Two candidates squaring off for election to the Clark County Council District 3 seat voiced their positions on recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing a lack of diversity in county government and what they would like to see from a group that could make changes to the county charter during a virtual forum July 8.
As part of the first forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Clark County, Incumbent John Blom, no party preference, faced off against Democratic challenger Jesse James in what was initially supposed to be a three-way forum — though Republican candidate Karen Bowerman had RSVP’d for the event, forum moderator Amy Lodholz said she was not able to attend.
The candidates discussed a number of topics facing county government, beginning with the COVID-19 pandemic. In addressing county revenue shortfalls from effects on the economy, Blom said as soon as the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order was in effect the county put a freeze on new hiring save for critical services and a stop on overtime, which he said had saved “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in the past few months.
Subsequent actions to recoup losses would include putting a hold on capital projects, Blom said, be it fleet replacement or work on county-owned facilities. He said those actions would come with higher costs down the line on maintenance for aging capital facilities, as well as a hit to service levels by not filling positions.
“The challenge is going to be in the years ahead, how do we make up for this?” Blom said, adding in some cases, expenditures paused during the Great Recession were only recently getting caught up.
James agreed that the hiring freeze was a good measure to take, adding that asking for assistance at state and federal levels would be necessary to help alleviate shortfalls.
In the meantime, James said streamlining “pretty much every department in the county” would be necessary to weather the hit, adding it was important not to cut services that county residents depend on.
Outside of the county’s own woes, candidates addressed what council can do to help individuals and businesses recover.
James said that taxes on businesses forced to shut down should be prorated, noting that “if you’re not allowed to run your business, you probably shouldn’t be taxed during those days.” He also suggested coming up with a payment schedule could help businesses in paying what they owe.
Blom said the county needed to continue fighting for CARES Act funding appropriated by Congress that he said was being held up at the state level. He said the county has received less than a third of the roughly $88 million it was approved for.
Blom said county council had approved a $500,000 grant for small businesses, remarking that “we’d like to be able to add a zero to that.”
In other help Blom noted that in some cases such as at the county treasurer’s office bill deadlines had been extended, adding that working with groups such as the Columbia River Economic Development Council to keep businesses aware at what relief was available and pushing for extension of the Paycheck Protection Program were other avenues to take.
Blom and James were asked about diversity in public employment and on county boards, something James advocated should be sought in all aspects of employment in the county, including county government.
“There’s strength in diversity,” James remarked, acknowledging that although he did not have a specific plan for increasing diversity the county could listen to community leaders that “represent underrepresented people,” mentioning the NAACP of Vancouver and the Southwest Washington League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) specifically.
“Maybe this old white guy needs to listen to them and find out what they have for solutions,” James remarked, referring to himself. “I think our council should listen to them.”
“I think this is absolutely an area where the county needs to do better,” Blom said about workforce diversity. He said working toward that end began with recruitment, which he believed was the responsibility of the county to make sure advertisement for available positions was reaching underrepresented groups, be it for employment or serving on boards.
Blom agreed that working with the NAACP and LULAC would help to address diversity issues, adding that focusing on the process of recruitment to find a potential “diamond in the rough” candidate would be a benefit to that end.
“Someone applying for a board, they may not have the traditional background or what we think we’re looking for … but they may have some great experience in another area, and the only reason they don’t have that ideal background is because they’ve never been given that opportunity,” Blom said.
The candidates also addressed possible changes in the criminal justice system, in part spurred on by the death of George Floyd in police custody in May.
James said Clark County needed a crisis intervention program that works, pointing to something like what was implemented in Eugene for decades, which he said handled about a fifth of 911 emergencies instead of police.
“These are teams that can de-escalate issues, and they can help people. They can take care of people that (have) an overdose,” James said.
Blom spoke about the need to listen to other groups, noting that he was a “white, straight, male protestant,” and although had some understanding of systemic racism, “I haven’t lived that experience,” he said.
“We need leaders … in the private sector (and) in the government to first say ‘yes, we do have an issue. We do have a problem, and we’re going to fix it,” Blom said. “For me that starts with listening, but after we listen there’s going to be a time to take action, and I look forward to doing that.”
Charter review and county manager election or appointment
The candidates were also asked about the Charter Review Commission, a 15-member group to be elected this November to make recommendations on changes to Clark County’s charter. The charter was adopted in 2015 and lays out the council-manager form of government for the county, creating councilors out of the former commissioners system.
Blom’s first recommendation was to make councilors a nonpartisan position. Blom, who ran as a Republican in his 2016 win, believes that county issues are not inherently Democratic or Republican.
“I think there’s ideas from both parties that have merit, and we need to bring those together and blend those, listening to all sides to find the solutions that work best for our community,” Blom said.
James said that looking at the potential for ranked-choice voting was something he would like to see, pointing to the financing of campaigns as more of an issue than party affiliation. He also would like to see council’s oversight over itself be addressed, noting an ethics complaint filed against Council Chair Eileen Quiring regarding statements denying systemic racism was an issue in the county.
“Council should not be policing itself when an issue comes up,” James said.
Something the review commission could consider is whether or not the position of county manager, currently appointed and hired by council, should become an elected position.
James said there were positives and negatives on either approach to the position, not voicing a preference for either appointed or elected managers and saying he would leave it up to the review commission to determine if a change was needed.
Blom maintained his belief that the county manager should remain a hired position, pointing to the executive’s position overseeing 1,700 employees and almost half a billion dollars budgeted annually.
“To entrust that to someone whose only qualification is getting enough votes in one singular election for four years, I think puts the county at significant risk,” Blom said. He was in favor of having someone “coming up through the ranks to really understand the county organization” fill that position.
Homelessness and affordable housing
Blom said dealing with the root causes of homelessness was the way to solve the issue, saying the core of the issue was mental health and chemical dependency.
“You can give someone a housing voucher who is struggling with mental health issues and pay for all of their housing expenses, and they still might end up on the street because you haven’t dealt with the issue that got them there,” Blom said.
On affordable housing, Blom said council has worked on potentially incentivising developers to include a portion of income-restricted housing in their projects, similar to a program Vancouver has.
James said the county could get ideas for homelessness solutions from nearby governments, lauding Gresham’s programs as “probably the best in the West Coast.”
On affordable housing, James took issue with county elected officials have been “tied tightly” to real estate and development industries.
“I don’t understand why these (councilors) who are so entrenched in the housing market can’t seem to figure it out,” James remarked.
During closing statements Blom pushed back on issues about his prior professional experience in real estate, saying “that’s not the full picture” when it came to his political career. He said he had support of former Democratic County Commissioners Betty Sue Morris and Craig Pridemore, as well as Republican State Sen. Ann Rivers.
“This is a broad coalition in our community that recognizes the work that I’ve done over the last four years,” Blom said.