyond).

There's no doubt about it: 2020 was 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 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.

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Leaders on the Portland Community College Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center project in Scappoose participate in a groundbreaking ceremony on Jan. 29, 2020.

Winter

It finally happened in January. After years of polling and pondering and planning, ground broke Jan. 29 on the manufacturing training center at Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center (OMIC) in Scappoose.

This is a big deal for Columbia County. South Columbia County has been part of the Portland Community College district for years, but residents have had to commute to PCC Rock Creek or the Willow Creek Center in Hillsboro. That's the closest thing to a local college that area residents have.

Not only is that changing, but in recent years, Scappoose has welcomed a state-of-the-art hub for research and development that will bolster the PCC learning experience as well. OMIC both gives South County residents a place to earn a degree without leaving the county and puts it on the map for businesses big and small. OMIC members include Boeing, Daimler, Mitsubishi and more.

OMIC R&D officially launched in 2017, and it continued to grow in 2020. In spring 2021, the PCC manufacturing training center will become the latest big new thing at OMIC, with long-lasting implications for the region.

The coronavirus pandemic came to Oregon just a month after the groundbreaking ceremony. Like everything else, the pandemic has complicated things for PCC and its students, and those disruptions are expected to linger into 2021.

Andrew Lattanner, PCC's training director at OMIC, told the Spotlight in October that the college is planning for a soft opening in the spring, with hopes that life will look more normal by the fall.

Not all of the planned course offerings will be available right away — and, of course, much of the value of the training center comes from giving students the opportunity for hands-on work, learning a trade under the tutelage of experienced instructors. So, while it may take a little longer than planned for the center to become fully operational, South County residents have had plenty of practice with waiting.

PMG FILE PHOTO - St. Helens Mayor Rick Scholl speaks during a public hearing in December 2018. In spring 2020, Scholl found himself in the uncomfortable position of trying to defuse controversy over city officials' reaction to the idea of letting homeless residents shower at McCormick Park while still not endorsing the pitch himself.

Spring

Columbia County's K-12 schools ended in-person instruction in March. It's still unclear when most students will be able to return to classrooms, with the prospect that schools may have sat empty for a full calendar year or more before the bell finally rings once more.

But the effects of the coronavirus pandemic go far beyond education. Public buildings were mostly shuttered as case counts rose, and many businesses and nonprofits temporarily wound down their operations.

In St. Helens, the nonprofits Community Action Team and Columbia County Mental Health made a pitch to the city government: With public buildings closed due to the virus, give homeless residents access — strictly limited and monitored — to shower stalls at McCormick Park. It wouldn't be a solution to every problem, but it would at least give people living without shelter a way to stay clean and hygienic.

City officials balked. Police Chief Brian Greenway suggested that allowing homeless people to use the park's showers could cause "an outbreak even worse than COVID-19," such as hepatitis.

Greenway's solution? Bus the unwashed masses to Multnomah County instead.

City Councilor Stephen Topaz was open to serving homeless residents without shipping them across the county line, but he was leery of letting them use the park facilities. His proposed alternative was to rent an 18-wheeler and reserve it for their use instead.

Mayor Rick Scholl later apologized for Greenway and Topaz's comments. But he wouldn't come around to the nonprofits' plan either. While he urged Topaz and other councilors at a May meeting to be "sensitive and empathetic," he noted that the city's resources are limited, and he didn't think McCormick Park was the right venue.

The council couldn't come to a consensus, frustrating advocates for the homeless community and leaving homeless residents without a convenient solution. The McCormick Park proposal was abandoned.

Community Action Team and other nonprofit groups have continued to serve the homeless community through the pandemic. Dan Brown, CAT's executive director, said in December that thankfully, there has been less difficulty in continuing that outreach and service than advocates had feared, although the virus does still complicate matters.

PMG PHOTO: MILES VANCE - The Scappoose High School Indians mascot continued to be the subject of controversy, with more than 3,000 community members, including some current students, calling for it to be replaced in 2020. District officials say they have no plans to move on from the name, which has diehard supporters as well as critics in the community.

Summer

Even with schools closed for most of 2020, Scappoose High School still managed to be at the center of one of the year's biggest stories.

More than 3,000 people have signed a petition started by current and former Scappoose High students calling on the high school to change its mascot and team name, the Indians. So far, though, the school isn't budging — and the mascot has vocal defenders of its own.

The issue came up at a Scappoose School Board meeting in June, when recent graduates addressed the board to ask them to consider changing the mascot.

Proponents of the change argue that the name is disrespectful to the Native peoples of the area and promotes offensive stereotypes. Those who want to keep the mascot say it honors Native peoples and point to an agreement between the Scappoose School District and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which stipulates that the federally registered tribal group doesn't object to the high school using the Indians moniker as long as it teaches Indigenous history and culture as well.

By school officials' own admission, the curriculum at Scappoose High doesn't meet the standards set by their agreement with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. They told the Spotlight they are working to come into compliance and have no plans to stop using the Indians name.

A counter-petition started by Scappoose High alumni has collected more than 1,100 signatures. It blames "cancel culture" for the backlash against the Scappoose Indians name and mascot, while noting the Chinookan origins of the name of Scappoose itself — it roughly translates to "gravelly plains" — and the land's history before it became a settlement.

One consistent argument that supporters of the Indians name have cited over the years is going away, though. The Cleveland Indians announced in December that the 2021 MLB season will be the last one played under that name, which dates back to 1915. By 2022, the Cleveland Indians say, they will have chosen a new name, leaving the Indians moniker in the past.

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Casey Garrett speaks at a Columbia County candidate forum in March. Despite late-breaking allegations against Garrett regarding unprofessional and profane conduct in the workplace, Garrett was elected as a county commissioner in November. He will be sworn in at a meeting in January.

Fall

Politics in Columbia County have always been rough-and-tumble. But the county's politics have also become increasingly polarized — and increasingly conservative.

The campaign of Casey Garrett, local Republicans' preferred candidate against Columbia County Chair Alex Tardif in this year's election, was rocked by what might have been a major scandal in October.

The Spotlight and others in Columbia County obtained public records showing that multiple subordinates and fellow department heads in the county government had complained about Garrett, the county's director of general services. One of the most salacious allegations, which Garrett emphatically denied, was that Garrett used the n-word to refer to some county employees.

It wasn't the only report of turmoil at the county level this year. In January, Columbia County Sheriff Brian Pixley fired Capt. Tony Weaver, formerly commander of the Columbia County Jail, following an internal investigation. And in early October, the Spotlight reported on a pattern of complaints and investigations regarding Janet Evans, who retired this past summer as head of the county's parole and probation department.

But the allegations against Garrett came in the final weeks of an election campaign in which Garrett was a candidate. They were magnified by local radio, as well as a website set up by the Independent Party of Oregon — of which Tardif is a registered member — to attack Garrett over his personnel record.

In the end, though, it didn't matter. Garrett won the election, unseating Tardif with about 51.7% of the vote. It was a closer race than Commissioner Margaret Magruder won over challenger Brandee Dudzic, but the result was the same: The more conservative candidate won the race.

President Donald Trump also carried Columbia County for a second time, once again by a double-digit margin. After winning the county by about 12 percentage points four years ago, he carried it over President-elect Joe Biden by about 10 points in 2020.

There's one part of Columbia County that has largely bucked the county's rightward trend: Scappoose, the closest city to famously liberal Portland.

In 2012, President Barack Obama carried Scappoose by a nearly 12-point margin, while he won St. Helens by 13 points. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton just narrowly won Scappoose by about 1 percentage point in 2016, but Biden carried the city by almost 7 points in 2020.

Meanwhile, Trump won St. Helens by 8 points in 2016 and 5 points in 2020.


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