Suddenly, County Commission Chairman Herb Welch has become the go-to-guy in Grays Harbor County.
And just a couple of years ago, unless you lived on his home turf in the Wishkah Valley or had your taxes prepared by him, you may never have even known his name.
“I’m about as surprised as anyone,” Welch admits.
For years, Welch was a precinct committee officer for the Democrats, but shocked his party in 2010 when he cast them aside, declared himself a Republican, and ultimately went on to defeat Democratic incumbent commissioner Al Carter by just 71 votes. He’s the first Republican in more than 50 years to hold the office of county commissioner. Now, joined by fellow Republican Wes Cormier on the Board of County Commissioners, it’ll be the first time since the 1930s that the Republicans have held the majority. Democrat Frank Gordon, another newcomer, will also join them on the board.
On Welch’s desk, he had a sign made that reads: “One-third of the buck stops here.” It’s a reminder to him that not one commissioner is in charge of the county and it takes two votes to make anything happen.
Grays Harbor Republican Party Chairwoman Kristine Lowder shares the mood of many local Republicans that some kind of change could be afoot at the county, trending to more public meetings, less taxes and better communication from the county to constituents and other local governments.
“I think Herb has done well,” Lowder said. “I live in Herb’s district and if I had to vote for a county commissioner again I’d vote for Herb again. In the minority, he’s held his ground. … I don’t agree with him all the time. But, like Ronald Reagan said, it’s OK to agree with someone 80 percent of the time and still call him a friend or ally.”
Welch says he knows all eyes will be on him as the next two years of his term unfold. And, for the record, he hasn’t decided whether he’ll seek re-election, although he says his wife is not necessarily in favor of the idea of a second term at this point.
During his first two years in office, Welch has faced criticism for not being the presence in his district that Carter was — especially out on the North Beach, where Carter seemed to attend nearly every public meeting. Welch said that has simply not been possible for him because of a mix of meeting conflicts and other job duties, although he says he attends quite a few.
“This job shouldn’t be just about meetings,” Welch said.
There’s also been the issue of Welch’s health.
Five months after holding office, Welch announced that he had inoperable stage 4 lung cancer.
Welch says he very well could have had cancer while campaigning and never knew it. One day, he says, he had extreme pain in his side and went to the emergency room to see what was wrong. An X-ray found the cancer in one of his lungs. Further tests showed that the cancer had even spread to his chest cavity.
“The worst news of all came when we were told by the surgeon that he very well could die,” says his wife Dolores. “The cancer was inoperable. There were lots of prayers from both our families, from the church and from the community.”
Welch said he was thinking about resigning from his commissioner post. At one point, he even talked to some members of the Grays Harbor Republicans and told them to start thinking of potential replacements to appoint in his stead.
For more than a year, Welch went to the Medical Arts Complex in Aberdeen and received chemotherapy. At first, it lasted three to four hours. When the medicine was changed, it lasted two to three hours. Dolores says she would go with him each time.
“And, then, we learned the chemo had worked,” she says.
The cancer that had been spreading has shrunk to “pretty much nothing,” Welch said. He hasn’t been on chemotherapy for about six months now and gets checked out by a doctor in February.
“The cancer has pretty much been licked,” Dolores says.
“I feel really good, really healthy,” Welch said, noting that about the only pain he has left is some nerve damage in his side from where biopsies had been done. Then again, he points out, he had some minor pain from when he used to bend down, that has vanished.
“That pain that had been there for quite a while was caused by the cancer clusters scrunching up,” Welch said. “I can bend over without pain, which is pretty amazing for me.”
Welch said he smoked for nearly 40 years, but quit about 11 years ago.
“I knew for a long time it wasn’t good for you and I must have quit 57 times before it finally stuck,” Welch said.
He notes that his father died from cancer, as did his uncles and stepfather.
“Most of the males in my family have died of lung cancer, and as a doctor told me, there’s a good chance there’s a gene there some place in our family that makes us more apt to get it,” Welch said.
“I figure there were so many people praying for me that God said, ‘I have to get that boy well so people will leave me alone,’” Welch said. “Does that mean the cancer will always be gone? I don’t know that. But this is a chance I have and I’m not going to waste it. I’m a county commissioner and I want to do some good.”
During his first two years in office, Welch has become quite vocal on the way the county does its budgeting practice.
Welch says he was not very happy with the way positions were created in the budget approved in 2011 that created a budget director position after the spot had been eliminated a year earlier or merging the Planning & Building departments back together after so many years of complaints on the way the divisions had operated under a previous director.
During the budget planning sessions for 2012, Welch says he wanted to attend meetings conducted between then-Chairwoman Terry Willis and all of the department heads, but was not allowed to attend. Had he been there, because of state open public meeting laws, it would have been a meeting open to the press and the general public at large and Willis argued that there should be a time for department heads to chime in privately without worry that their words would end up on the radio.
“I want all of those meetings to be open to the public now,” Welch said. “In fact, I want the county commissioners to meet more often. I want us to be able to actually sit with each other and talk about what we want to do. We don’t have to make decisions at every meeting, but we need to get to know each other. … And all three commissioners need to know what the other department heads are thinking and be able to beat things back and forth.”
Welch said he has already met with Cormier and Gordon. Because they had not yet been sworn in, private meetings were allowed. Welch said he’s trying to just get to know them. No serious policy has been discussed.
Welch says he wants to see more transparency in the hiring process and thinks that if the county has an open position, it shouldn’t automatically go to an internal candidate, but be opened to a larger pool.
One decision to be made this year is what to do with the county’s Planning and Building Departments. Since the resignation of its department head, who took a job elsewhere, the department is leaderless.
Welch says he favors creating a public works director to oversee multiple departments, a position that was eliminated in 2009.
“We need another leader — we’ve had the commissioners, I feel, be a department head these past few years and it’s not working,” Welch said. “I’ve been told by people that are a lot more experienced than I am that a public works director would save more money than even the director’s salary. For instance, we had a labor management meeting the other day and you take six guys for half a day, the union rep plus our labor attorney. How much did that meeting cost? And I think had we had our old public works director involved, the meeting would never have been necessary. I know it’s tough budgetary times, but I think it’s do-able.”
Welch said he also wants to push for the county to adopt a policy mandating the county and its general contractors run their workers’ backgrounds through a federal online employment verification system known as E-Verify. Welch had tried to push the issue before, but couldn’t find support from either Willis or Wilson.
Now, both Cormier and Gordon have already expressed their general support for the idea.
Lewis County already mandates all general contracts valued at more than $100,000 be run through the E-Verify database. and Welch wants something similar to happen with the county.
“I really think this is do-able and something we can get done soon,” Welch said.
Welch says he has taken some criticism for several votes he’s made these past two years, including votes to raise the property taxes on residents within city limits in the unpopular road levy shift. The shift allowed for the county to do fewer cuts.
Cormier has said he’s already against the idea and, although Gordon’s a bit more open to it, Welch says he’s going to try his hardest to avoid a road levy shift for the 2014 budget.
As a candidate Welch had often spoken against sales and property tax increases, and yet in office, he’s joined with his fellow commissioners each time to approve 1 percent property tax hikes twice, the road levy shift twice and a property tax hike to refund money owed to Grays Harbor Energy. He also even suggested going to the voters for a sales tax increase to better fund public safety projects.
Welch says his biggest difference of opinion with Wilson and Willis was over the implementation of the county’s critical areas ordinance. Although it was approved, Welch voted against the ordinance because he believes it creates too many buffers between a landowner and nearby streams and rivers. And, as it happens, Cormier is also vehemently against the ordinance.
“I’m not sure if we’ll be able to do anything about it at this point, Welch said. “Even before I came into office, the ordinance was a done deal and the environmentalists were suing the county over it.”
Welch owns about 60 acres on the Wishkah Valley with two creeks and a river bypassing it.
“Under the new rules, I wouldn’t be able to do anything within 150 feet of all three bodies of water,” Welch said. “That’s a lot of land and that’s not fair.”
As a county commissioner, Welch makes $76,224. He also gets an automatic $500 a month check for county travel expenses. He says that’s his biggest salary.
Prior to his post with the county, he was a tax preparer and mortgage banker. He had also operated a logging company, and still has some equipment from those days.
“For the last 20 years we didn’t make too much,” Welch said. “I purposefully worked for myself because we had aging parents and I wanted to take care of them. We made enough to live by and survive.”
Welch said he’s saved a good chunk of his salary as a personal rainy day fund, but he’s also spent about $5,000 from his personal expenses on costs associated with training, out-of-county travel, hotel stays and registration fees. That’s in addition to the $3,408 as of October that he donated back to the county to help balance his office’s budget.
During the past two years, he says he’s purchased a new tractor, installed a small greenhouse and a chicken coop on his property. He also purchased a family car, although you can most often find him traveling in a surplussed old Crown Victoria police car that he bought from a taxi company. The car, gutted of its old police equipment, has 295,000 miles on it.
“When I’ve heard the Sheriff’s Office complain that they have to retire their vehicles at 125,000 miles, when they want to do it even earlier, I tell them they’re talking to the wrong person because those vehicles are solid and I have the proof,” Welch said.
He also used some of his salary for a new shed on his property, that he and one of his sons built. He says he met with the county’s planning & building director to specifically see how big of a shed he could build on his property without needing a building permit.
“We purposefully built it at 196 square feet, under the 200 square feet threshold,” Welch said. “And yet after I started building it, and this is a conversation I’m pretty sure everybody has with the Planning & Building Department, I was presented another set of rules that the shed had to be so far from another building and the eaves can’t be 10 feet high and a whole bunch of rules. … Here, I tried to do it right from the beginning, and that’s what happened. It gave me another experience to make me a better county commissioner.”
Steven Friederich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3927, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.