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Marking a birthday and hoping for answers, justice
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TOPPENISH — Rosenda Sophia Strong should have been at Pioneer Park on Friday to celebrate her 34th birthday with her sisters and brother, daughter and grandson, other relatives and friends.

More than 30 people gathered for Strong that afternoon to sing “Happy Birthday” and enjoy an elaborate cake from For Heaven’s Cake in Union Gap. But as they celebrated her life and their memories of and love for her, there was sadness and continued hope for answers and justice as the investigation into her homicide continues.

“Thank you for taking the time out of your day to come and remember Rosenda on her birthday,” said Strong’s cousin, Roxanne White. She and Lorie Thomas traveled from Seattle to Toppenish “because we know how important these gatherings are to families impacted by this crisis,” White added.

Strong, a mother of four, disappeared on Oct. 2, 2018. Her remains were found in an abandoned freezer a few miles outside of town on July 4, 2019. She is among numerous missing and murdered Native women, girls, men and boys on and beyond the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Nation reservation. Many cases are unsolved. Some are decades old.

“This impacted a whole family and this impacts our whole community,” White said. “They don’t get to get away with murder. We’re not going to rest until every person is prosecuted to the fullest.”

It was a beautiful afternoon, though the persistent wind played havoc with bunches of red balloons that people released before Strong’s sister, Cissy Strong Reyes, cut the cake and others began handing out pieces. Reyes organized the gathering and has worked with White and others to advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people and their families.

“I would have loved to have heard her today,” Reyes said of her sister. “We miss her. She was supposed to be here. I’ll just continue to do what I’m doing for her.

“Just know that we’re not going to give up.”

Strong’s brother Christopher Strong, sister Maura Moran and daughter Karman Strong also thanked people for coming. White sang in Strong’s honor and many people who attended wore red clothing, some with photos of Strong and her name.

As they remembered Rosenda, many looked ahead to May 5, a somber day of awareness on and beyond reservations throughout the country for missing and murdered Indigenous women. The crisis impacts reservations throughout the country, in Canada and communities on the American border with Mexico, and Indigenous populations around the world.

“May 5 is not a celebration. It’s a memorial of all these women and girls who have gone missing and have been murdered in Indian Country,” White said.

Yakima Valley schools likely to apply for high school graduation waiver option
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School districts can apply for high school graduation waivers in light of COVID-19 challenges to help students graduate this year.

The waivers, which are offered by the state Board of Education, allow high schools to waive two credits for a senior as a last resort to help them graduate on time, said Alissa Muller, the board’s policy manager for career and college readiness. Both credits can be in core subjects, but they cannot be in the same subject area, she said.

“It cannot be two math credits, but they could waive math and, let’s say, science,” she gave as an example.

The emergency waiver opportunity is offered in light of potential challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures. A similar waiver was available to districts last year, but in that case the waiver could be applied to any classes affected in the last three months of the school year. There was no restriction on the number of courses waived.

Board of Education records show that all Yakima County districts except Zillah and Granger had access to the emergency waiver offered last spring.

This year, Muller said districts statewide are likely to apply for the renewed waiver. Those who use it will have to follow slightly stricter guidelines.

“(There is) a little more restriction on what can be waived just because in theory, students would have had more time to make up classes than last year,” Muller said.

She said schools need to show they have made a “good effort to meet requirements” and use the waiver as a last resort. Districts will be required to do additional record-keeping to prove the need to use the waiver, and some additional reporting to the Board of Education and the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Approved districts can use the waiver in addition to an existing waiver that allows schools to waive two flexible or elective classes based on need, she said.

“Those two (waivers) could be stacked together, so up to four credits waived. But again, there are very specific restrictions through the emergency waiver about what those credits are,” she said.

While state credit requirements are ordinarily 24 credits, some districts have added local credit requirements. She said those can be waived as well, if the district desires. The bottom line: “Students can graduate with no fewer than a total of 20 credits,” Muller said.

Superintendents throughout the Yakima Valley are meeting virtually with the Board of Education director next week to learn more about how to apply for and use this emergency waiver, said Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, which supports regional districts. While he said he was unsure if any districts had already applied for permission to use the emergency waiver, Chase said most likely would.

“There’s definitely going to be a need, and I’m sure people will take advantage of it. Probably not in wholesale, but I think there will be needs among individuals,” he said.

High school students in many Yakima Valley districts have spent a good portion of the school year learning virtually, with more in-person learning in recent months.

Chase said districts are likely to apply for the waiver to make sure no student slips through the cracks.

“Even if it’s just one kid, they need the flexibility,” Chase said. “Districts will use every tool in their toolbox to make sure kids get over the line.”

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Tim Eyman ordered to pay $2.9 million to cover Washington attorney general’s legal costs
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Tim Eyman must pay nearly $2.9 million to cover the legal fees and costs of Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s nearly four-year lawsuit against him for campaign finance violations, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled Friday.

That sum is on top of the $2.6 million civil penalty that the judge, James Dixon, previously imposed on Eyman for years of campaign finance violations that he called “numerous and particularly egregious” and which Eyman used to enrich himself.

In granting the legal fees, Dixon hands a near-total victory to Ferguson in his long-running case against Eyman, the state’s best-known initiative promoter and conservative activist.

Eyman, who was born in Yakima and graduated from West Valley High School, was charged with, and found liable for, laundering political donations to enrich himself, accepting kickbacks from a signature-gathering firm, secretly shuttling money between initiative campaigns, and concealing the source of other political contributions.

In the history of Washington state’s campaign finance law, Dixon wrote, “it would be difficult for the Court to conceive of a case with misconduct that is more egregious or more extensive.”

Dixon had previously granted an injunction, sought by Ferguson, that permanently forbids Eyman from controlling the finances of any political committee. Eyman had long argued that such a sentence would be a death blow to his career as a political activist. But after the verdict was handed down, he backtracked, saying he would change some paperwork on his political committee, but the “the rest will remain the same.”

Now Dixon has granted Ferguson the additional compensation he’d sought, ordering Eyman to pay the attorney general’s legal fees.

“Tim Eyman broke the law — repeatedly — and in order to delay his day of reckoning, he willfully dragged out this case with frivolous and cost-inflating litigation tactics,” Ferguson said. “This decision ensures that Tim Eyman bears the cost of his yearslong obstruction of our case — not the taxpayers.”

Before the trial, which concluded earlier this year, Eyman was twice held in contempt for more than two years for refusing to comply with court orders.

In response to a request for comment Friday, Eyman forwarded a fundraising email.

“Bob Ferguson is a cowardly bully,” he wrote. “Using unlimited government resources going after political adversaries is easy. I choose to challenge the powerful.”

Eyman will spend years paying off the fines and fees. He has been on a court-

approved payment plan for more than a year. He pays $10,000 to the state on the fifth of each month, a sum that will rise to $13,500 next year and continue for the foreseeable future.

In total, seven lawyers and staff spent 9,899.71 hours on the Eyman case, Ferguson said in court filings. That’s the equivalent of about 413 24-hour days, or 13.5 months. They billed at hourly rates ranging from $123 to $408.

The case contains nearly 1,600 docket entries, and the state had to file or respond to more than 160 motions in six different courts. Nearly 100 of those required oral arguments.

'Like science fiction:' Seattle startup sends laser-equipped robots to zap weeds on farmland

When vegetable farmer Shay Myers needs to weed 30 acres of organic onions, he’s typically hired a crew of around 30 people for a day of work that can be tedious, including sometimes using pocketknives to carve away weeds around the onions. This season, he hopes to use two robots instead.

Myers is an early user of a Seattle-based robotics company’s “autonomous weeder,” a tractor-sized machine that uses lasers to kill weeds.

The first sight of the machine in a field of crops “was like science fiction,” said Myers, who grows hundreds of acres of onions, asparagus, sweet potatoes and other vegetables in Idaho and Oregon. He expects the machines “should pay for themselves in two or three years.”

Seattle-based Carbon Robotics this week revealed the latest iteration of its 9-foot-long robot designed to weed fields of row crops, replacing human labor or herbicides. With 12 cameras and eight lasers, the machine zaps the unwanted plants at up to 5 miles per hour.

A handful of farms in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have ordered and received the robots, said Carbon Robotics CEO Paul Mikesell. Farmers in California and New Mexico have also placed orders, he said.

Automation has become a growing presence as farmers across the country face an ongoing labor shortage fueled by American immigration policy and other factors.

Over the next decade, the Western Growers Association aims to automate half of the harvest of specialty crops, which include fruits, vegetables and nuts. A Florida company has been developing a strawberry-picking robot. At Washington State University Tri-Cities, scientists are working on an apple-picking robot — an idea some farmworker advocates have met with skepticism.

Edgar Franks, political director at the union Familias Unidas por La Justicia, based in Burlington, said that, generally speaking, the rise of automation is concerning. Farm work is grueling “because of the exploitation of labor,” he said.

“From our point of view, it’s all about labor control and cutting labor costs down. … What’s going to happen to the workers who made the industry so profitable, all of a sudden to be kicked out?” Franks said.

Myers said it has become more difficult to hire people for work like weeding. This year, 80% of the migrant workers he planned to hire on temporary H-2A visas are delayed at the U.S.-Mexico border, he said.

“It’s harder to find people to do that work every single year,” he said.

Mikesell declined to provide an exact cost of the robot, but said its price is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, comparable to the cost of some tractors.

The weeding robot, manufactured in Mukilteo, uses GPS technology to stay within a geofence at the edge of the field. Cameras underneath the robot scan the ground and artificial intelligence identifies the weeds among the crops.

Then a carbon dioxide laser (the same kind used to cut metal) “targets the weeds for destruction,” in the words of the company’s website. The company says the machine can weed 15-20 acres per day.

Developing the machine meant troubleshooting to ensure that the lasers and robot could withstand hot and freezing temperatures, plus rain, dust and lightning — to match the “general ruggedness of farm equipment,” Mikesell said.

Mikesell created the robotics startup after founding the data-

storage company Isilon and later working as director of infrastructure engineering at Uber. Carbon Robotics has raised $8.9 million, Mikesell said.

For better or worse, the robot won’t be available for your backyard garden any time soon.

“That’s a ways off,” Mikesell said. Even at the company’s current level, he said, “we have more requests for machines than we can fulfill.”