One of three La Center City Council races has five candidates vying for a now-vacated seat, with the future of law enforcement in the city and its use of contracted consultants among hot-topic issues among the contenders.
During a remote candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Clark County, all five candidates for La Center City Council Position 1 stated their cases for election. All of the candidates are new to La Center government, as then-councilor Doug Boff did not file for re-election, and announced his resignation effective July 15.
The candidates were asked questions ranging from the city’s growth to racial equity. But the potential for the city to disband its police department and contract with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office for police services, and the use of city funds for consultant services and renovation of a former telecommunications provider dominated the forum.
Following a report earlier in the year about the city’s law enforcement, La Center may make major changes to its police department, such as dissolving the department and contracting services from another agency, like the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. The report was drafted by the city’s interim police chief Bob Richardson and Jeff Swanson, a consultant for the city.
Candidate Ron Ostrander, a retired Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles employee and Army veteran, focused on the importance of having a police force dedicated to the city, especially given the growth the city is experiencing.
“Growth is inevitably going to spur more crime,” Ostrander said.
Though he said he didn’t have the answers to the issue at the time, if elected he was “sure going to be working hard to find them.”
“For the funding, find it. What’s the cost of crime? That’s the big question for me,” Ostrander said. “I’d like to think that I’m a good listener, and as I’ve gone around and talked to people, this police department thing is a great big deal.”
Ostrander also took issue with the city’s use of consultants.
“Why should I hire a consultant from Seattle or wherever that doesn’t even live here, that has no accountability to us,” Ostrander said.
Craig Whited, another person running for the position, is more accepting of the city’s current use of contracted help.
“Consultants aren’t bad. They serve an everyday function in businesses and government today,” Whited said, adding that managing the money spent on those services is “critically important” for the city.
“If you want to use a consultant, have a plan for what they are supposed to be doing, how they are supposed to be doing it, what the end goal is, how they’re progressing, and then end it when the services are no longer needed,” Whited said.
Whited, who’s spent his career in the fluid power industry, said devising ways for funding city services “all starts with a vision,” which could be realized by developing a plan and coming up with specific metrics.
Whited said the council needs a multi-faceted approach to engaging people that spans further than electronic communication.
“That means knocking (on) doors. That means visiting the farmers market,” Whited said.
Melissa Fox, owner of Gold Star Tutoring in the city, is focused on small business growth within La Center.
“As an entrepreneur I work outside of the clock all of the time, so I’m willing to put in the time and effort to help small businesses come in, help them with the process of what the city requires, so that they feel welcome here,” Fox said.
She said the city has been behind in diversifying its economy in the wake of competition in its gaming industry.
“We’ve known since 2017 (when) ilani casino came in that we were going to see a drop in revenue,” Fox said, adding that was when council and city officials should have devised plans on how to replace the lost revenue.
The city is down to two of the four card rooms it had before ilani’s impact was realized.
Fox added the city could have worked harder on plans focused on how it will recover from the pandemic.
“During that time, I did nothing but put my mind to the grind of what’s my next step, and I feel like the city of La Center wasn’t doing that as strong as they could have,” Fox said.
Fox said the police gave a “safety net feeling” to citizens, explaining her priority for police would be finding a permanent police chief. She said the interim chief, Richardson, who is the retired chief of the Battle Ground Police Department, has limited powers in his role, and advocated for “building (the department) up slowly instead of dwindling it down.”
“Having a strong police force is an absolute must, so that’s something I’d be pushing for number one, and number two is creating jobs,” Fox said.
Fox took issue with the city’s acquisition of the former TDS Telecom building which is being renovated to consolidate city services from a number of separate buildings across town.
“I think the focus needs to be shifted drastically when your city is in a deficit,” Fox said.
Candidate Justin Keeler, the Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries outreach and partnerships director, is in support of the city’s work on the former TDS building. He said the freed-up spaces the city currently occupies could be sites for potential commercial development. He also supported the city’s use of consultants.
Keeler said he would bring a “deep understanding of public sector budgeting” and administrative practices to the position, given his educational background in public administration. He said policing, like any financial aspect of the city, “should be budgeted for in a sustainable way that reflects our financial realities.”
When asked about building racial equity in the city, Keeler advocated for hosting listening sessions to hear from residents on potential discriminatory injustice.
“I would address any issues of social and racial injustice with the seriousness and intensity it deserves,” Keeler said.
Keeler said the city’s budget is a reflection of the community’s priorities, and said there should be an educational component where citizens can learn how municipal budgets work.
“Oftentimes, people think that it’s just one pot of gold that can be spent however we like. That’s not true,” Keeler said.
Myrna Leija, whose career in law enforcement included work for the U.S. Marshals and as a corrections deputy, said she had a conversation with her former boss, Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins, about the city’s police situation. She said that connection could be an asset in coming up with a solution should she be elected.
“The big thing that I’m hearing from everyone is ‘we want our police department back,’” Leija said.
Apart from police, Leija said forming or joining a chamber of commerce would be a boon to the city in filling vacant spaces downtown and at the Interstate 5 junction. She said residential development seemed to be outpacing the economic growth in the city.
“We need to, a little bit, slow down on that, and get some infrastructure going here,” Leija said.
Leija also took issue with the city’s use of contracted work for municipal functions.
“I would definitely say that we don’t need any more consultants that we are paying thousands of dollars to,” Leija said.
Information about candidates for the other two La Center City Council positions will be published in The Reflector’s July 28 issue. The deadline to submit ballots for the election is 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3.