The Philomath City Council race for the final seat between Jessica Andrade, left, and David Low is chosen as the top news story of the year. (File photos by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Around election time, advertisements on television, printed publications and online sites urge people to cast their ballots. “Every vote counts” is an often-heard phrase in an effort to increase voter turnout.

In Philomath, that couldn’t have been more true. The City Council election came down to a single vote for the sixth and final seat at the table. Following a series of updates from the Benton County Elections office and the triggering of a hand count, Jessica Andrade earned the spot by one vote over David Low.

The election drama is recognized by the Philomath News as the top news story of the year.

A few other stories could’ve easily been in the top spot as well. For example, the fire that broke out at the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo arena destroyed a section of grandstands just 10 days before the big event. But organizers, local businesses, organizations and individuals stepped up and the rodeos went on as planned.

Various challenges from the presence of methane to incorrect property boundaries to the developer’s redesign were seen over the course of the year at the Millpond Crossing housing. A controversial decision to staff a substation in Wren evolved into the eventual departure of the fire chief and the city’s groundbreaking of the streetscapes project were also major headlines.

2022 Year in Review — News: July to September

This is the third in a four-part series of articles reviewing news that occurred in 2022. This third installment breaks down the period of July 1 to September 30. JULY • July 2 — Dirt Road Brewing brought back its street party for a second year to begin the Fourth of July weekend. • July…

Here, then, are the Philomath News top 10 stories of the year:

1. City Council seat decided by 1 vote

Besides the occasional text from friends who would check the results online and provide an update, incumbent candidate Jessica Andrade tried to not get too wrapped up in one of Philomath’s closest-ever City Council elections.

“I have to be honest … there wasn’t really anything I could do about the situation so I was just trying to not think too hard about it and just wait for the final results,” Andrade said Dec. 7 after officially winning the sixth and final seat on the council by a single vote over David Low.

The Benton County Elections Office spent Dec. 5-6 recounting Andrade and Low votes by hand to confirm the results that had been published the previous week after the completion of the ballot signature challenge period.

“It’s been unsettling to not have an answer, you know,” Low said. “You go into this sort of thing thinking, ‘oh, I’ll know one way or the other on election night’ and it just dragged out … It was just kind of strange, but it is what it is.”

For the candidates involved, it really has been a lengthy process with a number of twists and turns. The top six vote-getters win a seat on the City Council and as it turned out with this election, every vote really did count.

On Election Day, challenger Peggy Yoder was in that sixth spot after the release of the late results that night by three votes over Low and 15 votes ahead of Andrade. By the following day, more ballots had been counted and Low slipped into sixth place by a single vote over Andrade with Yoder then sitting four votes back.

The next week, Benton County Elections provided another update and this time, Andrade was leading by one vote over Low with those two getting a bit of separation from Yoder. The only remaining update would come two weeks later with the completion of the election office’s ballot signature challenge period.

When that final update was released, Andrade had 1,225 votes to Low’s 1,224. And yes, with that close of a final tally, an automatic hand recount was triggered.

Others elected to the council included Christopher McMorran, Teresa Nielson, Matt Lehman, Diane Crocker and Ruth Causey. Chas Jones was re-elected as mayor.

Philomath Frolic & Rodeo arena after the June 27 fire. (Photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs/Philomath News)

2. Fire destroys rodeo grandstands section

A devastating fire that burned three bleacher sections at the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo arena overnight June 27 and put the 2022 rodeo performances in jeopardy was caused by a propane torch that had been used up to an hour earlier to clear weeds from the area, according to the fire investigator’s conclusion.

Rich Saalsaa of Philomath Fire & Rescue said the determination had been made following interviews with police, the city manager and arriving firefighters. In short, ideal conditions for ignition of a fire were present.

“If you can imagine, the flames and the heat from that propane torch will extend far beyond what you can actually see under the cracks in the bottom of the little shed that they had back in there, for example,” Saalsaa said, referring to the area below the grandstands. “There’s enough air gap that between leaves and dust — there’s enough to kinda get things set off and because of the recent heat and then you have a little wind that blows across it … things were just right.”

Damages were estimated at $500,000 for property and contents, Saalsaa said.

Just 12 hours after the fire, the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo’s board of directors announced that the rodeo would go on as planned on July 7-9. According to a post on the organization’s Facebook page, an inspection of the grandstands and overhead structure confirmed that it can safely have fans on the rodeo grounds for the following week’s festivities.

When the rodeo faced the possibility of being canceled, the community responded. There were offers of free equipment and labor. Several individuals stood in line at the bank to donate to a fund that had been set up. Organizations dug deep into their checkbooks to contribute to the cause.

“It’s always been that annual summertime celebration where you celebrate everything that’s great about being in the middle of July — it’s warm, it’s summer, it’s a beautiful part of the world and you’ve got your friends, your family and your community around you,” Fire & Rescue’s Chris Workman said.

The Millpond Crossing housing development in Philomath has seen plenty of challenges. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

3. Millpond Crossing development faces challenges

Since its approval in May 2018, the Millpond Crossing housing development in Philomath had gone through a series of challenges while trying to build homes in the vicinity of South 15th Street and Chapel Road.

City Councilor Catherine Biscoe wanted to dig deep into the project at a September meeting and shared a list of 20 talking points that, among other things, covered a wide range of issues from methane gas and hydrogen sulfide readings, the impact of incorrect property lines and procedural questions related to the issuance of certificates of occupancy.

The largest audience to attend a City Council meeting since before the pandemic filled the council chambers at City Hall with some of them in attendance to share their perspectives on the hardships and challenges of owning property in Millpond Crossing.

Early in the Sept. 12 meeting, City Attorney Jim Brewer intervened to recommend that councilors discuss the Millpond Crossing issues in a closed meeting.

“My professional opinion is that we need to have a frank and forthright conversation about those things and that litigation is likely to be filed,” Brewer said. “It’s not really clear yet what the city’s participation in that will be. There are lots of issues there.”

As a result, Biscoe’s planned presentation was grounded and specifics she had brought up were not discussed in an open meeting. Later that same month, councilors met in an executive session for 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Millpond Crossing’s developer, Levi Miller, earlier in the year pushed for a redesign that included the addition of townhomes and a new location for a neighborhood park. Miller said the project was at a crossroads and he wanted to avoid hiring a site contractor to handle the rest of the project. Making that move, he said, would raise home prices to the point where they would no longer be considered “affordable” — which he has stated is his goal with the project.

Instead, Miller was seeking approval of his development’s major modification application “to continue the mission and find a way to decrease costs and to continue affordability …”

During the approval process with the city, the discussion included a lot of back-and-forth dialogue about the issues that Millpond Crossing had experienced, including those related to COVID, rising construction costs, the discovery of methane and various other time-delaying occurrences.

Tom Miller served as Philomath Fire & Rescue chief from 2016 to 2022. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

4. Controversy leads to fire chief change

Philomath Fire & Rescue’s board of directors officially parted ways with Tom Miller as the fire chief in September with its approval of a “separation agreement” and the appointment of Chancy Ferguson to fill those responsibilities on an interim basis.

Miller said that he met on Sept. 9 with board chair Daphne Phillips and board member Doug Edmonds and resigned from the position he’s held since February 2016 through the acceptance of the separation agreement’s terms.

The move occurred following a dispute that had been ongoing for several months in the aftermath of Miller’s decision to staff personnel at the district’s Wren substation. The Philomath Fire & Rescue Volunteer Association and Philomath Firefighters International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4925 both voiced various concerns.

In the early summer, the volunteer association and the union announced that each membership had approved votes of no confidence in the fire chief’s leadership. The union also filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the district with a settlement reached in August. The board, meanwhile, enlisted the help of the Special Districts Association of Oregon (SDAO) to perform a human resources “review of accusations of retaliatory actions” and to bring in a consultant to “review district operations.”

Following Miller’s departure, the board made a move to stabilize its administrative leadership by signing Ferguson to an 18-month interim contract as fire chief. Ferguson had been appointed interim fire chief on Sept. 12 following the announcement that the board and former fire chief Tom Miller had parted ways.

The board in a Sept. 28 email to fire district personnel said Ferguson had signed a contract to run through March 28, 2024. In addition, the board announced that Ferguson appointed Rich Saalsaa to fill the position of deputy fire chief for the same time period.

With construction equipment staged in the background, ODOT Area Manager Savannah Crawford speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony on Oct. 4 in Philomath. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

5. City breaks ground on streetscapes project

After more than a decade of planning, designing, holding meetings, finalizing financing and frankly, dreaming of a safer and attractive downtown, Philomath late in the year launched into the long-awaited Downtown Safety and Streetscape Improvements Project.

The city celebrated the occasion with a groundbreaking ceremony on Oct. 4. The work started in November for a nearly $16 million project that’s estimated to last 20 months.

The bulk of the project’s work relates to narrowing roads, creating more space for parking, widening sidewalks, installing pedestrian amenities, adding a two-way cycling route and adding “bulb-outs” to increase safety.

The project had endured challenges related to construction-related cost increases. In May, City Manager Chris Workman told the City Council that the project was $1.7 million over the budget that had been established a year earlier.

Workman said the Oregon Department of Transportation committed to covering most of those cost increases, which amounted to about $1.4 million, but the city was being asked to kick in an additional $182,879.

However, an additional $100,000 was put on the table for the city to contribute because of city-owned water hydrants that would need to be moved — something that wasn’t initially scoped. Workman said that amount could come out of the city’s water fund but could push the city’s total commitment up to around $300,000, an amount the council ultimately approved.

A crew installs the Shipley Family Homestead historical marker in Newton Creek Park on July 11. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

6. Black pioneer receives recognition

Black pioneer and former slave Reuben Shipley’s gesture of donating two acres of land to help establish Mount Union Cemetery in 1861 received widespread recognition during 2022 with the addition of a historical marker in Newton Creek Park and the dedication of a bronze plaque at his grave site.

The historical marker dedication event took place on July 23 to make the story of Reuben and Mary Jane Shipley more visible than ever.

“It’s a moving tribute to some early Black homesteaders of Benton County,” Zachary Stocks, executive director of Oregon Black Pioneers, said after cutting a ceremonial ribbon to welcome the marker to Philomath. “It’s a great opportunity to finally see that their stories are being told on the same level as other important community figures of the pioneer era.”

Facing James Street, the new historical marker is entitled, “Shipley Family Homestead: Creating a Resting Place for All.” A crowd of approximately 150 people were on hand for the program.

“This whole marker process has taken more than a year,” Stocks said. “So it’s really powerful to get to be here today.”

On April 30, the Winema Chapter of the National Society of The Daughters of the American Revolution, led a bronze plaque dedication event where he is buried under the name of Reuben Ficklin at Mount Union Cemetery. 

“Mr. Reuben Shipley … a previously enslaved man came to Oregon and worked his way hard to accumulate 100-plus acres of land and could actually have enough money — even though he was previously enslaved — that he could have an integrated cemetery,” the NSDAR’s Jane Buck said when asked what she would want people to know about him. “I’m sure that it must’ve been the first integrated cemetery in Oregon … It’s a delight to recognize his contribution to life in this community.”

The Philomath School District announced on April 29 the hiring of Mark Henderson as the high school’s next principal. (File photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs).

7. High school brings in new principal

Philomath High School’s leadership changed on July 1 with the arrival of Mark Henderson as the principal. 

Following the reassignment of Mike Bussard in 2021 and then bringing in former administrator Brent Belveal out of retirement to serve in an interim role, the Philomath School District went to work in the spring to hire a new principal.

The school district started advertising the position in early March and at least 15 candidates applied — none local. The hiring process followed in April and Henderson was announced as the choice on April 29.

Henderson came to Philomath from Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis, where he served as assistant principal and athletic director for three years. He had also been in the role of Corvallis Online principal.

“It’s been really difficult to develop strong relationships with kids and teachers,” Henderson said a few hours after the Philomath School District announced his hiring to staff. “Being in Philomath is going to allow me to know all of the teachers and all of the students and on a much-deeper level than I would at a school of 1,600 where I was in Washington.”

A site layout illustrates the location of the new water reservoir on the east side of South Ninth Street. (Image by Westech Engineering via City of Philomath)

8. City’s water reservoir project moves forward

The initial phase of the city’s efforts to modernize Philomath’s aging water system cleared a hurdle in late November with the City Council’s approval of a $4.2 million bid to construct a water reservoir.

The new 1.5-million-gallon concrete storage facility represents the first stage of a project that also includes a new water treatment plant, a system to collect water from the Marys River and a high-service pump station.

“Construction is going to start in a sort of administrative phase almost just where I start getting information from the contractor about different components,” Westech Engineering Project Manager Peter Blumenthal said. “I would say you could probably start seeing some early work in 40 days, maybe 45, and then it will ramp up quite quickly after that.”

The second phase with the physical plant and other components will likely go out for bid in the spring of 2023, City Manager Chris Workman said, with construction to follow in the summer.

HP Civil Inc., which is based in Stayton, won the $4,161,000 contract. The water reservoir will be located just inside the west boundary of Marys River Park on South Ninth Street — across from the general vicinity of the current water treatment plant.

The Philomath Post Office is going through staffing issues that have impacted the delivery of mail and packages. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

9. Mail delivery issues frustrate local residents

Philomath residents, especially those in the Benton View Drive-Neabeack Hill section of town, expressed frustration over mail delivery issues that had been occurring over most of the year. Mail would arrive in the late-evening hours and on some days, it wasn’t delivered at all.

Many customers found themselves driving to the post office to pick up undelivered packages and accumulated mail. Those who asked questions of Postal Service employees received answers that followed the same theme — a staff shortage.

A resident on South 30th Street who was picking up mail had been told that deliveries would continue, but only about every five days or so.

“One of our carriers told me that she was doing two routes, which accounted for the late-evening deliveries to us,” one resident said. “She complained that they were very short-handed and she felt overworked. That seems to have ended about three weeks ago when the mail simply did not arrive for several days.”

Lecia Hall, U.S. Postal Service strategic communications specialist, confirmed in August that Philomath is seeing staffing shortages.

“Due to continued staffing issues, there may have been days when a customer did not receive mail, but we are rotating employees and assignments so they will get mail the following day, with the postmaster occasionally carrying a route when needed,” Hall said in a response to questions via email.

Frustrations from residents resurfaced in late November and early December with a lot of the same issues continuing.

Philomath Police had a major crime to solve in 2022 following a rare home invasion burglary. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

10. Home invasion burglary leads to arrest

On the afternoon of April 29, a Philomath resident came home to find that someone had been in the house. Several items were stolen that in total carry an estimated value of nearly $175,000, including a rare 18th-century Lorenzo Carcassi violin that alone had a worth of $85,000.

Philomath Chief of Police Ken Rueben said the type of burglary that occurred at the residence is rare. On top of that, the home targeted was located in the quiet Mount Union neighborhood of Philomath.

“When you talk about burglaries, it’s usually a family member — like a son that came back and broke in — and you still call that a burglary,” Rueben said. “But a real residential burglary when a stranger breaks into somebody’s house, I think we’re averaging about one a year — maybe.”

The list of stolen items includes several other high-end violins as well as professional-grade instruments, Rueben said. Several other items were also taken, including those that hold great sentimental value to the victim.

Four months later, many of those items had been returned to the owner and police arrested 35-year-old Faisal Al-Ansari, of Springfield.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.