Year in Review

Corruption, bong hits, crime, oil ... Did we mention fluoride?

Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2007

From legislative corruption to overwhelming snow, from court showdowns over mining to Bong Hits 4 Jesus, Juneau residents had plenty of news to ponder in 2007.

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Here's a glimpse at some of the bigger stories of the year . . .

Corruption probe

FBI agents arrested two former legislators and one sitting legislator in Juneau as part of a lengthy corruption probe. Three lobbyists, including VECO Corp. CEO Bill Allen, pleaded guilty to felony charges. Juneau's Republican former representative Bruce Weyhrauch was among those indicted on corruption charges. His trial was delayed until 2008.

Former Reps. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, and Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, were ultimately convicted on corruption charges. Former state Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Anchorage, was convicted of taking nearly $24,000 from what he said was a private prison company in exchange for his legislative influence.

Ethics

Prompted by Gov. Sarah Palin and the federal corruption probe, legislators adopted tougher new ethics laws, and even provided an investigator to the Alaska Public Offices Commission to help enforce existing campaign finance, lobbying and disclosure laws.

Progress on natural gas pipeline

Palin won support in the Legislature for her Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, and in November announced five bids from companies hoping to develop Alaska's huge natural gas reserves. One oil company with gas reserves there, ConocoPhillips Co., also submitted an additional bid challenging the AGIA process.

Oil tax boost

Palin in November won legislative support for boosting oil taxes, after the corruption-tainted tax of the former governor failed to bring in as much as was promised.

Kensington appeal denied

In a victory for conservationists, a federal appeals court ruled in May that a plan to dispose of processed rock at the Kensington gold mine violated the Clean Water Act.

In October, the same court, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, denied the last appeal available to the federal agencies that permitted the mine, owned by Coeur Alaska, aside from an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. After a series of confidential meetings between the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Coeur Alaska is now pursuing a different plan to dispose of its tailings using paste technology.

Student free speech case

In June the U.S. Supreme Court's much anticipated "Bong hits 4 Jesus" decision narrowly favored former Juneau-Douglas High School principal Deborah Morse and the Juneau School Board's right to censor then-student Joseph Frederick's banner proclaiming "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" as pro-drug speech.

Considered by many to be the most important student speech case since the precedent setting 1969 Tinker decision, the new ruling gave critics a fresh twist on the student speech debate. School districts now have precedent allowing them to decide what is unprotected pro-drug speech and what is protected political speech on campuses and at school sanctioned activities.

Following the high court's decision, Frederick's "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" story was sold to Hollywood for development into a feature film by MTV Films.

The case started in 2002, and Superintendent Peggy Cowan expected the legal battle to end with the high court decision in 2007. Doug Mertz, Frederick's attorney, filed papers in November hoping to return the case to court on state constitutional protections of free speech.

Juneau says no to fluoride

A months-long debate over the dangers versus health benefits of fluoridated water led to a victory for fluoride critics in the October election. The Empire's editorial page was flooded with letters over several weeks even as fluoridation advocates raked in $150,000 in campaign contributions. Voters sided 61 percent to 37 percent against adding fluoride to the city's water supplies, putting an end for now to one of the most hotly contested and expensive ballot initiatives in the city's history.

Cops and courts

Holy Trinity Episcopal Church arsonist Robert Huber, 25, was sentenced in January to 15 years in prison. The judge suspended seven years.

In April following an argument over who was too drunk to drive, Anthony Delez, 21, was accused of driving over his friend Richard Mason, 36, killing him. Delez was convicted of manslaughter in October and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The judge suspended nearly five years.

The first Juneau murder trial in five years began in May. It closed days later with the conviction of a 29-year-old traveling loner from Utah, named Jason Coday, for first-degree murder and a related weapons charge for the August 2006 shooting death of 26-year-old Anchorage painting contractor Simone Kim.

A Juneau police officer shot and killed a man in August for the first time in more than three decades. Sgt. Paul Hatch shot Randall Clevenger three times in the chest as Clevenger advanced with a four-foot samurai sword begging to be shot by police following a domestic dispute in which Clevenger held a knife to his girlfriend's throat.

The district attorney ruled the shooting was justified, and Police Chief Greg Browning later said the incident could be interpreted as "suicide by cop."

David Alex, 24, and Stephanie Smathers, 21, were both convicted of criminally negligent homicide for the 2005 Brotherhood Bridge traffic death of University of Alaska Southeast student Jody Watson. The pair worked out separate but equal plea agreements tying their sentences together.

The couple was fighting about money when Alex swerved across the centerline on Brotherhood Bridge and hit Watson head-on. He was sentenced to three years in prison. For her role, Smathers received a three-year sentence with one year suspended. In addition Smathers was sentenced to three additional years for stealing thousands of dollars in cash and goods from her employer while out on bail. The time was suspended.

Cruise ship grounding

More than 200 passengers were evacuated in May when the riverboat-style cruise ship Empress of the North ran aground near Juneau. Authorities later determined the ship was navigated by a 22-year-old with little experience.

Mendenhall Valley gets its pool

Voters approved 55 percent to 44 percent a $19.8 million swimming pool in Mendenhall Valley, after rejecting a larger, more expensive proposal in an election two years earlier. The pool plan qualified for $5.2 million in state money, or 26 percent of the cost, because the swim lessons that are a part of the proposal are considered an educational purpose. About $14.5 million in bonds will be paid for by raising property taxes $34 per $100,000 of assessed value for 15 years.

Big box stores and construction projects

In 2007, mega-stores Home Depot and Wal-Mart opened their doors in Lemon Creek. The Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute was dedicated at Lena Point, and phase one of the Bartlett Regional Hospital renovation and the Floyd Dryden Middle School renovation were among this year's completed capital improvement projects.

Construction continues on Thunder Mountain High School in the Mendenhall Valley, the Sunny Point road project began construction on Egan Drive in Lemon Creek, and Alaska Electric Light & Power's Lake Dorothy hydroelectric project construction also continues.

On the lighter side of community development, thousands of volunteers and Project Playground organizers came together over the summer to champion and construct the new community playground at Twin Lakes.

Cost rises for Juneau road and ferry project

The state transportation department announced in October it estimates the Juneau access road and ferry project will now cost $374 million, up from its last estimate of $273 million. The announcement fueled arguments from both sides of a decades-long debate on the project, a 51-mile road proposed to go up the east side of Lynn Canal, ending at a ferry terminal that will shuttle cars to Haines and Skagway. Advocates say build the road soon, because the longer the wait, the more it will cost, while critics say the state can't afford it and should focus on other transportation priorities.

Assembly and city decisions

The city purchased the old armory downtown from the Alaska Mental Health Trust, and the Assembly passed a resolution for the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council to manage the facility, which is now dubbed the Juneau Arts & Culture Center.

The Juneau Assembly approved a resolution identifying Vanderbilt Hill Road as the preferred community alternative for a second crossing of Gastineau Channel.

The Assembly also approved a divisive resolution supporting the construction of the Juneau access road up the east side of Lynn Canal by a 5-4 vote after hours of heated testimony.

Assembly member Merrill Sanford stepped down from his post as deputy mayor in December following an attempt to introduce a one-year moratorium on city construction projects.

Snowy record

Juneau residents will likely remember 2007 as the snowiest year on record. After closing out 2006 with heavy snowfall, the white stuff continued to fall in the new year with 222.7 inches eventually accumulating during the 2006-07 season at the National Weather Service office on Back Loop Road and 197.8 inches at the airport.

The snowiest season on record prior to 2007 had been the 1964-65 season when 194.1 inches was recorded at the airport.

The heavy snowfall led to budget shortfalls for the city's Streets Division and saddled the Juneau Police Department with many vehicle accidents to respond to, but it helped Eaglecrest Ski Area achieve the unique distinction of having the deepest snowpack of any ski resort in the world during its 30th anniversary season.

The snowfall coincided with the city funding a first-of-its-kind urban avalanche forecasting system that began in February and was provided by the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center. The system allowed citizens to browse potential dangers via the Web. The avalanche center and city were unable to reach an agreement later in the year to provide the forecasting system for the 2007-08 winter season.

Population slips

The annual economic overview released in 2007 by the Juneau Economic Development Council caused concern, indicating that Juneau's population had slipped significantly the prior year. The majority of the people leaving the community were residents under the age of 40, the report contended.

The city moved forward with a revision of its comprehensive plan, the first since 1996. A report identified the top "community values" as providing a quality education from pre-school to university; keeping Juneau a safe place to raise a family; providing a strong economy with good paying jobs; preserving natural beauty; protecting streams and habitats; maintaining access to nature; and maintaining a small-town sense of community.

The city also appointed an Affordable Housing Commission in 2007 to address the rising concerns of housing costs in the community.

Bonds for schools

Juneau voters approved $17 million and $22 million in school construction and renovation bonds during two separate elections. A special election in the spring put forward $11 million to finish Thunder Mountain High School's auditorium, $5 million to build a new track and field and $920,000 for furnishings and to supply the soon-to-be opened school. The additional bonds pushed the estimated total cost of TMHS to nearly $60 million, a price tag previously rejected by voters as too high.

In October, voters granted $22 million for repairs and renovations on Harborview and Glacier Valley elementary schools.

Next Generation

The Juneau School Board accepted recommendations by the Next Generation planning committee to drastically alter the way public high school education is delivered in Juneau during its June meeting.

Following six months of work by a group of more than 30 parents, teachers, local business people and district employees, the School Board adopted a policy calling for themed academies and small learning communities to close the achievement gap, reconnect students with school and offer more equitable extra curricular opportunities to students.

School Board

Longtime board member Mary Becker did not attempt to keep her seat, and Bill Peters acquiesced after one term on the school board. Both are widely credited with seeing TMHS through to construction. With two "at large" seats open, three people ran for office. Gregory Brown Sr. withdrew from the race leaving JoAnne Bell-Graves and Destiny Sargeant to be elected unopposed for terms on the board until 2010.

All-terrain vehicles lose ground

It was a rough year for outdoor motor sports enthusiasts. The Docks and Harbors Board restricted access to the Echo Cove tidelands for all-terrain vehicle riders in the fall. After being lobbied by the Juneau Snowmobile Club for access to the Fish Creek Valley and Mount Troy areas, the Eaglecrest board of directors unanimously passed a resolution supporting year-round nonmotorized use at the ski area.

Animals gone wild

Juneau's celebrity wolf, Romeo, made headlines early in the year after numerous encounters with people's dogs.

Local restaurateur Bill Adair and Dr. David Miller also made headlines in 2007 after a close encounter with a leopard during a hunting trip in Zimbabwe.

Juneau doctor John Raster was attacked by a brown bear on Admiralty Island in late November.

The U.S. Forest Service temporarily closed a substantial section of the heavily used Steep Creek Trail at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center at the height of the tourist season due to some close encounters between bears and people.

And the beavers of Dredge Lake were particularly busy this year. Experts said the damming in the area by the beavers was greater than normal, causing damage to parts of the heavily used trail system and nearby roads.

Underage flying

Brian and Elise Pringle made national headlines after their 15-year-old daughter bought a one-way ticket from Alaska Airlines with stolen cash at the Juneau International Airport without parental consent in an attempt to begin a new life in North Carolina with a boyfriend she met on the Internet. Being able to purchase the ticket and board the plane without identification as per the company's underage flying policy, the girl was able to fly to Seattle before being convinced by Seattle-Tacoma Airport Police to return to Juneau.

Following the incident, Alaska Airlines said it conducted a comprehensive review of its child travel policies that found that the company's policies were consistent with all laws, guidelines and airline industry standards.

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, later called for an examination of the airline industry's underage flying policies during a Commerce Committee oversight hearing on the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.



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