2021: A year of big news in Columbia County
Two steps forward, one step back.
The old saying seems to be a mantra for 2021, a year in which we all learned the perils — if we didn't get the memo in 2020 — of getting too comfortable.
This year has challenged us to be adaptable, flexible and not too easily thrown off our game. It's given us remarkable opportunities and dealt us crushing disappointments.
Our communities have experienced continued losses, aches and pains, as the coronavirus pandemic stubbornly marches into its third year and climate change continues to cast an unwelcome shadow over the 21st century.
And yet there have been moments of relief, hope and sheer joy, as we learn to live with the virus and we celebrate our collective resiliency, looking past the doubt and uncertainty toward a future still filled with potential.
Without further ado, here is our annual look back at the year that has been, revisiting some of the biggest local stories of 2021.
Like virtually everywhere in Oregon, Columbia County started the year struggling under the weight of a pandemic that was about to enter its second full year.
In fall 2020, Gov. Kate Brown ordered what she initially billed as a "two-week pause" in an effort to suppress rising COVID-19 cases before the December holidays. The virus had other plans, and Columbia County didn't emerge from the tightest restrictions the state imposed for counties at "extreme risk" of community transmission until mid-February.
That reprieve was short-lived. By the end of April, Columbia County was back in the extreme risk category, with a significantly higher rate of new COVID-19 cases than its neighboring counties. It only emerged for good from the most restrictive category in May, when an obscure statewide metric tracking the increase in "patient bed-days" at Oregon hospitals fell just a 10th of a percentage point short of meeting the requirement for counties to be considered at extreme risk.
As businesses grappled with the yo-yo effect of on-again, off-again restrictions, there were some glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel.
In February, earlier than most other school districts in Oregon, the Scappoose School District began to shift from "comprehensive distance learning" to a hybrid instructional model. On Feb. 8, Grant Watts and Warren elementary schools welcomed back students in the first, second and third grades — and welcomed, for the first time in actual classrooms, kindergarteners.
"We were all a bit giddy with excitement," said Jennifer Stearns, then-principal of Grant Watts Elementary, after the first day of school.
And it really did feel like a first day of school.
"It looked and sounded like 'school,'" Stearns said, "with additional attention being focused on safety and social-emotional support. We have much to celebrate."
Even as Scappoose, and later St. Helens, schools began bringing students back to campus for at least a couple days each week, the broader community got a welcome shot in the arm as well — literally.
The first effective COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for mass deployment in late 2020, but it took until the spring for them to become widely available for adults in Oregon.
As the vaccines rolled out to more and more people, Brown visited Columbia County in March to show her support for the vaccination program. The Spotlight's photographer snapped pictures as Brown received the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine at the OHSU Primary Care Clinic in Scappoose from Dr. Joe Skariah.
While experts agree the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective at preventing serious illness and death — even, especially with a booster dose, against the new omicron variant that arrived in Oregon this December — the rate of vaccine uptake in Columbia County has been lower than in neighboring counties.
However, the countywide rate is dragged down significantly by lower vaccination rates in rural areas and North County. According to data from the Oregon Health Authority, the vaccination rate in Scappoose is comparable to that of larger suburban communities like Forest Grove and Sherwood, and Columbia City has one of the highest vaccination rates in rural northwest Oregon.
Polls show Brown remains unpopular in Oregon, whether because of the state's handling of the pandemic, her political agenda in Salem or other reasons.
While Oregon has largely relaxed its posture on COVID-19, abandoning the litany of restrictions that were in place at the start of the year, Brown's actions sparked a new backlash in August when she said state employees, K-12 school staff and healthcare workers would be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Among the most vocal critics of the vaccination mandate was Brian Pixley, Columbia County's sheriff. Pixley penned an open letter to Brown saying his office will not enforce vaccination or mask mandates in Columbia County.
"The citizens have endured 'two weeks to flatten the curve,' unemployment and the loss of several of our small businesses over the last year and a half and we have had enough!" Pixley wrote.
Columbia County Commissioner Henry Heimuller was not impressed. During a public meeting days later, he criticized Pixley's letter, saying it had "thrown gasoline on the fire" and needlessly riled up county residents on both sides.
The St. Helens city government was in the spotlight — and in the Spotlight — repeatedly during the second quarter of the year.
The Spotlight's top story of the year, as measured by online readership, was a collaboration with one of our sister papers within Pamplin Media Group, the Lake Oswego Review, with which the Spotlight traditionally has little overlap. In this case, however, the story very much involved both tony Lake Oswego, nestled just beneath Southwest Portland in suburban Clackamas County, and blue-collar St. Helens, Portland's erstwhile rival on the Columbia River.
The Spotlight and its sister paper obtained records detailing the uncomfortable work history of Douglas Treat, a Lake Oswego Police Department lieutenant who left Lake Oswego under a cloud in 2020 before being hired as a sergeant by the St. Helens Police Department.
Treat was investigated over inappropriate sexual comments he allegedly made to coworkers in the Lake Oswego Police Department. While under investigation, he retired, but he was then subsequently hired in St. Helens.
While the investigation into Treat was reviewed by a statewide police policy committee, the group stopped short of recommending disciplinary action against Treat, finding Lake Oswego's investigation was flawed and Treat's conduct likely didn't rise to the level of potentially revoking his police officer certification.
Keizer Police Chief John Teague, who sits on the committee, said he didn't like what he saw about Treat's behavior.
"I feel dirty for having not just read it, but studied it, ruminated on it," Teague said. But, he added, he believed Treat's "conduct reflected the culture of the agency, rather than his conduct being disruptive to the agency."
While Lake Oswego's police chief and assistant city manager were responsive to Pamplin Media Group's inquiries, the Spotlight was largely stonewalled by St. Helens administration. Police Chief Brian Greenway did not respond when contacted for comment or to confirm Treat's assertion that he saw the Lake Oswego inquest as "a hatchet job." City spokesperson Crystal King told the Spotlight the city wouldn't comment on "HR matters."
The story about Treat was published in mid-April. Just days later, the Spotlight reported on another alleged pattern of inappropriate statements and behavior concerning St. Helens, this time by an elected official.
In an open hearing at St. Helens City Hall — the first time the City Council had actually met in person in months due to the ongoing pandemic — assistant city administrator Matt Brown publicly accused City Councilor Stephen Topaz of "slandering employees, admitted harassment and public humiliation of (city) employees."
St. Helens quietly commissioned an investigation into Topaz, who was first elected to the St. Helens City Council in 2018, by Portland attorney Jill Goldsmith. After Goldsmith completed her report, Topaz was given the opportunity for an open hearing to discuss its findings.
Goldsmith said she interviewed numerous city employees, who told her that — among other things — Topaz used the n-word and other racial slurs, made sexist comments, and repeatedly tried to use his position as a city councilor to get back at a city employee with whom he had a long-running complaint dating back years before his election.
Topaz was not interviewed as part of Goldsmith's investigation. While he acknowledged using the n-word at least once during a meeting, he argued that it was in a historic context — referring to a geographic feature in St. Helens he said used to be popularly known by that name — and happened before he was a city councilor. He either denied or said he couldn't recall the other allegations.
Topaz has contended that council members and employees have a vendetta against him because of Topaz's history of criticizing City Hall.
"I am being targeted for whistleblower retaliation by one or more unelected city bureaucrats," Topaz wrote in a statement provided to the Spotlight after the hearing. "These unelected officials do not like me asking questions. They do not like me holding them accountable. They do not like me doing my job for my constituents."
Topaz's colleagues on the City Council were unmoved. Mayor Rick Scholl called on Topaz to resign during a May 5 meeting, as did Council President Doug Morten. When Topaz would not do so, the council voted 4-1 — with Topaz as the only objection — to censure him later that month, placing restrictions on his interactions with city workers and requiring him to go through the city administrator or city recorder if he had questions or comments for staff outside of a public meeting.
The censure and restrictions were set to expire in November. However, the council decided to table a decision on whether to lift them until the New Year, after Scholl said Topaz had continued to make demands of city staff despite the restrictions and suggested he may have used his position as a city councilor to get out of a traffic citation.
Topaz has continued to deny any wrongdoing.
For all the attention paid to St. Helens City Hall in the spring, it was Scappoose City Hall that found itself at the center of much of the summer's drama in South Columbia County.
Many community members were shocked in late June when longtime Scappoose police officer Troy Gainer was indicted on charges of official misconduct and evidence tampering. Prosecutors said Gainer took confiscated drugs from evidence collections and kept them for his own use.
Gainer had been Scappoose's most recently assigned school resource officer, although SROs were not actively working in Scappoose schools at the time due to pandemic-related restrictions.
Court records indicate that among the colleagues to grow suspicious of Gainer was Pixley, the county sheriff, who reportedly requested a criminal investigation into the Scappoose officer after he saw what appeared to be a pill fall out of one of his pockets.
Gainer is accused of stealing drugs not only from the Scappoose Police Department's evidence rooms, but also from the Columbia County Sheriff's Office as well as the St. Helens Police Department.
Gainer has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His attorney, Daniel Thenell, has criticized the court filings against Gainer, calling the allegations in the indictment "so vague as to deprive (Gainer) of any way to defend himself," and has clashed with Scappoose city administrators over the release of personnel records he says Gainer could use in his own defense.
Thenell also represents the Scappoose Police Officers Guild, the local union. He butted heads with City Hall in August after the union issued a vote of no confidence in Police Chief Norm Miller.
"It's amazing that it hasn't been dealt with earlier," Thenell told the Spotlight at the time, referring to what he said was longstanding unhappiness within the Scappoose Police Department about Miller's leadership.
Miller didn't stand in the union's way, submitting his resignation within days of the vote to Scappoose's interim city manager, Alexandra Rains.
But when Rains allowed Miller to continue acting as chief until a replacement was hired and accepted his request to be demoted to a rank-and-file police officer, the union turned its wrath on her. Officers voted no confidence in Rains, whom councilors were considering naming as Scappoose's permanent city manager after she had spent close to a year acting in that capacity.
"To be blunt, if Chief Miller and Ms. Rains are not removed … the city will see an exodus of most of the current employees," Thenell warned in a letter addressed to the Scappoose City Council and the city attorney.
Mayor Scott Burge and Council President Megan Greisen didn't react well to the union's escalation. They fired back at Thenell in a letter defending Rains, knocking Thenell's "divisive tactics," and sharply criticizing union members for allegedly trying to "intimidate" Rains at a meeting.
"We expect more from our police officers," Burge and Greisen wrote.
City Councilor Josh Poling suggested the union timed its vote of no confidence to influence the city's hiring decision for the city manager position.
Days later, the City Council voted 4-3 to hire Rains as city manager. The council then voted unanimously for a resolution of support for Rains, despite its divided preferences for who should lead City Hall.
"We all intend to support Alex and work with her to make her very successful," said Councilor Tyler Miller, who was one of three councilors who voted against hiring Rains, preferring another candidate for city manager instead. "I don't think there's any question about that."
As for Miller, he is no longer with the Scappoose Police Department in any capacity. He resigned in September after briefly working as a police officer under an acting chief.
Scappoose has yet to announce the hiring of a permanent successor to Miller. Shaun Davis has been serving as interim chief — an outside hire, as Davis previously worked in the Oregon City Police Department.
Both local and state politics were as rough-and-tumble an affair as ever in 2021, with frustration over the economy, the virus and partisan polarization at fever pitch.
Betsy Johnson says she wants to change all of that and chart a new course for Oregon.
Johnson, Columbia County's state senator and the undisputed boss of county politics since 2005, announced in October that she would join the already-crowded field of Democrats running for governor next year.
There was a twist, of course, because with Johnson, there usually is. The Warren Democrat said that instead of running in the Democratic primary, she would drop her party affiliation, run as an independent candidate, and attempt to get onto the November ballot by petition rather than by nomination.
"Oregonians are ready to move to the middle where sensible solutions are found," said Johnson, long considered the most moderate Democratic legislator in Salem.
Johnson's decision to quit the Democratic Party was the icing on the cake in a very bad year for Columbia County Democrats.
Politically, Columbia County has made a hard right turn over the past decade, flipping from voting for Democrat Barack Obama twice in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections to favoring Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections.
The change has been particularly pronounced outside of Scappoose, which remains "light blue" politically. St. Helens voted for Obama in 2012 by a wider margin than Scappoose did, then swung to Trump in 2016 and 2020. Scappoose city voters narrowly favored Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016 and now-President Joe Biden in 2020.
In 2021, while there was no statewide or presidential election to rub local Democrats' nose in the county's rightward swing, the two Democrats in the county's delegation to Salem both announced they wouldn't seek re-election to the Legislature.
State Rep. Brad Witt's decision came after two body blows to his political career.
During the legislative session in the spring, a Republican lawmaker accused Witt of sexual harassment and trying to pressure her for a date in exchange for her vote. Witt admitted to texting Vikki Breese Iverson, now the House minority leader, repeatedly to suggest they get together socially, but he insisted that he didn't mean to proposition her or to make his support for one of her bills conditional on her meeting him for dinner, a beer or "something better than dinner or beer."
Speaker Tina Kotek, who is running for governor herself next year, yanked Witt from his position as chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee over the texts. While a legislative investigator assigned to look into the blowup said she found Witt's story to be credible, she also concluded Breese Iverson had legitimate reason for the way she interpreted Witt's messages.
A bipartisan committee in June found that Witt violated workplace rules, although it didn't agree that Witt intended to suggest a "quid pro quo."
Then, in September, when Democrats in the Legislature rallied around a redistricting plan, Witt didn't come along for the ride. The new House map, which takes effect for the 2022 elections and beyond, subtracts Democrat-friendly suburban areas of Washington County from Witt's district, as well as Clatskanie, the nearest city to his home in rural North Columbia County. The clear decision not to give a Democratic incumbent a district he could win stood out on a map that analysts agree will likely produce continued Democratic majorities in Salem for the next decade.
"It's all a numbers game," Witt said in a statement, "and in this instance, the numbers are not there."
Johnson's district could also flip to Republican control. Nominally, Senate District 16 is a "battleground district" closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, both under the current lines and the new maps approved in September. In practice, however, Johnson's bipartisan appeal and popularity within the district have kept it securely in Democratic hands.
Technically, it isn't Johnson's district anymore. She resigned from the Senate this December, saying she will focus on running for governor — and urging county commissioners to appoint someone who won't run for a full term in 2022.
Republicans have lined up strong candidates for both seats: for House, Brian Stout, who nearly unseated Witt in 2020, and for Senate, Suzanne Weber, who became the first Republican in decades to represent the North Coast in the House after winning an expensive open-seat contest in 2020.
As for Johnson, her gubernatorial campaign is off to a strong start.
Campaign finance reports indicate Johnson has handily outraised all other candidates in the race. She picked up the endorsement of Knute Buehler, Republicans' nominee for governor in 2018, earlier this month. She appears confident that she will be able to make it onto the November ballot, where she hopes to become Oregon's first politically independent governor since Julius Meier — son of the co-founder of department store chain Meier & Frank — during the Great Depression.
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