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Top 10 Stories of the Year: Measles, shootings, sex ed rank as biggest headlines

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Law enforcement agencies strategize at the base of Smith Tower during an active shooter situation in Vancouver on Oct. 3.
Law enforcement agencies strategize at the base of Smith Tower during an active shooter situation in Vancouver on Oct. 3. (nathan howard/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Measles will bookend 2019, as a poll of newsroom staffers at The Columbian voted it the top news story of the year.

The first confirmed case of measles was announced by Clark County Public Health on Jan. 4. That set off an outbreak that spread far across the county and well into April, and popped back up again more recently.

Columbian newsroom staffers picked their choices for the 10 biggest stories we covered in 2019 from a list of 27 nominees. Measles was followed by the October shooting at Smith Tower.

Here’s how we ranked our top 10, with the number of newsroom votes each received:

1. Measles outbreaks (26 votes)

In 2019, measles and vaccination was the story that wouldn’t die. On Jan. 4, Clark County Public Health announced the first case of measles in what became a months-long outbreak of the highly contagious disease. In all, the county would total 71 measles cases before the outbreak ended April 29. The outbreak cost the county close to $850,000 to fight, and set the state back more than $1 million. It also caused exclusion of hundreds of kids from schools, pulled Public Health resources and staff away from their regular duties and led to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee visiting Vancouver to sign a bill eliminating personal exemptions to the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine for public school students.

The list

1. Measles outbreaks

2. Shooting at Smith Tower

3. (tie) Battle Ground school board votes down sex education curriculum

3. (tie) A string of Vancouver police shootings — three fatal — lead to calls for a review of department policies

5. (tie) Camas pool bond fails; write-in candidate unseats mayor

5. (tie) The Waterfront Vancouver welcomes more tenants, opens fancy water feature

7. (tie) Rojo the therapy llama retires, dies

7. (tie) Ongoing homelessness/affordable housing issues

9. Domestic violence shooting

10. Interstate 5 Bridge Committee reconvenes

Even after the law passed, vaccine opponents have been vocal in opposition. In late November, another case of measles was recorded in Clark County. As if that wasn’t enough news, state Auditor Pat McCarthy released a report on Dec. 19, that documented gaps in student immunization records. It called out Evergreen Public Schools, and other districts across the state, for not properly keeping vaccination records and not enforcing student exclusions when students didn’t turn in their vaccination records.

2. Smith Tower shooting (25 votes)

The news broke around 2 p.m. Oct. 3: shots had been fired at Smith Tower, a senior living complex. Multiple victims. Shooter still at large.

The 2 1/2 -hour standoff effectively closed downtown Vancouver. A crisis negotiation team contacted the suspect, who was holed up on the 13th floor of the round tower, while officers worked to evacuate elderly residents. The crisis concluded when 80-year-old Smith Tower resident Robert E. Breck surrendered.

Breck has pleaded not guilt to charges he shot and killed one man, fellow resident Dean Tunstall, and injured two other people, and is set for trial on May 11.

Prosecutors believe that Breck’s likely motive for the shooting was an ongoing feud with Tunstall. A rejection from another resident’s caretaker, who refused to be Breck’s mistress, may have also played a role.

3. (tie) Battle Ground sex ed curriculum (21 votes)

Battle Ground Public Schools ping-ponged on adopting comprehensive sexual health education curriculum this year, hinting at the broader battle to come in Olympia in 2020.

Washington schools are not required to teach comprehensive sexual health education, despite research suggesting access to such curriculum improves health outcomes for children.

Battle Ground was slated in October to adopt a custom sex ed curriculum. Instead, it eliminated requirements that teachers address the topic at all, except for lessons on puberty and human development.

The board later revised that policy, allowing teachers in high school electives to address topics that overlap with sexual health education.

Critics of the curriculum, including Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, showed up in force at board meetings. They protested what they claim is a district attempt to “promote an LGBTQ agenda,” or undermine family and religious values. Proponents, meanwhile, lauded the curriculum for its inclusion of the LGBTQ experience, and its lessons on consent.

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, chair of the House Education Committee, have introduced a bill that would mandate comprehensive sexual health education to all students by the 2022-2023 school year.

“We’ve seen the statistics and the data,” Stonier said in November. “Kids having access to scientifically appropriate sex ed actually reduces risky behaviors.”

3. (tie) Vancouver police shootings (21 votes)

Following four Vancouver police shootings — three of which were fatal — the city ordered an independent assessment of the police department’s use-of-force protocols and training, and will explore the possibility of a body-worn and dash camera program.

Community tensions ran high following the spate of shootings, which occurred between Feb. 5 and March 7. Two of the fatalities involved people of color and the third involved a homeless man previously diagnosed with schizophrenia. The shootings prompted an online petition calling for police body-worn cameras, an impassioned Vancouver Neighborhood Alliance meeting and public forum, and a “March for Justice” rally.

Initially, Police Chief James McElvain said he was not planning an official review of the department’s use-of-force policies. But in a reversal weeks later, he said he was considering having the Police Executive Research Forum, commonly called PERF, review the department’s use-of-force policies, and the organization was eventually chosen to do just that. PERF entered into a contract Aug. 1 with the city to conduct the review. The process will take roughly nine months as the organization develops recommendations.

5. (tie) Camas bond fails (18 votes)

At times, Camas has the feel of an idyllic small town. This year, the city was almost featured on an online show, “Small Business Revolution — Main Street,” that works with businesses in small towns.

But beyond the cute downtown, anger was bubbling up in Camas. It came to a head in the November general election, when a city-proposed bond for up to $78 million to build a new community center failed with nearly 90 percent of votes against it.

Political newcomer Barry McDonnell surfed the wave of anger and won a write-in campaign to unseat Mayor Shannon Turk. The last time there was a successful write-in campaign in Clark County was when Linda Smith advanced in the primary for the 3rd Congressional District in 1994.

5. (tie) Waterfront Vancouver (18 votes)

The Waterfront Vancouver’s growth throughout the year was chronicled by dozens of stories about the completion of new buildings, the debut of the Waterfront Park’s central water feature, the opening of new restaurants and the announcement of future tenants and projects.

The development tally now stands at two restaurant buildings, two apartment buildings and an office building completed, with a hotel, a condo tower, a senior living center, more apartments and a central parking garage all in various stages of planning or construction.

No fewer than six wineries have set up shop at the Waterfront or announced plans to do so, raising the possibility that the area could become a regional wine tasting destination that might one day rival the likes of Woodinville or Walla Walla.

7. (tie) Rojo retires, succumbs (17 votes)

For a dozen years, Rojo the Therapy Llama brought sweet smiles and fluffy comfort to community events and to people of every age, from excited children in hospitals to delighted older adults in care homes. He officially retired in October, and was sent off with a big party in Portland.

“He made an appearance at our Discover Camps in the summer and has been a fan favorite at the Walk/Run for the Animals for many years,” said Denise Barr of the Humane Society for Southwest Washington. “He greeted our guests with a ‘carrot kiss.’ We (are) immensely sad to hear about his passing.”

Although Rojo died Nov. 6 at age 17 of natural causes, he’s achieved a certain measure of immortality and will continue his service. Rojo is destined to stand eternally proud and fuzzy in the Washington State School for the Blind Sensory Safari, a room that features taxidermy displays of exotic animals that sight-impaired students can get a feel for.

“Morbid? Creepy? Nah,” Rojo’s longtime handlers at Mt. Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas posted on Facebook. “He will forever live on for the students to come who want to know what a llama is like.”

“He has helped so many people and has brought such great joy to the world,” Columbian reader Anna Slocum said. “Thank you for your sweetness, love and service, Rojo! Good boy!”

7. (tie) Homelessness, affordable housing (17 votes)

An increase in homelessness coupled with a lack of affordable housing continued to pervade Clark County. Homelessness increased 21 percent since 2018, according to a January census of the homeless population.

In a quest for cheaper housing, more people are living full-time in RVs. However, the cost to live at RV, mobile home or manufactured home park is increasing, causing concern for low-income tenants.

Share House, the men’s homeless shelter downtown run by the nonprofit Share, was closed for nine weeks due to water damage from a fire.

Share’s troubles didn’t end there. In its first year of running the Vancouver Navigation Center, a day facility for the homeless, Share saw more visitors than expected and drew heavy criticism. Vancouver city councilors called for a third-party review, which was paid for by a private fund, and the resulting report described the center as poorly managed and suggested opening a temporary 150-bed overnight shelter. Share decided to stop running the center, which has been taken over temporarily by the city parks and recreation staff. Earlier in the year, Vancouver hired its first-ever homeless resource manager. The city’s Multifamily Tax Exemption Program garnered criticism for its definition of “affordable housing.”

Other efforts made toward ending homelessness include the launch of Family Promise, a shelter that exiting homelessness could take advantage of the Northwest Furniture Bank, which opened in May. Apartment buildings intended to house homeless people opened or started construction this year, including one for formerly homeless youth.

9. Domestic violence homicide (16 votes)

In the culmination of a history of domestic violence Keland Hill, 38, shot and killed his wife, Tiffany Hill, 35, on Nov. 26 while she was sitting in a van in the parking lot of Sarah J. Anderson Elementary School.

Tiffany Hill’s mother suffered injuries that were not life-threatening, and the Hills’ three children inside the vehicle were physically unhurt. A few minutes later, Keland Hill shot himself in the head at Padden Parkway and Andresen Road following a brief police pursuit. He died too.

Keland Hill was out of jail bail pending a court hearing in an ongoing domestic violence case against his wife and was the subject of active restraining and no-contact orders. In the weeks leading up to the shooting, Keland Hill allegedly contacted his wife repeatedly, threatened to kill her, attempted to purchase a rifle and placed a GPS tracker on her car.

Three state legislators told The Columbian on Dec. 13 that more needs to be done to protect domestic violence victims, and they will seek or support changes to state law following Tiffany Hill’s death.

10. Bridge committee reconvenes (15 votes)

Murmurs of rebooting the Columbia River Crossing started not long after the project fell apart in 2013 when the Washington Senate failed to match Oregon’s $450 million contribution toward construction. But 2019 was the year when talk turned to action.

Washington legislators approved a transportation bill that provided $17.5 million for a project office and $17.5 million for planning and pre-design of a new bridge. Four months later, the Oregon Transportation Commission contributed $9 million.

Oregon’s legislative leadership appointed eight legislators on Aug. 14 to join an equal number of Washington lawmakers on a bistate committee that met in October, November and December.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown traveled to Vancouver Nov. 18 to sign an agreement for the two states to work cooperatively to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge. “We do not have an option,” Inslee said, with Brown sitting to his left. “This bridge has to be replaced.”

On Sept. 24, the Federal Highway Administration provided the two states with a five-year extension to make progress on replacing the twin spans and thus avoid having to repay nearly $140 million in federal funds spent on the failed Columbia River Crossing. Eight weeks later, Joe Cortright, a persistent critic of the bridge project, past and present, said the states could avoid repaying the federal money by simply reopening the crossing’s September 2011 final environmental impact statement and selecting the “no-build” alternative.

How the public voted

1. Dozens infected with measles

2. Woman killed by estranged husband in Hazel Dell school parking lot

3. Camas football finished undefeated season with state title

4. A string of Vancouver police shootings -- three fatal -- lead to calls to review department policies

5. Homelessness and affordable housing issues continue in Clark County

6. Interstate 5 Bridge Committee reconvenes

7. Battle Ground votes down teaching sex education

8. One person killed in Smith Tower shooting

9. Camas pool bond fails with 10 percent support, write-in candidate unseats mayor

10. Prairie and Washougal girls basketball teams win state titles on the same day

Top 10 local web stories published in 2019

1. Two people shot in vehicle at Hazel Dell school (Nov. 26)

2. One dead in shooting at Smith Tower in Vancouver; suspect in custody (Oct. 3)

3. Teen shot by Vancouver police officer was from Micronesia (Feb. 20)

4. Man, 25, faces murder allegation in death of transgender Vancouver teen (Dec. 18)

5. One dead after car crash on 164th Avenue (Sept. 1)

6. Shoppers, say goodbye to sales tax exemption (April 29)

7. As housing costs climb, living in an RV park is affordable, if technically illegal (June 16)

8. Vancouver movie theater chain Cinetopia goes dark amid 'restructuring' (May 22)

9. Serial cheater booted from AppleTree Half Marathon questioned again (Oct. 14)

10. Hazel Dell rapist's release set for Friday (Dec. 5)

Top 10 stories of 2018

1. Teacher strikes

2. Vancouver waterfront opens

3. Midterm elections

4. John Bishop's saga

5. (tie) Oil terminal proposal rejected

5. (tie) Patriot Prayer local rallies

5. (tie) Anne McEnerny-Ogle sworn in as first female mayor of Vancouver

8. (tie) Freeway tolling

8. (tie) Camas mill layoffs

10. Affordable housing crisis/homelessness

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