The primary election race for Grays Harbor County Commissioner, District 3, is fiercely competitive. Four candidates aim to fill the chair being vacated by Republican Herb Welch, who is not running for re-election.
Cosmopolis Mayor Vickie Raines, green energy entrepreneur Al Smith of the Wishkah Valley, retired Hoquiam firefighter and paramedic Jim Heikel and timber faller, coach and teacher Keith Olson of Quinault are on the ballot. Olson is running as a Republican, Heikel is running as an Independent, Smith as a Democrat and Raines states no party preference.
The top two candidates who emerge from the mail-in primary that culminates Tuesday will face off in the general election Nov. 4. All four agreed the race is competitive.
“It’s up for grabs. We all bring something to the table with different levels of experience and viewpoints,” said Heikel.
District 3 is large, geographically, running west to the beaches from just east of Central Park, dipping down to snag Cosmopolis before heading to North Beach. It runs north all the way up to Jefferson County and includes Amanda Park and Quinault. The largest population centers are Hoquiam and Ocean Shores.
The candidates were asked to name their top three priorities for the county and a fourth wild card issue.
They were also all asked to weigh in on Grays Harbor County Sheriff Rick Scott’s call for a better, expanded jail facility. All, save Olson, strongly support Scott’s call for improved and safer detention facilities. Olson said he’d have to know more about the issue, but public safety is a concern.
Keith Olson is a fourth generation resident of Quinault and a Marine veteran who served in Vietnam. He has been a logger for more than 25 years and has taught school at Lake Quinault High School and coached various sports around the Harbor for decades. He describes himself as a “common sense working man” who has “no relationship with local, state or federal politicians.” He wants to change politics on Grays Harbor.
Jim Heikel is retired paramedic/firefighter in the City of Hoquiam and has been very involved in disaster planning and preparedness. He is a disaster reservist for the state military department and has a commercial pilot’s license. He used to own Grays Harbor Flight. He is learning a lot about the issues and taking care of family matters in retirement, he said. He is a third generation Hoquiamite.
Smith describes himself as an activist for 50 years. He has 23 years experience selling solar and thermal hydronics (home heating systems), radiant flooring and working in the manufacture of water stoves. He currently serves as Vice Chairman of the Grays Harbor County Marine Resource Committee. He also serves as a volunteer firefighter in the Wishkah Valley. He is a lifelong Harborite.
Raines is the only candidate with experience as an elected official. She has been mayor since 2002 and began her service in municipal government in 1999. She has lived on the Harbor for 30 years and has worked 17 years for Lindley Financial in Montesano. She is serving a third term as chairwoman of the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority. She also serves on Gov. Jay Inslee’s work group for the basin and is active in various Harbor groups.
“Jobs, jobs and jobs,” was how Olson enumerated his top three priorities for the county. “Nothing improves here until we get … jobs.” He wants to cut county, state and federal regulations of all kinds. “The job situation won’t improve without getting rid of regulations.” He specifically called for less regulation by the state Department of Ecology and the shoreline management program, plans that are being updated by the state.
“Our employment situation is going to be difficult to improve until we get a grasp of the abuse on the state, county and federal regulation,” he said. He wants voters to unite to vote for more local control “or we will vote you out of here.”
He wants the U.S. Forest Service not to cut 2,200 miles of road to 600 or 700 miles, a proposal he says is being considered. “I have a problem with that,” he said, adding money from logging could be used to maintain the roads. He wants the woods to be used by everyone, mushroom gatherers, campers, hikers and hunters as well.
He also worries about safety. “What if we have a fire?” he asked rhetorically.
His wild card? The need to change the culture on the Harbor to advocate for more local control. “We are able to control our economy here … with people who are from here,” he said. He suggested hiring (Grays Harbor County Fair) organizer Mike Bruner to promote tourism countywide in an effort to bring in more revenue.
Smith wants new industry to come to the Harbor and is willing to travel as far as it takes on his own dime to get it, he said. “You got to look ‘em in the eye and talk to them … to get them to come to your town,” he said. “Whatever it takes, China Japan, I’ll leave that open I can’t tell you, I don’t know. … Maybe we go to the next state and get them (to move) here.”
Second, he would improve communication with the staff and electorate. He would make his presence known as one of the three bosses, he said. He’d have a cup of coffee regularly with staff to encourage them to continue to make a team effort.
Third, he supports finding funding for a wastewater collection system at Oyehut-Illahee in North Beach, where the coast is being tested for the presence of contaminants due to failing septic systems.
As the wild card, he wants to make “absolutely, positively sure that we do not get products moved that may contaminate our Harbor,” he said, referring to crude by rail. “I would die if something happened to the fishing … if we had even one crude oil spill.”
(Heikel and Raines have also expressed serious safety concerns about crude by rail and questioned whether the risks outweigh the benefits. Olson would rather have a pipeline run to the Port of Grays Harbor from the East County unless it is virulently opposed by the citizens, who he would listen to, he has said.)
Raines listed her top three as jobs, the budget and individual property rights. Her wild card is strategic planning and infrastructure.
“Tourism brings in jobs and jobs bring in people,” she said. There are several ways to market the county better and to allocate funds to help with tourism, she said.
The county also has a substantial amount of land that could be used for development, she said. “we just need to attract the right business to be here.” She also wants to make sure “we are business-friendly so businesses large and small” come to the county and “we retain the jobs we already have.”
It is her mission to operate within a balanced budget and she will not enact the road levy shift that has been done in recent years to cover county shortfalls.
(Heikel and Olson also strongly oppose the road levy shift, Smith has said the county had no choice but to shift money from the road fund “due to keeping us out of the county’s reserve to keep us solvent.” He “would lobby for increasing the minimum standard.”)
Raines wants to make sure individual property rights are protected “and not encroached upon (by) Wild Olympics and the shoreline management plan” as well as in broad areas such as farming and agricultural regulations. Wild Olympics is a federal plan to add acreage to wilderness areas.
Her experience as mayor taught her the importance of the wild card pick of strategic planning. She would like to help shape one, three, five and longer term plans for the county. “I don’t have all the answers but you’ve got to bring in some answers to those morning meetings” by the commissioners, she said.
“Health, safety and infrastructure,” was how Heikel prioritized his top three. Drugs and mental health issues on the Harbor as two of his top concerns in the health area. “We are on the right track with Joan Brewster (the Director of Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services Department),” he said.
“It’s a matter of funding, whether the programs in place can do it or not,” he said.
“Health and safety go hand in hand,” he said. He would like see that another residential deputy is assigned to the North Beach area.
He, too, would like to see more long range planning implemented in terms of tsunami and earthquake preparedness.
He wants to make sure adequate reserves are in place for infrastructure. He thinks the budget reserves probably should be higher to cope with the ups and downs of state funding. He also supports finding money for the Oyehut-Illahee sewer collection system.
Heikel’s wild card priority is to help “coordinate economic development on the Harbor” between groups that are “working in bubbles.” He thinks there could be more cooperation.
He would like to see more proactive networking to help attract jobs to the Harbor, he said.
Mail-in ballots, postmarked or turned in as late as Tuesday, will be counted. The first count should be unveiled shortly after 8 p.m.