Property, politics and pot — here are 2012’s top local stories

Staff reportDecember 31, 2012 

Property rights, political change and pot legalization were among the biggest issues affecting Thurston County residents in 2012. Following is The Olympian’s list of the top 10 stories of the year, in reverse order.

10. When the Olympia Food Co-op board voted in July 2010 to boycott Israeli products, members probably couldn’t have foreseen just how long the issue would simmer.

The latest fallout came in mid-July, when five former co-op members who had sued unsuccessfully to overturn the boycott were ordered to pay $160,000 in damages. The award was the result of a judge’s prior ruling that the lawsuit was an illegal Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

SLAPPs are defined as nuisance lawsuits designed to stifle free speech and create onerous legal costs for those who choose to exercise their free-speech rights.

9. A video showing Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment founder JZ Knight making inflammatory racial statements ignited a political controversy in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election.

The video was spliced to show Knight’s comments as well as some Thurston County political figures whom she supported. It prompted Republicans to call for Democrats who’d received campaign money from Knight to return it. Under pressure, the Democrats eventually gave the money away.

The woman who released the video was ordered in court in November to not release any more.

8. In early October, a jury ordered the Olympia School District to pay a molestation victim’s family $1.4 million, saying it was negligent in allowing the abuse to happen.

The case involved former bus driver Gary Shafer touching a girl while sitting next to her on a bus, ostensibly to learn a route he wasn’t familiar with. The abuse happened in 2010; Shafer was sentenced a year later to 131/2 years to life in prison for sexually assaulting the girl and two others on Olympia school buses. Other victims’ families also have sued, and other girls have alleged abuse by Shafer.

7. South Thurston County property owner Jon Pettit and county officials had a summer-long staredown over camping on Pettit’s property.

County officials said they didn’t want to fine Pettit but that he was flouting the law by not securing the necessary permits for camping at his Deschutes River Ranch. He countered that letting strangers stay on his property was no different from letting friends stay there, and that the county was trampling on his property rights.

A Superior Court judge eventually found Pettit in contempt of court for violating a court order by allowing people to camp on his land during a three-day festival in August. The judge fined Pettit $1,500.

6. Former Capital Playhouse interim artistic director Troy Fisher pleaded not guilty in early December to 14 counts of possession of child pornography, the latest step on a bizarre path that began in late July.

That’s when Fisher was found unharmed on Olympia’s west side July 25 after he’d been reported missing several days earlier. He claimed to have no recollection of what had happened to him.

In the meantime, police searching for clues about Fisher’s disappearance reported finding images on his home computer showing boys between 10 and 13 years old having sexually explicit conduct. Police said they later found additional images of suspected child pornography on Fisher’s computer at Capital Playhouse.

5. Thurston County’s first critical-areas ordinance was approved in December 1993. It would be nearly 20 years before its first update.

That came in late July, with the county commission unanimously approving changes. The state Growth Management Act requires that the county review and, if necessary, revise the ordinance every seven years using the best available science. Thurston County was one of the state’s last to update its critical-areas ordinance.

The ordinance protects areas that are geologically hazardous, frequently flooded or critical for aquifer recharge; wetlands; and fish and wildlife habitat.

Some applauded the update’s passage, but it was far from universally popular. Some individuals and groups such as Stop Taking Our Property Thurston County said it would hurt property owners, and public hearings about the issue drew as many as 300 people, many of whom opposed the ordinance.

4. After a quarter-century wait, disagreements about the right location and funding-source battles, the new Hands On Children’s Museum opened in early November.

The two-story, 28,000-square-foot indoor playground is the newest feature on East Bay at the Port of Olympia peninsula. It previously was across the street from the Capitol Campus, in much smaller quarters.

3. After multiple police busts targeting marijuana-growing collectives in Olympia, Lacey and Grand Mound, state voters opted Nov. 6 to legalize use and possession of a limited amount of pot. The move appeared to take the heat off Thurston County collectives, and some law enforcement agencies in the county said they’d no longer pursue convictions against people who’d been arrested on small pot-related charges before the law passed.

2. Snowfall blanketed Thurston County in mid-January, knocking out power to about 40,000 residents, exposing potential flaws in the social safety net, and doing at least $650,000 in damage in Olympia alone.

That staggering number made it the city’s largest emergency event since the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake, city staffers said. Public works crews went on 24-hour operations for nine days, beginning Jan. 14. In the meantime, shelters and other organizations that aid the homeless were overwhelmed by the increased demand.

1. Same-sex couples showed up to marry en masse at the Capitol in Olympia on Dec. 15, about five weeks after Washington voters approved Referendum 74.

The referendum, which legalized same-sex marriage, was approved by 53 percent of Washington’s voters. It received slightly more support in Thurston County, getting 55.5 percent of the vote.

UNUSUAL STORIES of 2012

Nov. 28: A shooting at a Scott Lake home led police to an unusual scene featuring two 5-foot alligators, marijuana plants and a stripper pole.

Nov. 13: Two Olympia men faced numerous potential citations after Department of Fish and Wildlife officers found them apparently illegally hunting with two girls ages 8 and 10 — one of whom was carrying a loaded shotgun as she rode in the back of a pickup.

Nov. 10: A 54-year-old transient was arrested for allegedly robbing the Yelm Timberland Bank of a single $20 bill, then waiting outside the bank for officers to arrive.

Sept. 20: A Lacey man who claimed his clothes kept falling off was arrested after distracting commuters near Interstate 5.

April 7: Jorge Gilbert, a former instructor at The Evergreen State College who owes the state $119,578 for ethical violations, disappeared.

Feb. 26: An Olympia man was angry when a bail-bonds company arrived to collect him. He had every right to be upset; he wasn’t the man the agents were looking for.

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