( Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated on number 7 that the hospital district has generated $1 million since 2013 to cover services and bills of patients who cannot afford visits. According to Commissioner Monica Harrington, funds that go to the hospital subsidize physician services, including for poor people but also for wealthy islanders on Medicare. “The key is that much of the subsidy goes to pay the difference between what the hospital charges and what Medicare and Medicaid has agreed to pay,” Harrington said in an email to the Journal. “Medicare isn’t means tested so basically everyone over 65 is on it regardless of income.”)
It’s time for the Journal’s annual round-up of local stories that made headlines throughout the year. From devastation to inspiration, the Journal has seen a year of surprises and trauma. This week features our stories ranked one through 10 based on staff picks, website statistics and reader feedback. See part II next week for 11-18.
1. Orcas teacher’s charges dismissed; lawsuit filed against county
Orcas high school teacher Gerald Grellet-Tinner, who was found guilty of sexual misconduct with a minor in June 2016, was released from jail on April 21, 2016. San Juan County Superior Court Judge Donald Eaton dismissed the charges against the 60-year-old man for two counts of sexual misconduct with a minor. The judge said the dismissal was due to a “miscarriage of justice” and that it was the responsibility of one person – former Detective Stephen Parker, who had an inappropriate relationship with the victim, which bungled the entire case.
Grellet-Tinner was accused of having a sexual relationship with one of his students, who was also his teaching assistant, in October 2016.
After the relationship between Parker – the lead detective on the case – and the victim was discovered, Parker resigned near the end of 2016. At the beginning of 2017, an independent investigation into Parker alleges that he had sex with the crime victim. By April, Grellet-Tinner was a free man.
Grellet-Tinner is now seeking $10 million in compensation for damages stemming from the alleged violation of his constitutional rights by the San Juan County Prosecutor’s Office.
2. Life Care closes
After operating for nearly 20 years, San Juan Islands’ only live-in facility, with 24-hour nursing shut its doors in November.
Life Care Center of the San Juan Islands closed about two months after officials from the for-profit, national corporation made the announcement. The Friday Harbor branch, which first opened as a nursing home under different ownership in 1967, housed 35 patients and employed 60.
A representative from Life Care Centers of America said the branch closed due to financial hardship and a lack of qualified staff. Local staff pointed to the island’s housing shortage, as well as low reimbursements from the center’s mostly Medicaid-insured residents.The previous October, the company, at large, settled a lawsuit for $145 million for Medicare fraud.
A 2016 citation from the state also prevented the branch from training nursing assistants for two years. One nurse claimed the branch closed an entire wing, as employee numbers dropped, preventing the business from taking in more patients and generating the revenue needed to stay afloat.
Life Care Center of the San Juan Islands offered a higher level of care than other, live-in local facilities. The lack of similar providers forced residents, like 85-year-old Sue Herdy, to move off the island, away from the home she loved.
“I was desolate when I heard the news; it broke my heart,” she said about the closure. “I’ve enjoyed being here so much.”
A task force is currently working on ways to return similar medical services to the island.
3. Carbon monoxide poisoning
On April 4, 2017, Brook Ashcraft discovered her sister Kelli, 22, and a friend Troy Sullivan, 31, dead in the bedroom of a home owned by Edward and Tami Ashcraft and located outside of Friday Harbor. The cause of death for both of them was determined to be from carbon monoxide poisoning.
A wrongful death lawsuit was filed in the San Juan County Superior Court on July 24, followed by a second lawsuit filed on Nov. 21. The first complaint was submitted by the Sullivan estate and the second by Brook and the estate of Kelli.
According to the first lawsuit, toxicology reports showed that the level of carbon monoxide in Sullivan’s blood was 71 percent carboxyhemoglobin saturation while the average adult human’s blood typically contains less than 3 to 5 percent.
Lawsuit documents alleged that homeowner Edward Ashcraft had negligently repaired and modified the house’s heating system under the instruction of two Friday Harbor companies, Jim’s Heating and Refrigeration and Inter-Island Propane, LLC, both of which are owned and operated by Jimmie Lawson, II.
According to the lawsuit, “the repairs and modifications did not satisfy local building safety codes and manufacturer standards.”
It claims that the companies “knew about the negligence but took no action to protect occupants or guests of the home.” It also stated that the defendants’ acts and omissions caused Sullivan’s death as a guest at the residence.
In the lawsuit filed on Nov. 21, it said that on the morning of April 4, “Brook awoke with a throbbing headache, was dizzy and had great difficulty walking.” It stated that she called out for help with no response. When she went to find out why no one had answered her, she found Kelli and Sullivan unconscious. According to court documents, Brook called 911 and began to perform CPR. She had to be hospitalized due to her exposure to carbon monoxide
4. Multiple ferry breakdowns disrupt summer commerce
Summer 2017 was the season of ferry service shortages. In mid-July, two broken ferries prompted an alternate schedule for 13 days. Then in early August, the San Juans’ newest boat, the Samish, had mechanical issues, plunging the routes right back to limited sailings for three days.
The Yakima went out of service on Sunday, July 16. The Kitsap, the only backup vessel for Washington State Ferries’ 22 boats, was also out. As a result, the Anacortes/San Juans route operated on a four-boat “emergency” schedule that lasted until July 29, when the Chelan was brought in from the Fauntleroy/Vashon/Southworth route.
On Aug. 6, the Samish, which was built in 2015, had a propeller shaft coupling failure, returning the route to just four vessels. On Aug. 9, a repaired Yakima returned and regular sailings resumed.
By the end of the summer, the Yakima was out of service from July 16-29; the Samish was out Aug. 6-9; the Elwha was out part of the day on Aug. 16; the Hyak was for scheduled maintenance on Aug. 30; and the Elwha went out again from Sept. 2–3.
When the Samish was pulled, the sheriff’s office and Orcas Island Fire and Rescue helped with crowd control and congestion at the Orcas terminal. According to OIFR, the hundreds of cars waiting all day created a “road and pedestrian hazard.” On Lopez, the ferry line was backed up almost to Odlin County Park and travelers were delayed more than 10 hours without easily accessible bathrooms or food service.
Island businesses were heavily impacted by the interruptions in ferry service. Victoria Compton, executive director of the San Juan Economic Development Council, teamed up with members of the islands’ chambers of commerce, the San Juan Island Visitors Bureau, the Town of Friday Harbor and the San Juan County Council to draft a letter to legislature emphasizing the importance of proper ferry funding and infrastructure upgrades to the islands’ economy.
5. Port problems
When a newly appointed executive director eliminated a roughly 30-year-old position at the Port of Friday Harbor, about three months of public debate ignited in November 2016.
Commissioners and then-Director Ted Fitzgerald attested the managerial role was eliminated to save money, while the current position holder, Joe Wheeler, claimed it was personal.
Dozens of community members backed Wheeler at port board meetings, including the organization’s previous director. By February of 2017, Fitzgerald, who had worked at the port for about six months, resigned and submitted a guest column to the Journal. The letter explained that Wheeler had an “altercation with a third party” during the construction of the Spring Street Landing building on Front Street and indicated he would “endanger the welfare of that person.” Eliminating the position, said Fitzgerald, saved the port his $72,634 salary and protected it from liability.
Wheeler denied the allegations and had previously accused Fitzgerald of being friends with the contractor on that roughly $7 million project. Wheeler claimed Fitzgerald banned him from the site when he tried to hold the contractor accountable for delays. Fitzgerald denied this claim.
Almost a year after the issue’s inception, it re-emerged during the November 2017 election of incumbent Commissioner Barbara Marrett’s seat. Her opponent claimed the port hadn’t been honest during the incident and ran on instilling transparency within the organization, where the newest commissioner had served about a decade.
In the end, Marrett was re-elected, the maintenance director position wasn’t reinstated and a new executive director was hired.
6. Salmon escape
A net pen failure of the shore of Cypress Island dumped an unknown quantity of Atlantic salmon into the Salish Sea on Aug. 20. The nearly 30-year-old fish farm, which was showing signs of damage the day before, held 305,000 salmon, according to the farm’s owner Cooke Aquaculture. The company purchased salmon farms located on Bainbridge Island, Cypress Island, Port Angeles and Hope Island a year ago.
In the days following the collapse, the Lummi Nation declared a state of emergency, fearing that impact that the invasive salmon could have on native salmon populations. Tribe leaders encouraged their fishers to catch as many Atlantic salmon that they could, but warned against eating them, unsure of the health risks.
Cooke Aquaculture blamed the damage done to the net pens on “exceptionally high tides and currents,” in relation to Monday, Aug. 21’s solar eclipse. However, preliminary tidal data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Friday Harbor station indicated that the high tide was no higher than the weeks prior.
“It’s a totally unacceptable situation that was preventable, and I’m doing everything in my power to make sure it never happens again,” Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, said. “I will very likely be introducing legislation trying to address this in the future.”
Unrelated to the fish farm failure, in December, the Washington State Department of Ecology issued Cooke an $8,000 penalty for violating state law. Additionally Cooke was required to immediately stop allowing pressure washing wastewater to enter Puget Sound.
Also in December, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz terminated Cooke’s net pen operations off the shore of Port Angeles.
The Department of Natural Resources said it discovered that Cooke’s net pens were in an unauthorized area and that Cooke failed to maintain the facility in a safe condition and failed to replace unencapsulated flotation material to prevent styrofoam from disintegrating into the water.
7. Hospital district votes to fund Planned Parenthood services
The priorities of three newly elected commissioners in 2016, were realized last year when San Juan County Public Hospital District 1 voted to use funds from the taxing district to cover services at the local Planned Parenthood. Commissioners Monica Harrington, Barbara Sharp and Chairman Bill Williams ran on supporting services for women’s reproductive rights.
Debates over how the taxing district’s funds should be used started during the 2016 elections and followed during each vote to finalize the 2017 decision to fund the nonprofit that provides reproductive health care. A February 2017 resolution was approved to allow commissioners to draft a contract with the Friday Harbor branch of Planned Parenthood, while another, in May, designated $40,000 to the local organization annually.
The district — which covers the islands of San Juan, Brown, Pearl, Henry, Spieden, Stuart, and Johns — has collected about $1 million since 2009 to fund health care. Since 2013, all of this money has gone to primarily to subsidize physician services and make up the difference between what the hospital charges and what Medicaid and Medicare actually pay, according to Harrington.
In November 2016, commissioners voted to use $50,000 of that million to fund services the hospital does not provide. Peace Island Medical Center is a Catholic nonprofit and its policy states it does not provide the full range of reproductive health services.
While $40,000 was slated for Planned Parenthood, in July, the remaining $10,000 was split between San Juan Island Emergency Medical Services and San Juan Island Prevention Coalition.
Commissioners Mark Schwinge and Michael Edwards did not vote to fund Planned Parenthood or to release the $50,000 from the PIMC original contract. The commission’s newest member, Anna Lisa Lindstrom, was endorsed by a nonprofit that educates and lobbies for Planned Parenthood’s mission in Washington.
8. Horse barn deconstruction halts and restarts
The 93-year-old San Juan County Fairgrounds horse barn was set to be demolished in the spring of 2017, that is until several islanders got word of the deconstruction. Islanders petitioned the county to “hold their horses.” Dana Kinsey of Orcas filed an appeal to halt construction and, a day after the deadline, the $600 filing fee was donated by her 11-year-old son, who earned the money from county fair 4-H projects.
San Juan County Manager Mike Thomas agreed to slow down the project to inform the community of the plans. After a flurry of public comments and letters to the editors, Kinsey withdrew her appeal to stop the barn deconstruction because she was afraid funding for the construction of the new barn would not come through.
So it was back in the saddle again for the San Juan County Fairgrounds horse barn deconstruction.
Bidding for a contractor to level the ground near the barn to install mobile horse stalls started in May. That grading, as well as utility, installation, stall purchases and barn deconstruction had to be complete by June 30 for the parks and fair department to be reimbursed by the grant.
Opponents of the deconstruction requested that part of the original 1924 barn remain, which was viewed at the county fair. Kinsey and others are seeking community support to preserve the memory of the original barn.
9. County Council passes immigration initiative
On Aug. 15, San Juan County Council unanimously adopted an ordinance to prevent the collection of immigration statuses. Without this information, county staff cannot share it with federal agencies to deport undocumented immigrants.
If the ordinance had not been adopted by council, an initiative proposing it would have been on the general election ballot this fall. The public hearing brought roughly 20 residents who spoke in support of adopting the ordinance that day and two against.
The Immigrant Rights Group of the Orcas Women’s Coalition, who spearheaded the measure, needed to get more than 1,635 signatures from San Juan County registered voters by June 30 for the initiative to be voted on during the next election. They collected 2,382 valid signatures before submission.
10. Hard times for Orcas
The year began with a heartbreaking announcement from the Center for Whale Research — Granny, an approximately 100-year- old orca and local icon had not been seen since October 2016 and had likely died.
Granny was the oldest in J-pod, the largest of the three pods that make of Southern resident orcas, which are the local whales. Over the century of Granny’s life, the Southern residents were seen as monsters, shot at and used as military training targets up to the 50s, and captured for aquariums during the 60 and 70s. As attitudes shifted, orcas suddenly became revered in the 80s, and were followed by whale watch boats and cheered by humans on shore. Granny witnessed clean oceans turn polluted, saw her food source of 120-pound Chinook salmon stocks dwindle to 50 pounds, and become scarce. She watched fellow Southern residents starve. The lack of Chinook could be the final blow to the whales. A study released in Scientific Reports found a 25 percent chance that these orcas will become extinct within 100 years without changes in food supply. The Orca Relief Citizens Alliance has petitioned to have a no-motorized boat zone in the orcas popular fishing ground along the westside of San Juan Island, hoping to give them a quiet area for a better chance at catching the few salmon available. Some researchers are proposing breaching the Snake River dam, believing it would help Chinook. Recently, islanders came together to come up with local action plans including:
• Lowering vessel speeds in county waters.
• Reducing Chinook harvest.
• Limiting whale watch boat permits.
• Banning toxic fertilizers and pesticides in the county.
• Charging an extra fee for whale watch boat customers to use for orca recovery.