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Staff reports

Without question, 2005 was a busy year for news, both in Southern Oregon and the world outside. In Ashland, it was a year of upheaval in the city leadership as a new city council took over, the community development director took a position in California, and City Administrator Gino Grimaldi announced his departure.

The future of the Ashland Fiber Network became somewhat more clear after the options committee put together a report suggesting the sale or spinoff of the debt-laden department. The council endorsed this suggestion, while in a surprise move, Jefferson Public Radio offered to take over custody of the cable TV and Internet franchise.

Police interaction with the community at large was thrust into the limelight after a man wielded a knife at the entire on-duty police force and backup from area law-enforcement agencies, and two youths and a man were killed in accidents that involved police chases.

A second elementary school was shuttered as declining enrollment wrought havoc with the school district&

s future. The closing of Lincoln brought more urgency to an ongoing discussion on how to keep school-age children in Ashland, essentially merging that topic with affordable housing concerns.

The stalemate over downtown development continued, with the Bemis project being killed and Northlight getting the final ax. The latter project went back to the drawing board and will most likely appear again in 2006.

The year ended with a splash &

a larger one than most would have preferred &

that brought the flood of New Year&

s Day 1997 to mind.

What follows is a chronological list of the most important stories of 2005 in terms of community impact.

McGowan commits suicide

Jan. 13 &

The body of local comedian and activist Joanie McGowan was found on the Bear Creek Greenway near Valley View Road. McGowan, 48, struggled with bipolar disorder and committed suicide.

Her body was discovered in a hollow near the bike path, which McGowan had raised money for in the past. Her body was found five days after she voluntarily left a Medford treatment program.

Hundreds gathered to remember McGowan, and Rogue Valley Television ran a marathon of McGowan appearances and performances. Her death also opened community dialogue about mental illness and inspired the creation of the Suicide Prevention Coalition, which continues to meet almost a year later.

Teens in deadly wrecks

Feb. 19 &

Family and friends remembered Kevan Thatcher-Stephens at a memorial service in Yreka, Calif. The 17-year-old Ashland High junior died after crashing into a second vehicle at more than 90 mph in downtown Medford on Feb. 11. His blood-alcohol content was twice the legal limit and he had traces of marijuana in his system.

The accident killed the driver of the Blazer, Charles Bench, 26, and injured his passenger, 27-year-old Mark Robustelli. Graham Collier, 16, who was riding in Thatcher-Stephens&

vehicle, was also hurt. An investigation into where the boys had obtained liquor targeted at least one well-known family in the Ashland area, but the probe was stymied when other teenagers would not testify in front of a grand jury.

The incident remains unresolved.

When an 18-year-old Ashland High student died on graduation night four months later, the concerns about activities of unsupervised youth were again raised in the community.

Leah Castillo died in a head-on car accident with Jonathan Guevarra, 19, of Eagle Point. Guevarra was fleeing Ashland police when his vehicle crossed the center line on North Main Street and struck Castillo&

s car. Guevarra was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Castillo had been driving to the all-night graduation party at the high school.

— — — The — Wildcard

Sometimes — a story gains momentum (or notoriety) not so much for the merits of the — subject matter but for the reaction it stirs in the community. On June — 21, a group of young men held a body-suspension exhibit at Nuwandart Gallery — on A Street on a First Friday evening. The men pierced their bodies and — hung by parachute cord from the ceiling and participated in &

flesh — pulls,&

tugging against one another&

s skin.

The front-page — coverage created an outcry in the community. The topic was interesting, — the story well-written and the photos of a high quality. However, by any — standards, the story in and of itself would not rate a spot on our list — of the Top 10 stories of the year. That said, the weeks of discussion — triggered by the story makes it easily the equal of nearly any other on — our list in terms of community interest. The outpouring of dismay &

— with some scattered support &

was a resounding reminder for the Tidings — staff of the powerful connection between a newspaper and the community — it serves. For these reasons, the story is relegated to &

Wildcard&

— status: Not one of the year&

s most important stories, but impossible — to ignore.

— —

What about Lincoln?

April 9 &

The district attorney ruled the Ashland School District must release the bids received for the lease or sale of Lincoln Elementary School, which was closed two months later. Southern Oregon University, the City of Ashland and Waldorf-inspired Siskiyou School submitted proposals to use the historic building, but the school board did not accept any of them.

Proposals from local health care software company Plexis, a consortium of private after school programs and Lithia Springs school have been received in the time since and negotiations continue with Lithia Springs.

The building remains empty. Some community have called the June closing premature because other elementary schools have student populations near capacity and the district has yet to generate any revenue from leasing Lincoln. Some still hope the district will find a school-related use for the building in the future.

Community policing

April 22 &

A 35-year-old mentally ill man was arrested after threatening police officers with a butcher knife.

In the midst of a psychotic break and off of his medication, Dirk Binder went to the Ashland Police Department to ask for medicinal marijuana. He ran from the police station and nearly caused a head-on accident when he pulled onto East Main Street, which led police to follow him home to check on him. During a 45-minute standoff with the Ashland Police Department, Binder challenged Chief Mike Bianca with the knife and officers looked for an angle to shoot the young man.

Binder was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1998. He had shown symptoms for about 15 years, according to his parents, Bernie and Helga Binder, and his altercation with the police department led to discussions about the treatment of schizophrenia and questions about police treatment.

The Daily Tidings obtained a portion of the city&

s investigation into the Binder incident in August. The file revealed that Chief Mike Bianca ordered officers to fire at Binder with their regular firearms, not less-than-lethal weapons.

In the summer, a group of residents calling themselves the Ashland Committee on Policing and Public Safety also drafted a community policing ordinance. The proposed law defines community policing as a model that views the police department as a service entity with officers who develop cooperative relationships with citizens rather than enforce laws in an authoritarian manner.

The city council is still considering the ordinance. No timeline has been set for a decision.

Police turmoil

July 11 &

The Ashland Police Association released a six-page letter detailing grievances against Chief Mike Bianca and asking for his removal. The statement exposed turmoil within the department. Community members rallied to support the chief and the Ashland City Council hired a consultant to evaluate the department and improve working relationships among officers.

In November, an officer was fired and another was disciplined for what Bianca called &

bad behavior.&

Investigations continue into the actions of four others.

Status quo downtown

Sept. 27 &

Eight months after the downtown project known as Northlight began its journey through Ashland&

s planning process, the city planning commission unanimously denied the project for not meeting the letter of the law.

Northlight was symbolic of a year of contentious planning in Ashland, which also saw the Bemis project fail at LUBA, the downtown plan revision become stalemated and almost complete overhaul of the planning department be undertaken.

Leadership turnover

Nov. 29 &

Southern Oregon University President Elisabeth Zinser announced her retirement. Zinser, 65, will step down on Aug. 31, after leading SOU for five years. She decided to retire during the summer and plans to stay in the area with her husband of 15 years, Don Mackin. The couple purchased a house in Ashland and will continue to be involved with civic events.

On Nov. 3, City Administrator Gino Grimaldi announced he will leave his post in the summer of 2006 to become the city manager in Springfield. He served as assistant city manager for Springfield for 14 years before coming to Ashland in 2003.

On Aug. 15, John McLaughlin quit as the director of the Community Development Department after he and the city came to a mutual agreement that he should leave his job of 19 years.

On Jan. 29, Public Works Director Paula Brown took a leave of absence from her job to serve with the Navy Seabees in Iraq. Brown, on a 14-month tour of duty, is expected to return to the city this spring.

On Feb. 25, the city announced Dick Wanderscheid, also the director of the electric department, would be stepping down from his post as director of the Ashland Fiber Network.

AFN&

s future

Dec. 20 &

The Ashland City Council voted to investigate selling AFN and spinning it off as a nonprofit, while also exploring opportunities for allowing businesses to sell telecommunications products over AFN&

s infrastructure.

The Jefferson Public Radio Foundation emerged as the first nonprofit to express interest in taking over AFN, which is $15.5 million in debt. Telecommunications companies Charter Communications and Qwest also have requested information about AFN.

The Ashland City Council repealed an unpopular $7.50 monthly fee on electric bills that had been adopted to subsidize AFN on Dec. 6 The council instead decided to use $500,000 of excess reserve funds from the Ashland Electric Department to make a payment due this month, while researching other long-term options for paying down AFN&

s $15.5 million debt.

The $7.50 monthly fee had been set to begin in October.

Back in November, the AFN Options Committee recommended a joint strategy of working to sell AFN and also to spin it off. Having a spinoff option in place could help the city get more for selling AFN because potential buyers would know selling wasn&

t the city&

s only option. A spinoff has its own advantages, such as retaining local control, but entails more financial risk for the city, the committee reported.

The committee estimated AFN could be sold for $5 million to $10 million. A nonprofit likely could only assume $6.5 million of the debt and survive, according to the committee. Allowing businesses to sell services over AFN&

s infrastructure, such as long distance phone service via Internet, could bring in additional revenues if the city kept AFN as a city department, or a nonprofit could use the strategy to boost revenues.

The flood of 2005

Dec. 31 &

A state of emergency was declared in Jackson County after heavy precipitation swelled local streams, flooded rural roads and caused landslides that closed Interstate 5.

In Ashland, 2.32 inches of rain fell between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Dec. 30 and, although the waters of Ashland Creek rose to their highest levels since the New Year&

s Day 1997 flood, the city avoided serious flooding.

Elsewhere, though, Jenny and Emigrant creeks jumped their beds and nine mobile home parks along Bear Creek between Ashland and Phoenix were evacuated. The landslides on Interstate 5 caused $2 million in damage and the Ashland Municipal Airport remains closed while damage assessments and repairs are made.

Those affected by the high water continue to wait for word on federal disaster relief funds.