Top 10 Stories for 2010

The dispute over the mural was the hands-down winner for 2010.

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Standing in the middle of his field of dreams, Tim Duncan pauses on June 8 from his infield prep work following the opening game against Wenatchee at Borleske Stadium to watch the fireworks finale just beyond the 'Sweets” logo. The logo was painted earlier in the day by For The Love of The Game field painters Tom Pettoello and Shannon Smith.

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The new mural on the front of Inland Octopus was met with mixed reactions by passersby on Sept. 7.

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Sheriff Mike Humphreys (center) retires and ignites a heated race to fill his position.

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Lincoln Alternative High School, School Resource Officer Kevin Braman shows a switchblade that was confiscated from one of the middle schools in this May 26 photo. A Union-Bulletin series looked at the local gang problem.

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The Blue Mountain Mall seems trapped in a web of uncertainty locked away behind chain link fences and 'No Trespassing” signs in this July 22 photo. The IRS reported the developers of the mall had failed to report millions of dollars of income.

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Around 200 people marched against hate from Reid Campus Center on the Whitman College Campus to Heritage Park on Main Street on Oct. 2. The march was organized as a response to the swastika burned into the grass at Heritage Park and recent defacing of the panels on the park's bounding wall.

Readers of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin cast 59 valid ballots that determined the Top 10 Stories for 2010. The results ran the gamut from crimes and disputes to local successes and a new sports team.

Here are the Top 10:

1. A giant mural of an octopus and a castle is painted above Inland Octopus toy store, starting a controversy over whether it is art or a sign.

A painting of an octopus on a downtown Walla Walla building became the center of a legal entanglement, not to mention the source of discussion around the watercoolers at local businesses to the headlines from national media, garnering the top spot for the local story of 2010.

Next stop: Walla Walla County Superior Court.

The issue first grabbed headlines in September. City officials were up in arms when they returned from a long Labor Day weekend to find a larger-than-life painting of a mollusk peeking over castle walls with a rainbow overhead above Main Street toy store Inland Octopus. They said the mural, painted without permits over the three-day weekend by artist Aaron Randall, had not been approved by planning staff and violated the size limitations of the municipal sign code.

The assertion quickly grew into a debate over whether the painting commissioned by toy store owner Bob Catsiff qualifies as a sign or a piece of art.

The argument exploded with the public. In letter-writing campaigns, blogs and social media sites, the sides were drawn. Some people backed the city, saying the painting was clearly a sign because it included the toy store's signature mascot and namesake and was intended to draw people to the store.

Others said the painting was simply another piece of public art to add to the diverse array of sculptures and other works dotting the downtown landscape. A Facebook page dedicated to the cause has drawn more than 4,500 followers.

A little more than a month after the mural was painted, the city served Catsiff with a civil violation notice. The notice said Catsiff would be fined $100 every day the octopus mural remained. Catsiff was also fined another $300 for failing to obtain permits related to that painting as well as another on the back exterior of his store at 7 E. Main St.

The issue took another twist a couple of weeks later when Catsiff's attorney Michael de Grasse filed a suit against the city. De Grasse and Catsiff conceded the mural qualifies as a sign, but said the real issue with the city is a constitutional violation of Catsiff's right to freedom of expression.

A preliminary injunction sought by de Grasse was denied. However, the city has agreed not to enforce removal of the octopus painting pending a final resolution. The $100 daily fines that began Oct. 14 continue to accrue and will be collected if the city ultimately wins.

In the meantime, both sides await their day in court.

2. The retirement announcement of Mike Humphreys sets off a scramble of candidates to replace him as sheriff.

February is a cold month, but when Walla Walla County Sheriff Mike Humphreys announced his retirement on Feb. 18, things heated up in a hurry.

After many years of uncontested races, the run for the Sheriff's Office quickly became a three-way contest between Capt. Jim Romine and Capt. Bill White, both longtime sheriff's office veterans, and local resident John Turner, a former Los Angeles Police officer and police attorney.

In the weeks and months that followed, the race generated a deluge of letters to the Union-Bulletin's editorial page as well as widespread interest and concern over who would succeed Humphreys. After the "top-two" primary in August, Romine was eliminated leaving Turner and White as the finalists.

The race took another turn when allegations about Turner's time as managing partner of Ash Hollow Winery surfaced in September. The charges by Ash Hollow's former board chairman Jay Tucker and others were that Turner had charged personal expenses on Ash Hollow's credit card and had spent lavishly when on company business. Those allegations and responses by Turner, his campaign treasurer, Debora Zalaznik; and others were laid out in an article printed by the Union-Bulletin on Oct. 13, sparking fresh debates and another round of letters to the editor.

The debates ended with the Nov. 2 general election. Turner was elected, winning the race with about 54 percent of the vote to White's 46 percent.

3. The Walla Walla Sweets embark on the inaugural season in the wood-bat league.

Walla Walla was awarded a West Coast League baseball franchise in the fall of 2009, and the expansion Sweets opened their summer schedule in June.

A renovated Borleske Stadium was the place to be for the Sweets' 24 home games over the summer as local product Michael Richard took the mound early before an injury sidelined him.

The Sweets, owned by a group including wireless communications pioneer John Stanton and former Major League All-Star Jeff Cirillo, had Walla Walla native J.C. Biagi at the helm.

The team stayed in the WCL's East Division playoff hunt into the second half of the season before a slide saw them finish 18-30 in the league standings, 21-31 overall.

But the Sweets led the entire WCL in its inaugural season's attendance, drawing 34,825 fans in 24 home games for an average of 1,451 per game.

Sweets General Manager Zachary Fraser was named WCL Executive of the Year, and the organization earned "Best Marketing Campaign" by the Summer Baseball Conference for the launch of the team.

The second season is already taking shape, and plans for improvements to Borlekse Stadium were announced in December that will increase capacity from 1,600 spectators to more than 2,200.

The Sweets' sophomore season opens with a five-game homestand on June 3, with the Corvallis Knights in town for three games, followed by the Portland Toros for two games.

4. The newest section of U.S. Highway 12 is opened to traffic.

After two years of construction, the rubber finally met the road as the newest four-lane section of U.S. Highway 12 was opened to traffic this summer.

Stretching just under 10 miles between Walla Walla and the Frenchtown vicinity, the $66.4 million project was officially welcomed with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 8 attended by local, state and federal officials, including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who lauded the broad-based effort to drive the widening project ahead.

Despite the official hoopla, the roadway had actually opened about two weeks earlier and still needed more work to complete connecting roads to Old Highway 12 and finish the roundabouts to let drivers exit off the new overpass. The unfinished connecting roads, and lack of directing signs for local wineries, also caused those establishments on the old highway to complain that the new road was killing their business by diverting traffic away from what had been the main route taken by tourists.

5. Voters approve a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase to keep Valley Transit rolling.

Voters gave the proverbial green light to a sales tax that sent Walla Walla's transit system cruising ahead. What's more amazing: They approved a sales tax for themselves in the midst of a recession.

Local residents approved a new three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax for Valley Transit in what Auditor Karen Martin described as "one of the largest margins" she's seen in her 10 years of elections for Walla Walla County.

The new money - 3 cents more for every $10 retail purchase - was designed to help put Valley Transit back on track after hitting financial straits. The recession ate into sales tax revenue that had become a vital source of funding since the 1999 voter-approved repeal of the motor vehicle excise tax. State matching funds from that tax had been a major source of support for the public transportation system.

For 10 years Valley Transit supplemented its budget with grant funding and reserves to maintain its services. When the money ran out and sales tax revenue dropped, the bus system spiraled into financial turmoil. Fares were tripled from 25 cents to 75 cents to try to offset cuts. But the rate increase alone couldn't save the bus service. That's when proponents of the sales tax - The Campaign for Valley Transit - decided to ask voters for help.

Of the 11,892 ballots counted election night night, 9,075 - or 76.3 percent - were in favor of the tax, compared to 2,817 - 23.7 percent - opposed.

6. New local leadership.

The year brought a scattering of leadership changes around the Walla Walla Valley.

A regional bank and its parent company turned the reins over to its president during the summer. Mark J. Grescovich took over as chief executive officer of Banner Corp. and Banner Bank, succeeding D. Michael Jones, who had led the bank for eight years.

Grescovich came to Banner in April after working as an executive for an Ohio-based banking company.

Summertime also saw a change of leadership at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lt. Col. David A. Caldwell assumed command in July, having previously served as the future operations chief for the U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Group at Fort Meade, Md. He was commissioned into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1992 after graduating from Wheaton College with a bachelor of science degree in geology.

Walla Walla Public Schools gained a new leader when Mick Miller was hired in March to replace retiring Superintendent Richard Carter. Miller began his career as an administrator in 1990, and was superintendent of the Deer Park School District before moving south to take over the leadership role here.

And Randy Grant became the new No. 1 at the Walla Walla YMCA in January, replacing Jim Sanders, who was terminated in October. Grant, a Milton-Freewater native and McLoughlin Union High School graduate, started working for the Y in 1981 in Spokane and had been working in New York prior to accepting the job in Walla Walla.

7. The IRS reports that the developers of the Blue Mountain Mall hid millions of dollars.

It was another sad chapter in the tragic story of the Blue Mountain Mall.

The shopping center that had been sold, half-demolished and abandoned amid financial trouble over the last couple of years faced another challenge when allegations surfaced that the developers who owned it had failed to report nearly $25 million in income to the Internal Revenue Service.

The mall property had been destined for the auction block in July after the lender for the $10.5 million acquisition foreclosed for failure to pay. But when the owner filed for emergency bankruptcy protection, an "automatic stay" was granted. The sale was rescheduled for August.

However, a little more than a month later, the homes and offices of Bellevue developer Winston Bontrager, his son, 2004 Republican state Senate candidate Jason Bontrager, and Pauline Anderson, the elder Bontrager's girlfriend, were raided as part of the IRS investigation into their incomes since 2000.

Though none of the accusations were related to the defunct Blue Mountain Mall property, the probe and findings were another wrench in the sale and redevelopment of the property.

City Attorney Tim Donaldson said the automatic stay was recently lifted. What that means for the beleaguered property remains to be seen.

8. The Union-Bulletin publishes a six-day series on the local gang situation called Gangs/A Legacy of Violence.

The large and growing problem of gangs in the Walla Walla Valley led to the Union-Bulletin publishing a six-day series examining the issue.

Published in June, the articles coincided with the beginning of summer vacation from school when local law enforcement officers were braced for a potential hotbed of violent crimes in the area. Assaults, including a bloody melee on Center Street in March, had been on the rise and officials warned of a possible disaster-in-the-making.

Through interviews with local authorities and experts, the U-B's series revealed the history of local gang involvement, the makeup of the 500 or so members, various reasons for affiliations and possible ways for community members to intervene. No all-encompassing solutions exist, but education and outreach are believed to be key in addressing the problem.

Further research is ongoing as the area's Community Council chose gang activity as the topic for its 2010-2011 study.

9. The city implements an infrastructure plan that would replace all the underground water and sewer lines and repave the roads on a 93-year schedule. The first project on Morton Street is completed.

With miles of deteriorating underground water and sewer lines, and pothole riddled roads above, city officials pushed for and won the support of increasing water and sewer rates to raise money to fix the city's infrastructure.

The Infrastructure Repair and Replacement Plan saw little opposition and mostly public support, as several town hall meetings were held to discuss the city's plan to fix deteriorating roads and underground pipes.

But a handful of advocates of lower-income individuals and families warned that the poor would suffer the most from a 50 percent increase to water and sewer rates over the next five years to pay for the repairs.

10. After a swastika is burning onto the grass at Heritage Square Park, residents put together a March Against Hate.

The combination of a swastika burnt in the grass and a wad of wet toilet paper splattered onto the image of the Torah at Heritage Square Park incited a major protest against hate crimes in early October.

A couple weeks earlier, the swastika and image defacement were discovered, then quickly and quietly taken care of by city crews. But word soon spread of the anti-Semitic acts as a result of a Union-Bulletin article.

Two weeks later, close to 200 people marched through downtown and rallied against hate crimes at the park on Oct. 2.

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