New Year's Eve fireworks produce a dazzling display over Vale on Dec. 31, 2020, as the pandemic year comes to a close. (Pat Caldwell/The Enterprise)

The year 2020 is history, and indeed it was a historic year for Malheur County. Editor Les Zaitz selected the Top 10 stories of the year from the hundreds reported by the Enterprise. He based his selection on how many people were affected, accountability of government, or local changes that will have broad impacts on the community.

The stories:

No. 10 – MAJOR 

EMBEZZLEMENT

Douglas Wold, 48, went to work for Fry Foods in June 2019, handling human resources. Investigators a year later uncovered a scheme in which they accused Wold of cutting phony payroll checks and putting them into his personal bank accounts. The theft totaled more than $150,000. A mystery is why Fry Foods hired him – Wold had a past record of felony convictions. He is now facing criminal charges in Malheur County and U.S. District Court in Idaho.

UPDATE: Wold didn’t appear for a Dec. 2 court hearing in Vale, resulting in a warrant for his arrest with a bail of $420,000. He wasn’t free to appear – federal authorities had him in custody, according to Idaho officials.

No. 9 – SCHOOL FIGHT

An ugly dispute continued in the Ontario School District, pitting some members of the school board against school district leaders. That split the school board, leading to acrimonious meetings, investigations, and more. An attorney investigated and rejected claims by Eric Evans, school board member, that he had been targeted by school administrators. A dispute over whether to release the investigation led to the resignation of long-time board member Mike Blackaby. An Ontario insurance man, Blackaby was serving as chair of the board at the time. 

UPDATE: Jodi Elizondo, Ontario High School principal, in October put the school district on notice she might sue because of what she said was discriminatory behavior towards her by one school board member, Derrick Draper. No litigation has been filed.

No. 8 – MANHUNT

The year got off to a busy start as police tracked Joshua B. Christoffersen, 41, in a remote area of western Malheur County. Christoffersen was later accused of stealing ranch equipment outside Harper in a string of suspected crimes that started New Year’s Eve in Idaho. He was found in a building at the EP Minerals mine complex. Christoffersen, from Caldwell, disappeared after being released from jail in January and was the subject of a nationwide warrant. 

UPDATE: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in November ordered Christoffersen extradited to Malheur County. Christoffersen was arrested in Texas in November on a state drug charge that is still pending. Local officials in Texas said Christoffersen would be returned to Oregon soon.

No. 7 – CONTROVERSIAL 

CITY COUNCILOR

 Freddy Rodriguez, an Ontario city councilor, became embroiled in legal actions as a former girlfriend obtained a restraining order out of fear he would harm her. Rodriguez fought back, seeking his own restraining order that was later dropped by a state judge. Meantime, records showed that Rodriguez had faced domestic abuse allegations in Idaho before moving to Ontario. An Ontario man launched an effort to have Rodriguez recalled from office.

UPDATE: The recall moved sputtered to an end in October after petitioners failed to gather enough signatures to force a vote.

No. 6 – HOMELESS

Help for those homeless in Ontario seemed to falter as plans for tiny, temporary homes on a downtown lot triggered strong opposition. A coalition of government and non-profit leaders kept working on the issue through the year, challenged by limits imposed by the pandemic. Still, a new site for the temporary homes emerged, the basic shelters were moved.

UPDATE: 15 families were expected to move in last week.

No. 5 – FUTURE JOBS

Treasure Valley Community College in January broke ground on its $7 million Career and Technical Education building, seen as key to positioning the college to do more in training workers for good-paying jobs in the region. A blend of grants and donations helped pay for the building, finished in October. 

UPDATE: The first classes in the new building – welding – were scheduled to start on Monday, Jan. 4.

No. 4 – LOCAL POLITICS

The year’s election produced two surprises. Larry Wilson, an Ontario real estate agent and long-time county commissioner, lost his bid for re-election in May. Wilson trailed two other Republican candidates in a race won in the general election by Ron Jacobs. Wilson’s defeat was considered a vote on how the county has handled plans and spending for the Treasure Valley Reload Center. Wilson was active in those plans, defending the work of contractor Greg Smith, who operates at Malheur County’s economic development director. And in Vale, incumbent mayor Mike McLaughlin lost his bid for re-election to Tom Vialpando.

UPDATE: Jacobs was sworn in as county commissioner on Monday by Malheur County Circuit Judge Lung Hung and Vialpando will be sworn in as Vale mayor at the Vale City Council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 12.

No. 3 – PROTEST

Hundreds gathered in June in Ontario for a Black Lives Matter rally, marching from West Park Plaza to Ontario City Hall. The group included people of all different ages and ethnic backgrounds. The countless signs in hand were emblematic of the fact that they all gave up their evening for the same reason – to protest for justice. The peaceful event was in contrast to riots and violent protests that erupted in cities across the U.S. in the wake of the death in Minnesota of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in police custody. Local activists then urged reforms in Ontario city operations.

UPDATE: Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero established a citizen advisory committee and the city is planning on diversity in a panel to help select new city art. The city staff stays in touch with Black Lives Matter organizers and continues internal discussions about racial equity and diversity.

No. 2 – NATIONAL STAGE

 Cliff Bentz gave up his seat in the Oregon Senate to focus on running for Congress, entering a crowded primary field. He had to establish himself in southern and central Oregon, facing the better-known Knute Buehler of Bend, who had been the last Republican nominee for governor. 

Bentz won the May race, which essentially put him on the path to be elected the next U.S. representative from the 2nd Congressional District. Bentz, an Ontario attorney and long-time public servant, replaces the retiring Greg Walden.

UPDATE: Bentz was sworn in and took his seat in Congress this week. The oath: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” 

No. 1 PANDEMIC

 The pandemic dominated life in Malheur County. Schools shut down. High school sports stopped. Restaurants closed, opened, closed and then partly opened. The county recorded the highest infection rate in the state as health authorities pleaded with citizens to wear masks and keep social distance. 

Public officials railed against Gov. Kate Brown’s orders. And the county suffered worse than most places because neighboring Idaho put in place virtually no restrictions, exporting the virus to Malheur County.

UPDATE: State rules changed on Jan. 1, giving local schools the chance to resume full operations in the coming weeks. 

The governor is urging elementary students be given a priority for returning to classrooms. 

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