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Year in review for politics, Douglas County and veterans

Laurance

DeFazio retires

Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, has represented Southwestern Oregon, including Douglas County, for more than three decades and is the chairperson of the powerful House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

But this month, DeFazio announced he planned to retire at the end of his term and said he would not run for re-election in 2022.

DeFazio cited health concerns, including back problems exacerbated by frequent flights to and from Washington, D.C. He said it was time for him to “pass the baton to the next generation.”

The longtime congressman’s decision may also have been influenced by the changing landscape of congressional politics. Republicans are widely predicted to win back control of the House in 2022.

At the same time, redistricting has strengthened the advantage of Democrats in DeFazio’s House District 4, making it likely he will be replaced by someone else from his own party.

Gary Leif diesState House Rep. Gary Leif, R-Roseburg, died in July following a battle with cancer that few knew he was fighting. He had recently secured $1.5 million for a low-barrier homeless shelter for Roseburg.

Leif told his communications director, Roseburg Mayor Larry Rich, that serving in the Legislature was the best job he ever had, and he planned to do his best all the way to the end.

Leif served as a Douglas County commissioner prior to joining the Legislature in 2018 and served on numerous political and nonprofit boards before that. He was named First Citizen of Winston in 1985.

Leif was well-liked across the political spectrum — Democratic House Speaker Tina Kotek called him a “champion for his district and a lovely man” — and many locals remembered him as the man who took their school portraits during the 40 years he owned a photography studio downtown.

Christine Goodwin, R-Myrtle Creek, was appointed to finish the remainder of Leif’s term.

Pipeline is dead

It had been a protracted 17-year battle over the Pacific Connector Pipeline and Jordan Cove Energy Project.

But the pipeline project ended Dec. 1 with more of a whimper than a bang.

Citing the project’s failure to secure necessary state permits, the developers told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission they do not plan to move forward.

The 36-inch pipeline would have crossed 229 miles in four southwestern Oregon counties, including Douglas County, to transport natural gas to a Jordan Cove liquefaction plant in Coos Bay. From there, the gas would have been loaded onto ships for export to Asian markets.

The developers argued the project would create jobs.

But many landowners in the pipeline’s path feared the Canadian-based developer Pembina would use eminent domain to force the pipeline onto their properties. Environmental activists said it would contribute to climate change.

REDISTRICTINGOregon legislators redrew congressional and legislative districts across the state this year.

The new congressional map divides the county along a diagonal line, with South and East County residents now in Cliff Bentz’s District 2, along with Eastern Oregon.

Roseburg and the Northwestern part of the county will remain in District 4, the one from which DeFazio plans to retire.

At the state Senate level, North County residents will no longer be lumped in with Lane County. Instead, they’ll join much of the county and the Southwest Coast in District 1, currently served by Dallas Heard. Changes were also made to the state House districts.

Republicans said the Democratic majority in the Legislature gerrymandered the maps to favor their party, but its challenges were unsuccessful.

In November, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the legislative maps, and a five-judge panel upheld the congressional districts.

Citizens Against TyrannyIn January 2021, state Sen. Dallas Heard backed a new movement called Citizens Against Tyranny.

It sought to expose people who made complaints to the state about businesses failing to comply with COVID-19 safety mandates.

Heard argued those reports are harming businesses. Citizens Against Tyranny encouraged businesses to ban anyone on the list. It also demanded that other elected officials join the group or face recall efforts.

Two women, both seniors, were targeted by the group, their names were published and they were labeled “filthy traitors.”

One told The News-Review she was shocked by it and that she reported a local grocery store because its workers weren’t wearing masks and she was concerned for an elderly neighbor. The other said she never reported anyone.

Following a reporter’s inquiry, the women’s names were removed from the website, which has since shut down.

COUNTY Shots in arms

At the one-year mark in March, county officials and health care providers looked back on a year-long response to the COVID-19 pandemic and voiced optimism about the future. Then delta swept through, and now omicron has arrived.

Seniors, teachers and eventually everyone became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations this year and the county government continued to lead the response at the local level. The county formed a Tiger Team to provide shots at fire stations, farms and other rural county locations.

According to recently released federal vaccination data, 72.5% of Douglas County residents had received at least one vaccine as of late December. Despite the effort to get shots in arms, some county residents have continued to refuse the vaccine. Since vaccinations became available to all county residents, most of those who have been hospitalized or died of COVID-19 have been unvaccinated.

As of Dec. 15, the number of total deaths since the pandemic began in 2020 has been 310.

Joe Laurance dies in july

Former Douglas County Commissioner Joe Laurance died in a motorcycle crash on Highway 138 in July. He was 71.

Laurance served as a county commissioner from 2007 to 2014. He loved it, telling The News-Review on his last month in office that it was “the single greatest adventure of a life filled with adventures.”

When Laurance first joined the commission, the position was partisan (it’s nonpartisan now) and he ran and won as a Democrat.

Laurance was a Vietnam veteran and worked hard on getting a veterans retirement home located in Roseburg. That project is still in the works after all these years, but thanks to Laurance, Douglas beat out several competing counties to be the location planned for the third of the state-run veterans homes.

Recycling returns

Douglas County resumed recycling both glass and corrugated cardboard in 2021.

Recycling had been dramatically curtailed in 2018, after China stopped accepting most recyclables from the United States.

In January, however, the county was able to bring back glass recycling. It crushes the glass to use at the landfill itself.

The glass can be used to filter leachate, that nasty liquid that squelches out of the trash. It can also be used as an aggregate substitute and as foundation support at the landfill.

And in July, the county resumed accepting corrugated cardboard for recycling. Roseburg Disposal, which already accepted the cardboard from its customers, agreed to take the cardboard collected at transfer sites.

Corrugated cardboard is that thick cardboard with an extra layer of wavy fiber in between sheets.

Christmas tree replacedThe county government was unfortunately forced to replace the 31-foot Giant Sequoia Christmas tree in front of the Douglas County Courthouse in November.

The top of the former tree had died.

County officials cited an unusually hot summer as the cause. The thermometer reached 113 degrees in Roseburg during a June heatwave.

Another problem was that the first tree’s roots had likely not been well established. That concern led to the choice of a smaller tree the second time around.

The first tree was under warranty, and the company took it back. It was expected to cut off the dead top, and the tree would likely go on living and serve a different purpose.

Fortunately, the company also brought a replacement.

The new tree was in place and lit up at the annual Thanksgiving weekend celebration.

Kruse Farms to close

In November, county residents were stunned to learn that Kruse Farms produce market was in its final season.

Owner Jeff Kruse said the family plans to sell the market and the 98 acres where the produce is grown.

Whether the market ever reopens will be up to whoever buys it.

The market, opened 27 years ago, was a popular place for locals to pick up produce, pies and jam.

But Kruse said at 70, he’s ready to retire and do a bit of traveling.

Vets home progress

Roseburg veterans have long awaited the fulfillment of the state’s promise to build Oregon’s third veterans home here.

While it hasn’t happened yet, 2021 saw some signs of progress.

The Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs estimates construction could start on a 154-bed home here in 2027.

The project is currently in the preliminary stages of pre-construction, according to Fitzpatrick. Salem-based CB Two Architects have been contracted for the project. That’s the company that designed the home in Lebanon.

When it’s done, the home will provide nursing home care to veteran residents. It will be located on land that currently belongs to the Roseburg VA.

Oregon already operates veterans homes in The Dalles and Lebanon.

Medical unit closes

The Roseburg VA Medical Center announced in May it would close its medical unit and add beds for hospice patients.

A VA spokesperson cited increased demand for hospice care in an aging veteran population.

It was the latest shift in an ongoing evolution of care at the VA. The VA replaced its emergency department with an urgent care in 2019.

Veterans had previously lost the hospital’s intensive care unit and lost a protracted battle to get it back.

These days, veterans with medical emergencies are being asked to go to the closest emergency room, instead of to the VA. For Roseburg residents, that’s Mercy Medical Center.

Whitmer retires earlyDave Whitmer, former interim director of the Roseburg VA, announced his early retirement in May.

Whitmer retired after being punished for discipline of a former surgeon here in Roseburg.

Whitmer had served as interim director here for most of 2018. Brought in as a fixer, he was tasked with turning around a VA struggling with problem managers, low staff morale and allegations of bullying and whistle-blower retaliation.

That same year, the VA Office of the Medical Inspector had mandated that former Chief of Surgery Dinesh Ranjan be removed from his post, along with several other top officials.

Ranjan had already been reassigned.

But Ranjan, who was born in India and is in his 60s, claimed he had been discriminated against and filed an Equal Employment Opportunity case against Whitmer.

While 19 of his claims were dismissed, Ranjan succeeded on one retaliation claim.

Whitmer had recommended a five-day suspension for Ranjan, alleging he gave false testimony in a separate case. The adjudicator ruled Whitmer couldn’t do that.

Afghanistan pullout

The dramatic pullout from the war in Afghanistan and the slower drawdown in Iraq, provoked a variety of reactions from local veterans.

After Manny Annear returned from Iraq, he assisted people whose family members had been lost in the war. The end to combat operations there reminded him of those losses.

“All of it’s disappointing because of the sacrifices we’ve made, the blood and treasure as they say,” he said.

Dan Loomis, who served in Iraq and spent time working for the Department of Defense in Afghanistan, likened the pullout to slowly pulling off a bandage.

“There has to be a time when that country that you’ve helped while you served overseas has to take on those responsibilities for themselves,” he said.

Rusty Lininger served in Iraq twice. His reaction to the pullout was, “It’s about damn time, honestly.”

Veterans day parade

The Douglas County Veterans Day Parade returned to downtown Roseburg in November and was greeted by an enthusiastic audience of parade-goers.

Due to COVID-19, the previous year’s parade had been held as a reverse parade at the Douglas County Fairgrounds — veterans remained stationary while paradegoers drove through in their cars.

The theme of this year’s event was “20 Years of Commitment...Honoring Those Who Have Served in Our Nation’s Longest War,” referring to the global war on terrorism.

Vietnam veteran Lonnie Shields, of Winston, was among the many veterans in this year’s parade who appreciated the turnout.

“It’s very rewarding. I am so impressed with how many people are patriotic and show up for this parade,” he said. “It’s overwhelming.”


Court
Tyrone Powell ordered to state hospital for evaluation

A judge has ordered a man who authorities say conned an Elkton woman out of 30 acres to be transferred to Oregon State Hospital in Salem, where he will be examined to determine if he is mentally fit to stand trial.

Douglas County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen E. Johnson ordered the transfer on Tuesday. She based her decision on the recommendation of Adapt, which had examined Powell, and Douglas County Circuit Court Judge William Marshall, who has been presiding over the case, according to court documents.

“The court finds there is reason to doubt Defendant’s fitness to proceed,” Johnson stated in her ruling. The ruling ordered Powell to be taken to Oregon State Hospital for as long as it takes to complete the examination unless one of the following occurs:

Oregon State Hospital determines that Powell can be examined remotely, or that he requires hospital care due to a “qualifying mental disorder” and needs to remain at the hospital pending a hearing or separate order.

Records show Powell was still in the Douglas County Jail as of Thursday afternoon.

A Jan. 5 hearing has been scheduled before Judge Marshall to check on the progress of Powell’s examination and his fitness to stand trial.

Powell, 41, was arrested on Feb. 26 and charged with five felonies, including aggravated theft, identity theft and perjury, in connection with the purported theft of 30 acres in Elkton from a woman named Janet Grosz. He was also charged with initiating a false report, a misdemeanor.

On March 31, Powell was released from jail without having to pay bail after signing a one-page conditional release agreement in which he agreed to “seek immediate medical treatment.” Under the agreement, Powell also agreed to appear in court when directed.

He had made several court appearances since then, each time appearing in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank to help him breathe. The rare times Powell spoke he did so in a childlike whisper, his words difficult to hear or understand.

An initial trial date was set for July, but that was postponed to give his court-appointed attorneys more time to prepare.

A second trial date was set for Dec. 7. But on Nov. 15, Powell did not show up for a pre-trial hearing and Marshall issued a warrant for his arrest. Powell was arrested in Portland on Nov. 23 and transported to the Douglas County Jail, with bail set at $500,000

Two more charges — felony and misdemeanor failure to appear — were added for missing the hearing.

It was Powell’s own court-appointed defense attorney who requested that he be examined. In a motion filed Dec. 8, attorney Gina Marie Stewart, wrote that Powell was unable to understand the nature of the proceedings against him, assist and cooperate with her or participate in formulating his own defense.

“The defendant is non-communicative with us and the court,” Stewart wrote. “We are seeking an evaluation. “

People who know Powell, as well as law enforcement officers who have investigated him, say he is a skilled manipulator who often fakes illness to win people over and get out of trouble.

Authorities say Powell faked having cancer to steal 30 acres of land in Elkton from Grosz, 67.

Grosz said when she met Powell in 2019, he went by the name John Paul Hope. He told her about his plans to create a place where disabled veterans could live in dignity. Grosz agreed to give him 3 acres of her 55-acre ranch in Elkton for his plan to build housing for those veterans.

But authorities now say that virtually nothing Powell said was truthful. The veterans housing project he proposed was fiction and instead of using 3 acres of Grosz’s ranch he forged documents and took possession of 30 acres, authorities said.

Powell has been swindling individuals and corporations for years, those authorities said, often through phony nonprofit organizations he claimed to run. He operated at least a half-dozen fraudulent nonprofit organizations under such names as “The Missing Piece Foundation,” “True Story World,” and “Love,” authorities said.

Those fake nonprofits accepted donations from individuals and corporations, but Powell either kept, discarded or sold them, police said.


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Rep. Peter DeFazio speaks during a town hall meeting in Roseburg in 2016. After representing Oregon for more than three decades, DeFazio announced he would not seek re-election in 2022.


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