The candidates for the two Grays Harbor County Commission seats on the November general election ballot took on the county’s budget woes, the ongoing legal dispute with Superior Court judges and growth management issues in a Friday forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.
The format did not allow for direct debate, with questions submitted by an audience of about 60 people at the Grays Harbor College’s Bishop Center for the Performing Arts. In addition to the county commission races, state House candidates from the 24th Legislative District and for the Grays Harbor PUD commissioner seat vacated by Tom Casey also appeared at the forum.
A self-described newcomer to the political process, county employee Wes Cormier said he was running against incumbent Commissioner Terry Willis for the District 1 seat to “bring new ideas. I don’t offer up business as usual. I bring an open mind. I am not hardened by habits or status-quo thinking.”
“My objectives as county commissioner are to restore government transparency, restore economic growth and restore the property rights of the citizens of Grays Harbor,” he said.
Willis, who was elected in 2008 and took office in 2009, cited accomplishments she said were made despite a spiralling economy.
“I was able to work to keep Marys River Lumber in our vicinity as we moved them out of the flood plain. I was able to sell a piece of property and negotiate a deal so a new hospital (Mark Reed in Elma) could be built,” Willis said. “We did infrastructure for new businesses in the Elma area, and this was all with the support of the other two commissioners.”
But the two candidates differed widely on the ongoing dispute with county judges over the budget for the courts and the judicial system.
Willis said she was most proud of the 2012 budget document, which she said was balanced so that revenues meet expenses with a reserve built up of $1 million. Next year’s budget priorities, she said, are safety, health and community infrastructure.
“Safety definitely includes creating a balanced budget that will allow us to keep our Sheriff’s Department running, our courts in order, and to take care of our Health Department and the activities that go along with that,” Willis said.
The balanced budget allows the county to stay stable, she said.
Cormier, however, said the budget has been mismanaged for the past four years and contends its a “reactionary thing instead of visionary.”
He called for a program to look at early retirement options for some county employees to reduce staff levels through attrition with a hiring freeze.
Cormier also contended that communication between the county and cities has been contentious, such as when a group of mayors wrote the governor about a competing Flood Authority effort backed by Willis.
“There have been numerous mayors who have come out in protest about the lack of communication in the county,” Cormier said.
Willis acknowledged “there has been no doubt we have struggled with communication” between the county and the cities. She vowed to work harder with the mayors “to help that come about.”
“It’s extremely important that we be able to communicate with each other, both on how we operate, because we operate slightly differently, and how we come to solutions,” she said.
Both candidates for the District 2 County Commission seat also touched on the budget issues and communications problems.
Allan Shores, a retired Grays Harbor PUD employee, said the county budget was out of control.
“My vision is to see Grays Harbor grow through small businesses,” he said.
Frank Gordon, an Aberdeen City Council member who runs his own electrical contracting business, said the biggest reason he was running was to restore communication.
“The communication between the county and the cities has been kind of tough,” he said. That hurts the county’s ability to lobby effectively with the cities as “one voice” to the Legislature.
Gordon called for a team approach in dealing with growth management issues to attract new business.
“The Harbor has to be a pleasant, clean place to live for new people to come and create jobs for their families,” Gordon said.
Shores said he was against the Congressional Wild Olympics proposal — supported by Gordon — because it would put more public land under federal control.
“As far as the growth here, I don’t see a problem,” Shores said. “I think as you get more industry and jobs here, it’s going to take care of itself.”
The other major difference between the two candidates was over the issue of the proposed merger of the Public Development Authority at Satsop with the Port of Grays Harbor.
Shores said he supported the merger because the Port has a mission very similar to the PDA, which runs the Satsop Business Park.
“I think that’s a good fit. They both do very similar things,” Shores said. “Both of them are working toward growth on the Harbor and providing jobs.”
Gordon said he was against the merger because “the Port has its hands full right now with transportation and rail expansion.”
“I would like to see it be kept as a separate entity. We give too much power in the hands of one group,” Gordon said.
Both Gordon and Shores urged the county commissioners to settle issues with the judges over the judicial budget.
“As adults, we need to sit down and work things out,” Shores said.
Gordon added: “We need to get past this so we can develop trust between the two sides.”
Both candidates for the Grays Harbor PUD District 1 commissioner seat said their top issues were the financial health of the district and keeping electricity rates low.
“I have been kind of frustrated with how things have been going over there (at the PUD),” said Arie Callaghan of Elma, a 23-year employee of Mason Trucking Co., where he is truck supervisor. “I think we have been involved in several things that haven’t worked out too well, and it seems like the ratepayers ultimately are the ones who have to pony up all the time.”
His opponent, Chris Thomas of Montesano, a former Montesano City Council member who works as an economics analyst for the state Department of Employment Security, said he, too, was running to “be a strong advocate for the ratepayers and a strong advocate for our local PUD.”
Thomas, the former chairman of the Grays Harbor Council of Governments, said his No. 1 issue was affordable and responsible rates as “the best way to expand our economy and the best way to increase jobs.”
“Rate increases affect every family on Grays Harbor and we have all experienced opening our rate bill and seeing it increase,” Thomas said.
Callaghan expressed concern about the long-term future of the PUD. “I want to make sure that we keep our own PUD,” he said. “It’s very important for us to keep track of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
Thomas also said he wanted to see that we “keep our PUD local,” noting that pending decisions and regulatory changes by the federal Bonneville Power Administration “may affect our ability to provide power at cost.”
The candidates were asked about the hiring process for a new PUD general manager, which is just beginning since current General Manager Rick Lovely has announced his retirement.
“It has to be someone who has a strong vision for the Harbor, a strong knowledge of the PUD system, and someone you can trust to help manage the PUD, not just now but into the future,” Thomas said.
Callaghan said he believed the hiring process could be done internally by PUD staff and that candidates would emerge once word got out about the position being open.
“It’s almost a turning point for the district right now to make sure we get the right person in there for the job,” Callaghan said. “I’d like to see someone who has strong business sense.”
In the 24th District state House races, incumbents Steve Tharinger and Kevin Van De Wege, both Democrats from Sequim, promised to do more to increase jobs and support for education in the next session, while their challengers questioned why more wasn’t done on those issues in the past.
Tharinger’s Republican challenger Steve Gale, an operations manager for industrial gas company Praxair Inc. who moved to Sequim from Bothell in January, cited a “lack of a forward-looking vision” by the past Legislature on how to stimulate jobs. “We need to bring some projects from Olympia to help develop the local market,” he said, criticizing Tharinger for supporting regulations and policies that “constrain our rights to use our land.”
Tharinger, who formerly ran a small woodworking business and was a Clallam County Commissioner for 12 years, said the issues were still the same as when he addressed Grays Harbor voters two years ago.
“We know that we need to build back jobs and economic vitality, and that we will be able to get education for our family and our children — that we will be able to hunt and fish, and that our grandchildren will be able to hunt and fish, and that we know that our water and air will be clean for our generation and future generations,” Tharinger said.
Both he and Van De Wege credited the Legislature’s support for building a new sewer system to service the Satsop Business Park and funds for a sewer improvement project in Hoquiam among other accomplishments. Van De Wege noted the state awarded a major contract to build the pontoons for the State Route 520 bridge replacement project in Seattle to the Harbor, and lauded efforts to keep the Cosmopolis pulp mill “functioning so that someone was able to come in and buy it.”
The biggest difference between Tharinger and Gale was over the Wild Olympics plan. Gale is against the plan as modified, while Tharinger supports it.
“The Wild Olympics process I think has been a good process,” Tharinger said. “It started out with problems, there is no question.”
But he said the changes made in the current proposal supported by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and retiring Congressman Norm Dicks have taken away some of the most objectionable items, removing any impact to state Department of Natural Resources trust land and scrapping any private land purchases that would have expanded the Olympic National Park boundaries.
“What’s remaining in the legislation as I understand it is a scenic river designation, and two-thirds of those rivers are in the Olympic National Park presently,” Tharinger said.
Gale called Wild Olympics “part of an ongoing effort to further restrict the citizens’ use of our natural resources and move us away from the real communities.”
“It has an adverse economic effect … and I’m not in support of it,” Gale said.
While neither Van De Wege, a firefighter/paramedic, nor his write-in independent opponent, Craig Durgan, a maritime engineer from Port Ludlow, were asked directly about Wild Olympics, Durgan also came out against the plan.
“We need to realize that people are more important than some critter in the forest,” he said, also advocating abolishing the state Department of Ecology.
Van De Wege focused on how to create jobs for the Harbor in the future, saying he believed the infrastructure built for the pontoon project could be used to create new jobs locally for private industry. He also pointed to the Satsop Business Park as being poised to handle new business enterprises. “Those are the two greatest potentials that Grays Harbor has for seeing some more job creation here, and I think they will be very successful,” he said.