Early-morning fog loiters beneath the snow-smothered mountains that loom above the Skykomish Valley hamlet of Gold Bar. Soon it will lift and vanish, and the>"/>
Early-morning fog loiters beneath the snow-smothered mountains that loom above the Skykomish Valley hamlet of Gold Bar. Soon it will lift and vanish, and the ashen skies will turn wintry blue. On a peaceful mid-December morn, the town Christmas tree is going up beneath the green-roofed gazebo kitty-corner from the faux–log cabin city hall. Breakfast lights begin to flicker on inside old yellowy farm houses with wraparound porches. The pizza cook at Rico's flaps his arms to beat back the chill as he arrives to prepare for his lunchtime shift.
Down the road, a clutch of pensioners wearing baseball caps from their days as truckers are nursing bottomless cups of coffee at the Mountain View Diner, whose walls are cluttered with cheaply framed covers of The Saturday Evening Post. It is an ironic decor choice, for this restless burg scattered along a mile-long stretch of Highway 2 is nothing like the contented slices of Americana depicted in Norman Rockwell's illustrations.
Gold Bar, pop. 2,071, is one quarrelsome place.
Spreading mean-spirited gossip is a blood sport here, but Gold Bar's frictions go well beyond that. Residents and elected officials openly slander one another. The former mayor, Crystal Hill, has been called an "adulteress." The town's feisty and much-feared watchdog, Anne Block, has in her cantankerous Gold Bar Reporter blog compared this Cascade foothills community to "a religious fundamentalist town in Iran," and has referred to local officials as "evil people," "promiscuous," and "wife-beaters." An ex-city councilman allegedly called Block a "Jewish bitch," a crudity repeated often by Block's detractors. Moreover, longtime resident Dorothy Croshaw says Block's "a wacko," and a rival online publication, the Sky Valley Chronicle, has written that she's "a few French fries short of a happy meal."
"I don't know why people keep saying I have mental-health issues," says Block, "because I don't, and I never have."
"The gods must have it in for Gold Bar," observes city councilwoman Elizabeth LaZella, who likens this brawling backwater to a "Harper Valley PTA." It is a town, she adds, straight out of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Chuck Lie, who served on the city council in 2010 and 2011, offers a more refined assessment: "I used to e-mail Mayor Joe Beavers after leaving a council meeting, and I'd write, 'Well, Joe, another Fellini-esque evening.' "
Indeed, the squirrels hide their nuts in Gold Bar. With a well-earned reputation for savage commentary, the Sky Valley Chronicle summed up the town's surly sensibilities in a July 2012 article entitled "Goin' Down in Gold Bar":
"For several years, ever since the contentious Crystal Hill-as-mayor days in Gold Bar, there's been a strange, dark, cancerous mass of venomous antimatter bubbling up in the weird undertow of Gold Bar's civic life. There are those in Gold Bar—seemingly perpetually angry people who drool snake venom on cue who aren't satisfied unless they're launching lawsuits or banging out so many public-records requests that it costs Gold Bar tens of thousands of dollars it does not have—that seem to just love that foaming-at-the-mouth, Mel Gibson-as-Antichrist approach to civic life and politics."
Snake venom aside, Gold Bar is in turmoil. Consider:
• With an annual operating budget of just over $525,000, the town is barreling toward bankruptcy, and may have to decide soon whether relinquishing its status as an independent municipality is its only option. Why? From having to foot crushing legal bills, estimated at between $350,000 and $400,000 over the past three years, to fend off six lawsuits, six petitions to recall elected officials, and three complaints with the state Public Disclosure Commission. All have been brought by Block and her two compatriots, Susan Forbes and Joan Amenn. (At this time, all suits, petitions, and complaints have either been dismissed or are pending.)
• Since 2009, more than 400 public-disclosure requests, seeking thousands of e-mails penned by city officials, also have been brought by Block and her cohorts, all of whom are convinced that the city is hiding correspondence to cover up past scandals.
• In November, Gold Bar voters overwhelmingly rejected a tax levy, by a nearly 60-to-40 margin, that would have covered its legal bills for one year. Homeowners were asked to pay an extra $11 per month on their property tax bill.
• Last summer, city treasurer Laura Kelly resigned after a hidden camera caught her allegedly stuffing $395 into envelopes. Kelly told a sheriff's office deputy that she had borrowed the money to pay a personal bill and was returning it.
• On top of all this, riled residents still cluck like mad hens about the water inspector who was canned, nearly four years ago, for using his city-issued gas card for personal use and for allegedly tampering with the city's wells. He proceeded to walk away with a $10,000 settlement after he sued for wrongful termination.
Then there's the strange saga of the $450,000 missing from city coffers. On Oct. 9, 2012, Oregon City police arrested Christopher McKelvey, 26, and Heather Otnes, 28, in an Oregon City shopping mall parking lot. They found meth and other drugs in their car, and both had outstanding warrants for identity theft, recounts Oregon City police spokesman Lt. Jim Band. Later that day, police received what proved to be a serendipitous call from the Rivershore Hotel, where the pair had stayed the night before—presumably enjoying more than the view of the Willamette River.
The duo left behind various drug paraphernalia. When police arrived, they discovered various bank receipts and other financial records, which would eventually lead to the realization that over several months, $450,000 had been systematically hacked from Gold Bar's Bank of America account in Sultan. More than half the money has been recovered. The two have not been formally charged, and an FBI investigation continues, says Band.
Yet much of Gold Bar's tumult involves overblown transgressions, petty slights, and jealousies, rather than the specter of bankruptcy, the hacking scam, or even potential extinction. To more deeply understand it, one might turn to a poem, "The Shoelace," which Charles Bukowski published in 1972:
"Death he's ready for, or murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood . . . No, it's the continuing series of small tragedies that send a man to the madhouse . . . not the death of his love but a shoelace that snaps with no time left."
In Gold Bar, the shoelace that snapped was an e-mail then-Mayor Crystal Hill fired off to Anne Block in 2008 after Block demanded that Hill stop bringing her two young children to council meetings.
Block, who is hard of hearing, said the kids were unruly and that she couldn't make out what was being said. "They were bouncing off the walls," remembers Block, "just beating the crap out of each other." In a sternly written missive, she implored Hill to get a babysitter and stop asking the city clerk to check on them. Things escalated, with each woman accusing the other of being neglectful mothers. On it went.
Then, remembers Mayor Beavers (a councilman at the time), the game-changing e-mail was dispatched.
"You are pathetic," wrote a fed-up Hill to Block, followed by the coup de grâce, "Fuck you."
"That," says Beavers, "was a very, very costly e-mail."
The bar at Prospector's Steak & Ale is not a place people come to get sloshed. Rather, amid the warm wash of conversation, locals belly up on weathered stools to chat about the passing day.
On a late December afternoon, as the sun dips below the mountains, the half-empty watering hole falls suddenly silent when a reporter nursing a soft drink inquires about Anne Block. Startled, the bartender asks, "Sir, are you sure you don't want anything stronger than that? Maybe a Black Velvet?
"Everyone is afraid of her," the barkeep continues. "I've never seen her, but people have come in here with her picture, and I say, 'I don't want to know her.' All I know is she takes real pleasure in destroying the city—all because of someone who is not even the mayor anymore."
"Crystal Hill, you mean?" asks the reporter.
"Yes, and you cannot use my name, do you understand? I do not want to get involved in this."
At the Haircut Store, 79-year-old barber Mike Moore has been shearing heads since he opened the shop on Highway 2 back in 1961. "I know the city does a lot of goofy things, but they ought to just give her [Anne Block] what she's asking for and get it over with," says Moore. "Anne's been groping for things that took place back when Crystal was mayor. It's all pretty goofy. I'll be surprised if Joe [Beavers] doesn't have a nervous breakdown."
Nearby, Chris Andres, owner of Christy's Salon, says of Block: "She's been to court on these suits, and she keeps losing—and it's no cost to her, but the city has to pick up the tab. You know, 40 years ago, we'd have run her out of town."
Not everyone shares this antipathy for the irrepressible Block. A number of residents applaud her as a conscientious citizen activist who is holding city officials' feet to the fire. Still, they are wary of crediting her watchdog activities, at least on the record.
In line at the Gold Bar Market, a local, asking to be identified only as Kevin, says, "This place has got a lot of weird secrets and she's digging into them, which is good." His companion, a stocky man with both arms tattooed from wrist to shoulder, agrees: "Yeah, Gold Bar needs to have someone out there sticking it to these guys."
Gold Bar's rancorous history dates to its very beginnings. The town sprang to life in the late 19th century as a prospectors' camp where, legend has it, a miner named Boyce found shimmering specks of gold on a Skykomish River gravel bar—and the town's name was born.
In the early 1890s, as a bustling bivouac for the Great Northern Railway, anti- Chinese sentiments grew so heated that at one point—after a shooting incident inflamed already-simmering tensions between white workers and dollar-a-day "coolie" laborers—a construction engineer is said to have slipped some Chinese out of town in quickly constructed coffins to save their lives.
Throughout its existence, Gold Bar has lurched from good times to bad, the bad seemingly plucked from an installment of A Series of Unfortunate Events. In the 1920s, the Great Northern moved its roundhouse to Skykomish and the Gold Bar Lumber Company mill closed. Around that time, devastating fires destroyed the Croft Hotel at the corner of First and Railroad Avenues, and many surrounding homes and businesses went up in smoke. In 1933, the high school closed for lack of students; Gold Bar's kids have gone to Sultan High ever since. And in the 1950s, trains stopped using the depot.
Over the past couple of decades, however, the town has prospered due to a number of young families who've moved to Gold Bar to enjoy its rugged, wide-open beauty and experience small-town living—though local jobs are as rare as the shiny speck of gold the miner Boyce spotted on the Sky River gravel bar. Most working-age residents commute: On weekday mornings, Highway 2 is thick with motorists heading to Monroe and the big cities beyond.
"We love our little town," concludes the anxious bartender at Prospector's. "Believe it or not, we used to be pretty normal. You know, with people pretty much going about their business."
That is, until Block came to town.
Anne Block blew into Gold Bar like a hot wind in 2006, and this madcap Mayberry hasn't been the same since.
A fast-talking, tightly wound woman with pale blue eyes and a bright current of blonde hair, Block grew up in Massachusetts, the child of a libertarian Jewish postal worker and a Catholic mother, a committed Green Party member. "And I am an atheist, and proud of it," says the 45-year-old Block.
On a gray, drizzly morning earlier this month, Block could be found at her Old Town Monroe law office. Just back from Florida, she's dressed in post-vacation casual attire: jeans and a black "St. Pete Beach" sweatshirt. Pictures of her grown daughter adorn the white stucco walls. On her desk is a Maria Cantwell campaign button and a "Women for Obama" sticker.
A self-described "old lefty," Block recalls childhood Christmas mornings spent feeding the poor; doorbelling for Ted Kennedy during his 1976 Senate re-election campaign; the frequent dinnertime discourse that invariably turned to politics. "My parents taught me that you could be more effective on the outside than on the inside."
In her final year at Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., Block decided to fly to Seattle, along with her partner, Noel Frederick.
"We're outdoor enthusiasts, and so we came west to hike. We went to the Cascades and Mount Rainier, where I remember Noel saying one day on the mountain, 'This is paradise. This is where I want to be.' "
It was a particularly enchanting hike into Wallace Falls State Park that led them at last to purchase a home in a Gold Bar subdivision with a clear mountain view and a backyard hot tub. For a while they both commuted to Seattle—Block to a job as a claims adjuster for the U.S. Department of Labor, Frederick to an engineering firm. Soon Frederick got involved in Gold Bar's civic affairs, regularly attending council meetings and volunteering to serve on the city's planning commission.
"He started to not trust Crystal. There were constant lies," recounts Block. "I remember once she said she had dinner with the governor, and she hadn't."
Block, too, began to take an active interest in Gold Bar politics, and after opening an employment-law practice in nearby Monroe, started going to meetings.
She agrees that the babysitting row with Hill was a real bone of contention, and that the mayor's "Fuck you" e-mail was the match that lit the fire. But "the clincher," she says, came when word spread that Mayor Hill had fired water inspector Karl Majerle for, in Block's words, "sabotaging our water supply."
On July 31, 2008, Hill sent Majerle a notice of termination, informing him that he "had used his petro credit card for personal use" and that he'd "deliberately disabled the City's water system" by turning off "every valve [and] electronic component . . . for the main water well."
Then-councilmember Lie says it took three days to get the water flowing normally again. Though no one was without water, Lie says the reservoir grew dangerously low—not a fortuitous happening during fire season.
Block, meanwhile, says Hill should have reported the water-well tampering to police. Block also claimed, and still does, that Hill was having an affair with Majerle, and that it was Hill who, "behind closed doors," recommended that the city pay him off after she fired him in order to conceal their sexual relationship.
"That's just crazy," counters Hill. "You know, she's threatened to publish that I have STDs if I don't admit to her claims about this affair."
"A complete fabrication," confirms Beavers.
Whatever the case, it was the water-well incident—and Block's lingering disdain for Hill—that triggered her almost-fanatical public-disclosure onslaught. In the aftermath of Majerle's firing, Block sought access to every e-mail Hill and the water inspector had exchanged. Since then, Block has accused Hill of everything from illicit affairs to extortion to hiding public records—all of which has found its way into the Gold Bar Reporter, the website she began in August 2009 because she believed the town had become a hotbed of corruption.
Particularly galling to Block was the $10,000 settlement Majerle received. "He was fired for cause, and yet the city paid him off because that's what Crystal wanted," says Block.
Counters Hill: "Yes, Karl was fired for cause, but when he filed suit against the city for wrongful termination, we decided, rather than have a costly legal battle, to pay out his severance package, which was around $10,000. We paid $5,000 and our insurance paid $5,000." (Majerle did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.)
Continues Block: "Her personal business is one thing, but when she's using public money to cover up her affair with Karl, that's another thing. I just wanted Hill to release the records, that's all. And now I want Joe Beavers to stop withholding records. I want full transparency and open government, and you don't have that in Gold Bar."
Of Beavers, Block says, "I think he's mentally ill."
Asked whether people should be scared of her, Block replies, "No, they should not be scared—not physically, anyway. I am not stopping until the city stops its blatant disregard for public-disclosure laws."
The Gold Bar Reporter is a no-holds-barred account of what goes on at City Hall. Many of its posts update residents on what progress, if any, Block is making in getting the city to comply with her public-disclosure requests.
Mayor Beavers says the blog is a disruptive force. Still, it has unearthed some compelling news, most spectacularly last September during the re-election campaign of Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon. In a post titled "Reardon's deck of cards loaded with jokers and criminals," Block accused Reardon of using taxpayer money for a trip "with his mistress, a former Snohomish County employee."
A month later, the employee, a well-tanned bodybuilder named Tamara Dutton, came forward to admit that she had in fact romped about the country with Reardon, and was intimately involved with the county's top gun. Reardon spokesman Christopher Schwarzen said the county executive would have no comment about the current chaos in Gold Bar—or about Anne Block.
Block filed a recall petition against Reardon in June 2012, accusing him of breaking state campaign laws by using public money for fundraising and lobbying during his 2011 re-election effort. She continues the recall push, despite a setback on Aug. 8, 2012, when a Skagit County judge dismissed the case on a technicality, saying her petition was flawed because Block had failed to sign paperwork under oath alleging that Reardon had engaged in misconduct.
Meanwhile, Block says her life has been threatened and that dead animals have been left near her doorstep. That's one reason she no longer attends council meetings. She also claims she's been subjected to illegal background checks by John Pennington, the director of Snohomish County's Department of Emergency Management, who married Crystal Hill several years ago.
To that end, Block has asked Snohomish County, under the Public Records Act, for all e-mails sent or received by Pennington which have been directed to city officials in Gold Bar or have mentioned Block's name.
"We've furnished her thousands of e-mails," says Jason Cummings, Snohomish County's chief civil deputy attorney, "but she continues to believe there are more."
As for the threats, Block elaborates, "I've been told to watch my back, and that if I don't stop filing these public-records requests that 'I'd better pack up and move.' One time I came out to find on my steps a rat with its head cut off."
Her Gold Bar Reporter partner and friend Susan Forbes, who makes a point of taping all council meetings and posting them on YouTube, says it is grossly unfair that Block has become the town pariah. "I don't know what they're trying to hide, but it has become outright hateful. People are calling her a lunatic, and all she wants is full public disclosure," says Forbes, who has twice run unsuccessfully for city council.
"I'm not the most liked person in this town, either," Forbes goes on. "I don't answer the phone anymore if I don't know who it is."
Then, in a whisper, Forbes says, "A lot of this, you know, started with Crystal."
It is extraordinary, the amount of time and energy that has been devoted to Crystal Hill. A onetime single mom who eked out a living as a part-time paralegal, she's long gone from Gold Bar, having moved to Duvall after resigning her $300-a-month mayoral position. Still, three-and-a-half years removed, Hill remains a lightning rod.
An attractive, dark-haired woman, Hill was barely 25 when she was elected mayor in 2006—by four votes. "This was the biggest thing that ever happened in her life," Noel Frederick says scornfully. "She got involved with all these boards and commissions, but she was incompetent. She was very Palinesque."
"She stirred up a lot of controversy," fumes Councilmember LaZella, nearly spitting out her words at her Gold Bar home, located on a comely country lane and surrounded by a rock wall. Asked for specifics, she eagerly claims, "Well, she went to Bubba's [Roadhouse] in Sultan and got drunk and was flashing her boobs. Yeah, she was an all-round bad mayor. She was always screaming at people." During the interview, her husband tries several times to interject with additional detail, but each time LaZella yells, "Shut up, Mike! He's not talking to you. I'm on the council, you're not."
At a Starbucks in Kirkland, where Chuck Lie works as a geologist, the nine-year Gold Bar resident says of Hill, "She was real attractive, real flirtatious. Joe Beavers once told me that when she walked into a meeting where Aaron Reardon was at, that Reardon popped a woody." ("I don't know how to answer that question," responds Brian Parry, a top aide to Reardon, when asked about the alleged erection. "Do you have any other questions?")
Block has no use for Reardon, and even less for Hill. In the Gold Bar Reporter on Nov. 23, 2008, under the headline "Crystal Hill Pennington BEWARE!!!", Block wrote, "Over the last three years we've read thousands of e-mail records which confirm that Crystal Hill and Sno Co Director were e-mailing 'mug shots.' . . . Two words that describe Crystal Hill Pennington: liar and deceptive."
John Pennington declined comment when reached at his office at Snohomish County Emergency Management. But then, referring to Block, he volunteered, "We've been through hell with this woman. We want her out of our lives. This woman scares us. She scares me."
Block recently hired private investigator Neil Harrison, of P.S.I. Investigations, who says he's tasked with finding out if Hill, while mayor, was having an affair with Majerle, the water inspector. Prior to that, in July 2009—five months before her term was to expire—an overwrought Hill abruptly resigned her post as Gold Bar's mayor, citing relentless harassment via the Internet from an unknown person.
That person, Hill now says, is Anne Block.
"But really," she adds, "I can't talk about it any longer. I'm done with all that."
Diving into his taco salad at La Hacienda, Beavers, Gold Bar's snowy-haired mayor, is unapologetic about not turning over every e-mail Block and her fellow bloggers have asked for.
"It is not the role of the city to peek into people's bedrooms," begins the 69-year-old Beavers, a smooth-talking Texas transplant and retired mechanical engineer who moved to Gold Bar in 2006. "This is all about destroying Crystal Hill. It's a personal vendetta, nothing more. She keeps looking for more e-mails between Crystal and Karl, and they don't exist."
Beavers says he's already turned over more than 27,000 e-mails that Block & co. have demanded, but he's holding back on releasing additional messages, which he estimates number about 3,000. They are off limits, he argues, because they're personal and do not pertain to government business.
Flicking crumbs from his red fleece jacket, Beavers says the city will survive the final days of December, but 2013 looks bleak. "Our reserves are gone, and our property-tax revenues [which equal 35 percent of the town's operating budget] are way down," he says.
As for the missing $450,000, Beavers says the money began to disappear in small amounts in the middle of last May, and that no one in the city noticed the data breach until sometime in July. The good news, he adds, is that nearly $283,000 has been recovered.
Beavers glowers when he speaks of Block. "To shit in your own nest the way she has is outrageous," he grouses. "If we go bankrupt, it will mean less police protection that we'll be able to afford from Snohomish County."
Then, with the sort of bombastic overstatement commonplace in Gold Bar, the mayor adds, "They [Block and her two blogging companions] are on a path of destruction that will make Gold Bar a haven for meth houses and pedophiles."
Finishing his lunch, Beavers confides, "You know, Gold Bar has a history of eating its mayors. We had one who called it the worst year of her life, and another one who had someone threaten to shoot her."
Dorothy Croshaw, who knows the lay of the land as well as anyone, understands Beavers' pessimism. "You couldn't pay me enough money to be mayor of this town," she says over coffee at the Mountain View Diner. She moved to Gold Bar "as a new bride" in the early 1960s, back when the town boasted just 500 residents. Now 81, Croshaw spent 12 years as a councilmember, and for the past year has served as a volunteer on Gold Bar's finance committee. Hence, she knows firsthand the town's financial woes.
"We are a year away from complete bankruptcy, and Anne is bankrupting this city. These suits are killing us, and she knows it, and the only winners are the attorneys," opines Croshaw. "Citizens are sick of it. They don't even show up at the meetings anymore. And Anne, of course, never shows up, because someone would kill her. So she sends the others [Forbes and Amenn]. These women have way too much free time, I'll tell you that."
One evening last October, councilman Chris Wright announced his resignation from the council just minutes into the meeting. He broke the news "to audible gasps from the audience," reported The Monroe Monitor. After taking a seat in the chamber, Wright asked to make a comment now that he was just a citizen. Wrote Monitor editor Polly Keary: "He then demanded that three people who have been intensely critical of the city as well as accusatory toward him desist."
Wright was referring to the Gold Bar Reporter's dredged-up accounts of a misdemeanor domestic-violence offense in May 2006 of which he was found guilty. (The Everett Herald mentioned it along with a DUI and another misdemeanor assault charge from 1993 in a story published Oct. 22, 2009, when Wright was running for the Gold Bar city council against Forbes.)
"I ask Joan [Ammen], Anne [Block], and Susan [Forbes] to leave my family alone," he said at the meeting. "If people talk bad about me, I will take action . . . As of today, the rules change a little bit."
Wright is aware that he's been fingered as the architect of the "Jewish bitch" slur aimed at Block, a charge he vigorously denies. "That is untrue. I have never said that. My mom is Jewish," says Wright.
Still, he has nothing but disdain for Block. "Watch out for her—she will come at you with daggers," he says. "She's off her rocker." Then he adds, "I believe every citizen has the right to make a public-records request, but there comes a point when you are abusing that right." As for his criminal record, Wright explains, "Yeah, I made some mistakes when I was younger, but I never, ever struck a woman . . . I'm happily married now."
Wright's council seat, meanwhile, remains vacant. "No one wants to be on the [five-member] council anymore. No one," says Croshaw.
As for Block, the blistering criticisms and insults she's endured for years have left her with thicker skin, but also reservations and doubts. Asked if she intends to stay on in Gold Bar in light of everything, she replies, "That's a good question."
It's a question that disillusioned ex- councilman Lie has also pondered.
"When we moved here in 2003," he recalls, "we were advised not to buy because people here are constantly bickering and suing each other. It turned out that advice was right on the mark."