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Local
Greater Twin Falls Area Transportation committee reorganizes, returns to future projects

TWIN FALLS — A group that pitched the idea of a 60-mph truck route around the southeast perimeter of town has reorganized and incorporated as a nonprofit.

The Greater Twin Falls Area Transportation Committee, an old group made up of county and city officials, engineers, truckers, highway district managers and other volunteers, is now out from under the Twin Falls County umbrella, says Ivan McCracken, an engineer with J-U-B Engineers Inc.

The committee formed some 25 years ago as an advisory group to “coordinate efforts and share resources,” said McCracken, who volunteers as the committee’s secretary.

The original entity was sponsored by Twin Falls, but its operation eventually fell under Twin Falls County’s control, Commissioner Don Hall said Friday. As a Twin Falls city councilman some time ago, Hall was the city’s liaison to the group.

For the most part, the group operated under the public radar, but not knowingly, Hall said.

“Frankly, the county didn’t know the group was a government entity and neither did the group,” he said. “As someone who has served on it off and on for 13 years, I never sensed any lack of transparency. Nothing was ever hidden or secretive.”

But when the group went public with a plan for a truck route through Twin Falls’ southeast corridor, residents along the proposed routes objected, and questioned the group’s operation. Jill Skeem, who lives with her husband, Tom, on 3300 East, contacted the Twin Falls County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office about the group.

It turned out the committee had likely been breaking the law by not posting public notices of its meetings. In addition, it had been so long since the group formed, no one could remember who had brought the group together all those years ago.

“Then we started wondering, ‘Why are we even under the county?’” Hall said. Legal counsel advised the county get out of the arrangement.

That’s all water under the bridge now, McCracken said. The group has since incorporated and has vowed to remain transparent and involve the community in its discussions.

Its role is strictly advisory; the group has no authority to spend money, levy taxes or make decisions, he said. What it can do, though, is make recommendations to Idaho Department of Transportation.

An ITD liaison attends meetings, but has no vote, ITD spokesman Nathan Jerke said.

The alternate truck routes first proposed by the committee have been tabled, McCracken said.

“I think they are doing a better job of engaging the community,” Hall said. “And that’s a good thing. Instead of Boise deciding what will happen here, it gives us that local influence.”

The committee is now modeled after the Mini-Cassia Transportation Committee.

“We took their by-laws and simplified them,” McCracken said. Gerald Martens is chairman of the group and Aaron Wert is vice chairman.

Commissioner Jack Johnson is the county’s liaison to the group.

Proposed projects

“It’s really a cooperative committee,” McCracken said. Stakeholders such as highway districts or small towns can bring their projects to the table for the group to brainstorm funding options.

The committee has ranked various road projects by priority, including one to rebuild Washington Street, Minidoka Avenue and Sixth Avenue West to reroute U.S. 30 off of the Second avenues, and another to expand Pole Line Road and Eastland Drive from Blue Lakes Boulevard to Candleridge Drive in Twin Falls. Also, Burley Avenue in Buhl and 1900 East north of Filer need work, he said.

Long-term goals could include a third bridge over the Snake River Canyon, which would reroute through-traffic from Filer to Jerome to relieve the bottleneck at the I.B. Perrine Memorial Bridge. Meanwhile, the existing bridge could be redrawn to include three lanes each direction.

“How close are we to needing another bridge? We could use it right now,” McCracken said. “How long can we go without replacing it? Another 40 years.”


Education
Coping with a mental illness or everyday stresses: Twin Falls High students help peers

TWIN FALLS — Stress is a near-universal feeling for high schoolers. And often, students are dealing with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues along with the normal stresses of being a teenager.

But Lauren Parker, Twin Falls High School’s student body vice president, noticed mental health wasn’t often discussed at school.

The 17-year-old, who’s interested in brain sciences, wanted to see that change. She felt a dialogue was needed.

“It’s not really talked about in schools very much,” she said.

Over the summer, Lauren came up with an idea: Student council should organize an assembly about coping with mental illness and everyday stresses. Once school started, Lauren met once a week with Krystal Koelling, student assistant specialist at Twin Falls High, to plan the event. Finally, after four months of work, student council led an assembly Monday for the student body.

Now, the student council hopes a leadership team at the school — including students and teachers — will meet quarterly to help students who are struggling and to bring up topics such as mental health.

To prepare for the assembly, student leaders created a survey, which their peers filled out during advisory class. Results show 35 percent of students reported having a mental illness and 25 percent have been diagnosed. And 40 percent of students report occasionally feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

The student council’s technology coordinator, 18-year-old Jacob Buscher, created a database of the survey results to make correlations between data points. Results were also shared with school administrators.

During Monday’s assembly, seven community speakers with expertise in areas such as nutrition, fitness, art, music and social work shared coping mechanisms with students.

“It wasn’t just an awareness presentation,” Jacob said, but focused on how to cope.

Advice extended beyond exercising and eating healthfully, such as how art can be helpful. That resonated with a lot of students, Jacob said.

Lauren said she has been frustrated in the past when advice focuses on just one aspect of coping, such as positive thinking. With a variety of guest speakers and advice, she said, students can try what works best for them.

Everyone could find a speaker they relate to, 17-year-old student body president Lucy Murphy said.

After the assembly, the student council started hearing feedback from their peers. “I heard a lot of good things from everybody, which isn’t always the case,” Jacob said.

Koelling typically sees an influx of students in her office after a guest speaker comes and brings up emotions teenagers were trying to hide. But that didn’t happen after Monday’s assembly. Instead, students were excited about having ways to cope, she said, and it was an “uplifting and positive” assembly.

The general consensus among students, Koelling said, was “it’s nice there are other people in school who are dealing with what I am.”


State
AP
Flu widespread across US for third straight week

NEW YORK — Sick with the flu? You’ve got a lot of company.

The flu blanketed the U.S. again last week for the third straight week. Only Hawaii has been spared.

Last week, 1 in 15 doctor visits were for symptoms of the flu. That’s the highest level since the swine flu pandemic in 2009. The government doesn’t track every flu case but comes up with estimates; one measure is how many people seek medical care for fever, cough, aches and other flu symptoms.

Flu is widespread in every state except Hawaii, with 39 states reporting high traffic to doctors last week, up from 32.

At this rate, by the end of the season somewhere around 34 million Americans will have gotten sick from the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

Some good news: Hospital stays and deaths from the flu among the elderly so far haven’t been as high as in some other recent flu seasons. However, hospitalization rates for people 50 to 64 — baby boomers, mostly — has been unusually high, CDC officials said in the report, which covers the week ending Jan. 20.

A New York pediatrician said her office has been busy but the kids with the flu haven’t been quite as sick as in the past.

“For most of them, their symptoms are milder,” said Dr. Tiffany Knipe.

This year’s flu shot targets the strains that are making Americans sick, mostly the H3N2 flu virus. But exactly how well it is working won’t be known until next month. It’s the same main bug from last winter, when the flu season wasn’t so bad. It’s not clear why this season — with the same bug — is worse, some experts said.

“That’s the kicker. This virus really doesn’t look that different from what we saw last year,” said Richard Webby, a flu researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

It may be that many of the people getting sick this year managed to avoid infection last year. Or there may be some change in the virus that hasn’t been detected yet, said the CDC’s Dr. Dan Jernigan, in a call with reporters Friday.

Based on patterns from past seasons, it’s likely the flu season will start to wane soon, experts say. There are some places, like California, where the season already seems to be easing, CDC officials said.

“If I was a betting man, I’d put money on it going down,” Webby said. “But I’ve lost money on bets before.”

The season usually peaks in February, but this season started early and took off in December.

Flu is a contagious respiratory illness. It can cause a miserable but relatively mild illness in many people, but more a more severe illness in others. Young children and the elderly are at greatest risk from flu and its complications. In a bad season, there are as many as 56,000 deaths connected to the flu.

In the U.S., annual flu shots are recommended for everyone age 6 months or older. Last season, about 47 percent of Americans got vaccinated, according to CDC figures.

Jennifer Manton didn’t get a flu shot and got sick about two weeks ago, hit by high fever and body aches. She missed two days of work at a New York law firm, and felt bad for about 10 days.

“I had not had the flu since 1996,” said the 48-year-old Manton. “It’s been 22 years since I felt that badly.”


If you do one thing

If you do one thing: Freeze Frame dance performances will be featured at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. in the College of Southern Idaho Fine Arts Auditorium in Twin Falls. Tickets: $8 for ages 12 and older, $4 for senior citizens and children 3-11, or $14 for both shows.


DREW NASH, TIMES-NEWS 

Canyon Ridge's Luke Teske puts up a shot against Twin Falls during their Great Basin Conference game Friday night at Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls.


Washington
AP
Trump pushes back on report he tried to fire Mueller

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump pushed back Friday against reports that he ordered White House lawyer Don McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last June.

“Fake news, folks. Fake news. Typical New York Times fake stories,” Trump retorted dismissively when asked about it by reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The reports, first by the Times and then others, said Trump backed off on his attempt to fire the man who is investigating him, his election campaign’s Russian contacts and his firings of FBI Director James Comey and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — but only after lawyer McGahn refused to relay his directive to the Justice Department and threatened to quit if Trump pressed the issue.

In Washington, Mueller’s team was still on the job Friday, investigating the president and his 2016 election campaign.

After the news came out Thursday night, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia quickly accused Trump of crossing “a red line” that should be met forcibly by lawmakers to protect the Constitution. Warner is the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. But Republicans were quick to dismiss the report, pointing out that Mueller had not actually been fired.

Some legal experts noted that presidents, like anyone else, can say things they don’t mean when angry. At the same time, others saw the alleged Trump order as part of a pattern of obstruction that could be pressed by Mueller, disrupting or even dooming Trump’s presidency.

Jacob Frenkel, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor, said defense lawyers would argue that the conversation with McGahn “was an expression of frustration and irritation, not an intended personnel action.”

A statement alone, without follow-up action, can be subject to different explanations and allow for reasonable doubt as to the intent, he indicated.

“It may not be the conclusion that people want to reach, but sitting back and looking at it objectively, the fact that there was no firing means there was no obstruction,” Frenkel said.

Andrew Leipold, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, concurred.

“People say all sorts of things that they’re going to do, and then they calm down and they think better of it and they get talked out of it,” he said. “Some of this may just be no more than the president — as all presidents have done — racing their engines about things.”

That said, this latest revelation isn’t the only example of presidential action that could be seen as an attempt to interfere with an investigation of Trump and his campaign. Another is the firing Comey as FBI director last May. Mueller was appointed special counsel by Rod Rosenstein, the acting attorney general after Jeff Sessions stepped aside because of his own close involvement with the Trump campaign.

“It is easy to see where this would be an element or component to consider as part of an obstruction mosaic,” Frenkel said.

It could have no bearing on the investigation at all.

Or it could be part of an obstruction case against Trump or others.

But that raises a perennial constitutional question: Can the president be charged in criminal court? Some in the legal field say yes. More say no, the only recourse is impeachment by Congress.

Meanwhile, despite the sensational nature of the Times report, there is likely little that Mueller doesn’t already know about events in the White House. More than 20 White House employees have given interviews to the special counsel’s investigation into possible obstruction and Trump campaign ties to Russian election interference.

John Dowd, one of Trump’s attorneys, said the White House, in what he called an “unprecedented” display of cooperation with Mueller’s investigation, has turned over more than 20,000 pages of records. The president’s 2016 campaign has turned over more than 1.4 million pages.

The number of voluntary interviews includes eight people from the White House counsel’s office.

An additional 28 people affiliated with the Trump campaign have been interviewed by either the special counsel or congressional committees probing Russian election meddling.

So, what about political fallout?

Trump’s national approval numbers are low, but his conservative base has kept up its solid support through all the criticism he has come under in his first year as president. Why would this be any different?

In Congress, Democrats have been quick to exploit the report. Warner called Trump’s actions “a gross abuse of power.” However, Republicans noted that the purported order came long ago and before Trump surrounded himself with new lawyers. Since then, his public demeanor toward Mueller has changed.

Nonetheless, Senate Republicans were worried last summer, and GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham and Thom Tillis introduced legislation that would protect the special counsel. But that hasn’t gone anywhere.

Trump has softened his public criticism of Mueller, White House officials say over and over that he has nothing to hide, and his lawyers have signaled they are cooperating, too.

Mueller’s investigators hope to interview Trump soon.

This week, the president declared he was eager to do it — and under oath.

“I’m looking forward to it, actually,” Trump said when asked by reporters. As for timing, he said, “I guess they’re talking about two or three weeks, but I’d love to do it.”

His lawyers walked that back a bit. No interview has been agreed to, all sides agreed.

The story of Trump’s alleged effort to sack Mueller added just one more question.


Local
Carl's Jr. nearly ready to begin construction on Blue Lakes Boulevard

TWIN FALLS — The developer of property at Blue Lakes Boulevard and Heyburn Avenue says Carl’s Jr. will open sometime this year.

On Monday, the City Council will consider two ordinances that will allow the development to move forward with permits. Construction plans are complete, owner and developer Kevin Mortensen said.

Some demolition has taken place already to make way for the Carl’s Jr. More buildings will be demolished probably later in the year to make way for retail along Blue Lakes Boulevard.

One ordinance Monday will vacate a sewer easement on the property, Twin Falls Zoning and Development Manager Renee Carraway-Johnson said. The developer will then reroute the sewer line. Another ordinance vacates the right-of-way on a portion of Ash Street.

“This particular owner was very meticulous about making sure everything was done correctly,” she said. “This was one of the final steps to get it to go forward.”

Three retail buildings are planned for eventual construction on property south of the restaurant.