Editor’s note: This is the last of three articles reviewing the top national, state and local news stories from 2017.
The year 2017 will go down as one of the newsiest in recent eastern Idaho history with four major tourism events and shifts in the local education and government landscapes.
Eastern Idaho was ready for its worldwide closeup in August during the total solar eclipse and nature also did its part, providing clear skies for perfect viewing of the celestial event. The rededication of the Idaho Falls LDS temple, the Melaleuca Freedom Celebration and the Extreme Blue Thunder Air Show also were top draws attracting visitors from across the region and around the world.
Voters gave education a boost by approving a ballot measure to establish a community college taxing district and authorizing the conversion of Eastern Idaho Technical College into the College of Eastern Idaho. But officials in Idaho Falls School District 91 were sent back to the drawing board after its bond measure to build a new Idaho Falls High School and renovate Skyline High School failed to garner a supermajority of support.
These and other news stories were selected by the Post Register’s editorial team as the region’s most important for 2017.
Idaho Falls was the place to be Aug. 21 when a rare total solar eclipse drew an estimated 300,000 spectators to the region, and provided a boost to the local economy.
Falling within the range of totality, daylight turned to darkness for a brief period, to the awe of those who got to experience this once-in-a-lifetime cosmic phenomenon.
Many were concerned in the days and weeks leading up to the eclipse weekend that eastern Idaho would struggle handling the influx of people coming here for the occasion, But other than a minor wildfire and traffic jams on major highways due to out-of-state visitors trekking to and from the region, the weekend passed without any major disruptions.
“We almost had an incident-free experience,” Mayor Rebecca Casper told the Post Register following the eclipse weekend.
And those lucky individuals who witnessed this historic event left with a lifetime of stories.
“I wanted to see it with my own two eyes,” Salt Lake City resident Dan Gilliam told the Post Register. “The video and pictures I’ve seen of this, and astronomical stories I’ve heard have always been spectacular.”
COLLEGE OF EASTERN IDAHO
In May, Bonneville County voters approved creating a taxing district for a community college, turning Eastern Idaho Technical College into the College of Eastern Idaho.
The proposal had the support of Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and local mayors and Republican legislators. Local Republican groups were divided — the county GOP Central Committee opposed the college, while the Bonneville County Republican Women backed it. In November, Bingham County voters soundly rejected a proposal to join the district.
The new college ended the year with a few big announcements. After a nationwide search and interviews with four finalists, the board voted to make Rick Aman, the college’s interim leader and former EITC president, permanent president. And, it announced a joint admissions and enrollment agreement with the University of Idaho, through which students who want to get a bachelor’s after their associate degree can take classes at U of I without transferring.
And, the college got a $1.73 million donation from Bill Maeck, EITC graduate and local philanthropist. The money will be used to renovate the college’s science laboratories, buy a surgical manikin and virtual cadaver and build a new nursing lab and a testing center.
After 7,353 days behind bars, Chris Tapp was released from prison in March.
Tapp was first jailed in 1996 just before he was charged with the rape and murder of Angie Dodge. But a slew of experts, and Angie’s mother, Carol Dodge, have been adamant that Tapp was wrongfully convicted after being coerced into a false confession.
Tapp’s DNA was never found at a crime scene where many samples were left, including semen and hair. All of the samples taken to date point to a single, unknown killer. An outside investigator hired by prosecutors found that virtually all the details in Tapp’s confession were fed to him during the course of his long interrogation and polygraph sessions.
Tapp’s release came in a resentencing deal with prosecutors. Under the terms of the deal, the murder conviction remains on Tapp’s record (though he maintains that he is innocent). The rape charge was dismissed. He was released from prison 10 years before his first scheduled parole date.
In the wake of his release, wrongful conviction experts suggested that Idaho examine creating a conviction review board, a set of investigators and lawyers who would look into suspected wrongful convictions to determine whether there is enough evidence against a convicted person to keep them in prison. Experts also recommended the press examine its pre-trial coverage practices, especially in high-profile cases.
After more than a year of closure for at least $26 million in renovations, the Idaho Falls Temple was rededicated in April.
Visitors turned out in droves to see the temple’s restored murals, fresh glass art and improved fixtures; 220,000 tours were reserved between April and May.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints representatives said renovations emphasized design cues present for the temple’s original 1945 dedication. At that time, it was the only temple in Idaho and among seven in the world.
An LDS youth cultural celebration, “Temple by the River - Reflections,” held in Pocatello, preceded the rededication and attracted Holt Arena’s largest-ever crowd.
Exact numbers aren’t available, but up to 14,000 people occupied the arena floor, while the venue’s 11,738 permanent seats also were largely full — “We gave out enough tickets to fill the Holt twice,” event spokesman Doyle Batt said. Thousands also watched from their stakes.
Four days of rehearsals culminated in close to 12,000 youth singing and dancing the region’s history, as well as that of the Idaho Falls Temple, in traditional attire of blue, green, yellow and red.
The performance ended with a stadium-wide prayer. Each child held a light to the air and expressed their appreciation for God.
The 25th Annual Melaleuca Freedom Celebration was held July 4. For the first time, the viewing location was moved to Snake River Landing so more and larger fireworks could be used.
The celebration, billed as the largest fireworks display west of the Mississippi River, has been held near the greenbelt, later rebranded the River Walk, for decades. But Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot was concerned that ever-larger trees were obstructing the view of the festivities, and he announced months ahead of the show he was looking for a new location.
Several ideas were floated, including Sandy Downs or even a move to another city such as Rexburg.
In the end, the city of Idaho Falls and VanderSloot struck a deal that kept the fireworks in Idaho Falls.
Despite long waits for traffic leaving after the celebration had ended, those who attended told the Post Register they liked the new location.
“I like it. It’s a nice, big location,” said Michael Kotter, who is from Shelley. “There’s areas for people to lay out on the grass.”
The Extreme Blue Thunder Air Show visited Idaho Falls for the first time since 2010 on July 22 and 23, welcoming approximately 35,000 spectators and netting $120,000 in proceeds for local nonprofit organizations.
Headlined by a performance from the United State Navy Blue Angels Flight Demonstration team, the event welcomed attendees from 26 states and one foreign country. Demonstrations from the Blue Angels and U.S. Army Special Operations Command Parachute Demonstration highlighted the show.
Overall, the event proved to be a major success for Idaho Falls.
“It went fantastic, we couldn’t be happier with how it went,” city of Idaho Falls spokeswoman Kerry Hammon said. “I didn’t hear one negative comment other than it was little warm out.”
Earlier this month the show was named the Blue Angel Air Show of the Year award for 2017. The award is given annually to a show site that best demonstrates the uppermost echelon in tactical and operational readiness of the air show site.
A December runoff election concluded the most expensive mayoral race in Idaho Falls history.
Incumbent Mayor Rebecca Casper won 5,304 votes, nearly 61 percent of the vote, while Councilwoman Barbara Ehardt received 3,417 votes, about 39 percent of the total.
The result was not unusual — the runoff was narrowly triggered when Casper was just 3 percent shy of an outright majority of the vote in the Nov. 7 general election — but the amount of money spent on the contest was.
More than $119,000 was spent locally, eclipsing the 20-year Idaho Falls mayoral average of $58,000 and the previous record: $88,000 spent in 2013. Expenditures approached levels more typically found in Boise mayoral races.
The Businesses for Growth political action committee, funded by LLCs associated with three men — VanderSloot, former Bonneville Republican Chairman Doyle Beck and attorney Bryan Smith — was responsible for $31,000 in advertisements that in some cases made false claims about Casper.
In the lead-up to the runoff, the PAC also released content supportive of Ehardt, who eventually distanced herself from negative PAC messaging despite embracing a few similar core points.
Casper, meanwhile, encouraged voters to continue Idaho Falls’ trajectory through improvements to education, infrastructure and the high-quality job market.
“Voters sent a message that negativity is not how they want to be informed — they want positive, constructive messages,” Casper said after the runoff.
Behind a stout offensive line and a potent running attack, Skyline High School’s football team repeated as 4A state champions by beating Minico 40-14 at Holt Arena back in mid-November. Running back Kyler Morgan led the way with 100 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns and Cruz Taylor set a 4A playoff record with a 99-yard kick return, as the Grizzlies never trailed the Spartans. After starting its season 0-2, Skyline rattled off 10-consecutive wins to earn its third state title in 25 years.
“Ever since those first two losses, we were on a mission to get back here,” quarterback Dylan Bialas told the Post Register after the win. “People were doubting us, everybody was doubting us, and we were going to get back. We knew we were. We believed in each other.”
The Idaho Falls Police Department had a tumultuous year as dissatisfaction with department leadership led to a new chief and an attempt at unionization by the officers. Former Chief Mark McBride retired following two votes of no confidence by the Fraternal Order of Police and a lawsuit filed by seven Idaho Falls Police Department officers alleging that the city violated civil service rules.
The Idaho Falls City Council hired Chief Bryce Johnson from Juneau, Alaska, to succeed McBride.
The Fraternal Order of Police asked the council in July to give officer’s collective bargaining rights to ensure officers could communicate with city officials and have a voice regardless of who was chief or mayor. The FOP also cited unequal treatment, given that the Idaho Falls Fire Department has collective bargaining rights. Six months of deliberation ended Dec. 21 when the council voted 4-2 against allowing officers to form a union, with several members saying they want to give the new chief more time to address officer concerns without a union.
Idaho Falls School District 91 and Bonneville Joint School District 93 both struggled to get bonds approved this year.
In November, voters in District 91 rejected a proposal to borrow $110 million to renovate Skyline High School and build a new Idaho Falls High School. Trustees are soliciting more public input before deciding how to proceed.
Bonneville Joint School District 93 trustees voted in June to put a $58.5 million bond on the ballot to pay for a new middle school and special needs wing but rescinded it a few weeks later. Trustees then decided earlier this month to put a $32 million middle school and a $25 million elementary school/special education hub up for a vote in March 2018 as a “tiered” ballot. The two get voted on separately and the middle school plus a few unrelated small projects are in the first tier and can pass on their own. But the elementary school and special education hub can only pass if the middle school also does.