The candidates for Cowlitz County Board of Commissioners Position 1 seat had a chance to contrast their stances on county government Sept. 15, though much of the conversation focused on whether or not the challenger’s ties to Woodland and clashes with the county would affect his ability to adequately represent the district up for election.
During a remotely-hosted candidate forum put on by the Woodland Chamber of Commerce, incumbent Arne Mortensen spoke alongside challenger and current Woodland Mayor Will Finn, both Republicans. Though topics discussed included homelessness and the use of technology in a post-COVID world, a number were in regard to Finn’s current positions in elected office and his career as Washington State Patrol Public Information Officer.
Finn said one of his reasons for running was a feeling that Woodland has been ignored by both Cowlitz and Clark counties for decades — the majority of the city lies in Cowlitz County, though a small portion is in Clark, and the city uses the state’s Growth Management Act model for land use like Clark does.
Mortensen said he works “only for Cowlitz County,” saying he does not focus on one municipality. He added his opponent “doesn’t have an understanding of what goes on in the county,” questioning Finn’s own willingness to work with the county.
Finn felt government-to-government relationships at the county were currently broken, noting one of his first priorities was the relationship between Woodland and the county’s building and planning department. He pointed to the city’s attempt to update its comprehensive growth management plan in 2018 when he said that any help from the county was rebuffed, adding that apparent denial continues to this day.
Mortensen said that what Finn had asked of the county previously was in violation of state law, hence the apparent lack of support.
Regarding the rest of the commission, Mortensen said he’s more often than not the “odd man out” on decisions which he said was valuable for the makeup of the board. Finn said his alignment was dependent on the topic at hand, saying he’s been able to work with councilors in Woodland with differences of opinion after years of a schism between mayor and council prior to his tenure.
Finn pointed to his communications background as WSP PIO as being a benefit for leadership as a potential commissioner, saying that being able to listen was an important aspect to the role.
Mortensen called out Finn’s statements on a need for greater transparency in county government, saying he had been transparent “even to the point of embarrassment of those people who wouldn’t like me to be so transparent.” He also refuted Finn’s claims of being a good listener, calling him a “showman” as opposed to a good communicator.
With the COVID-19 pandemic restricting the ability for in-person meetings, candidates were asked how they saw technology coming into play in county business. Mortensen wished to have in-person meetings again, but said some remote integration into public meetings and hearings would be beneficial, adding it would allow for greater anonymity in those testifying.
Finn said that technology could be a benefit as a cost-saving measure by keeping some meetings remote, adding it would allow the county to “think outside the box” in how it operates moving forward.
Candidates were asked about homelessness issues in the county, which Finn said Woodland had been able to tackle through non-governmental agencies like the Woodland Action Center, an organization he said has rose to the challenge.
“I don’t believe that government should be providing social services, but I do believe that a government should be helping to facilitate those conversations,” Finn said, adding he didn’t believe that was currently happening at the county level.
Mortensen said he was more concerned about what the effect on economic stagnation from restrictions in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 would have in the long-term. He said current practices of devoting funding in an attempt to combat the issue only led to a waste of dollars.
“We tax productivity and we subsidize homelessness,” Mortensen remarked.
Finn said he would not step away from his position with the Washington State Patrol if elected, saying that he has already been working the ostensibly part-time Woodland mayoral position full-time and was able to dedicate enough time to the countywide position.
“I don’t believe that elected positions should be (for) somebody that is retired, is independently wealthy or a homemaker in order to serve,” Finn said. He added he did not need any retirement or other benefits from the commissioner position as he has ones provided with his WSP job.
Mortensen said there might be a potential conflict of interest with Finn’s WSP position, which Finn refuted. He gave an example of policing in Woodland run by Chief Jim Kelly, saying he doesn’t micromanage that department’s operations and wouldn’t do so with county law enforcement at the sheriff’s office’s level.
“Unless it’s illegal, it shouldn’t be a concern,” Finn remarked about potential actions as commissioner.