Forum puts candidates in spotlight

League of Women Voters event at Camas Library hits on range of topics

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A crowd of people listen to Gary Medvigy and Adrian Cortes, candidates for a Clark County Council position, speak at the Clark County League of Women Voters candidate forum on Oct. 23 at Camas Public Library.

Dozens of Camas-Washougal community members attended the League of Women Voters’ annual candidate forum last week to hear local candidates running for city council, school board, port commission and county council seats answer questions composed by League members.

Moderated by League member Jane Johnson and held Oct. 23 at the Camas Public Library, the event was one of three regional candidate forums hosted by the League in the run-up to the Nov. 5 general election.

The Oct. 23 forum featured Camas City Councilwoman Deanna Rusch and her challenger, Shannon Roberts; Washougal School Board candidates Jim Cooper and Bill Durgan; Port of Camas-Washougal Commissioner Bill Ward and his challenger, Cassi Marshall; as well as candidates running for Clark County Council and the Evergreen School District.

The League had also invited Washougal City Councilman Ray Kutch and his challenger, Denise Korhonen, to speak at the forum, but canceled the appearance after Korhonen declined to participate.

All of the participants had 60 to 90 seconds to answer questions they’d been given 30 minutes before speaking. Following are some of the answers from the candidates for Camas City Council, the Washougal School Board and the Port of Camas-Washougal Commission.

Camas City Council

The League’s questions to Rusch and Roberts, who are running for the Camas City Council’s Ward 1, Position No. 1 seat, centered around affordable housing; diversity, equity and inclusion; and the city council’s decision to place a community-aquatics center bond on the Nov. 5 ballot.

“People feel like they’re getting priced out of Camas and that’s not what we want to hear,” Rusch said after being asked about the need for affordable housing in the area.

The incumbent councilwoman said there are a couple things she and her city council peers have been looking at over the past two years, including the need for more housing inventory in Camas.

“It’s supply and demand,” Rusch said. “When we’re talking about growing (in Camas’ North Shore area), that can be scary, but let’s do it right and make sure we have more infrastructure for more homes. The more homes we have, the less expensive they’re going to be.”

Councilors also have been looking at tax incentives for developers willing to incorporate affordable housing units into their multi-family developments. In fact, the Camas Council recently gave a developer some tax incentives for making 20 percent of their multi-family housing development in downtown Camas, at Seventh Avenue and Birch Street affordable for lower-income families.

Roberts, a newcomer to local politics who moved to Camas in 2015, and said she would rely on her experience as a military veteran, data analyst and project manager if elected to the Camas City Council, said she sees the need for affordable housing in Camas through her current lens as a real estate professional.

“Knowing Camas housing prices and rent prices, I don’t see that there are any affordable houses,” Roberts said. “How to remedy that? Other than to put a cap on rent costs every year or every two years … I don’t see a way of remedying that other than building on purpose.”

Asked about the Proposition 2 community-aquatics center bond on the Nov. 5 ballot, which would allow the city to spend up to $78 million on a community center with two pools, a gymnasium, cardio and athletic spaces and community rooms as well as make traffic and parking improvements and renovate three sports fields at Camas parks, Rusch said she supports having a pool in Camas, but understood why some residents are concerned about the current ballot proposal.

Rusch and other Camas City Council members voted unanimously in July to send the issue of building a community-aquatics center to voters after decades of studies, cost analysis, surveys and discussions.

“We said, ‘Let’s put it on the ballot and let the voters decide and stop spinning our wheels,” Rusch said. “I supported putting this on the ballot. Does what we put out there match up with our citizens’ vision? I don’t know.”

Rusch added that she is open to hearing what people have to say about the proposed center and told community members: “This is not the end of the discussion.”

Roberts countered Rusch’s statement, saying she thought the council should have done a better job giving citizens information about the potential costs of the community-aquatics center.

“I think we should have been able to tell you what we like and don’t like before we saw it on the ballot,” Roberts said. “I’m a ‘no’ for the community center as it is, but do think we need one.”

Roberts said she would have preferred to see city leaders come to voters with a smaller request and build the center in phases.

“I don’t think we need to bite the elephant as a whole. Build a pool, pay for that. Build a gym, pay for that. Do it in chunks,” Roberts said.

Washougal School Board

Cooper and Durgan, candidates to replace Teresa Lees in the Washougal School District’s (WSD) No. 1 director position, discussed a variety of topics at the Oct. 23 forum, including homeless students, struggling students, civics education, budget priorities and the relationship between WSD administrative employees and teachers.

In his opening comments, Cooper said that he has developed a strong interest in the public education system after a long career as a research scientist and college professor.

“I love Washougal, and I’m running to contribute what I can to the community and to help ensure that every Washougal kid has the best possible education coming out of the schools and the best possible opportunities in their lives,” Cooper said. “The goals I have are to work with state and federal legislators to enhance funding of schools generally and Washougal schools specifically, and to represent the families in District No. 1 of the Washougal School District.”

Before answering questions, Durgan talked about his lifelong community connections.

“I’ve always been involved, at least in small ways, with the schools,” Durgan said. “I (went to) school here, (as did) my kids, my grandkids, my father. My grandmother was a local teacher. We’ve always been involved a little bit, and now that I’m semi-retired, I thought I could get more involved locally, get in there and learn more about the process and what I can do to help with our kids, who are our future. It’s a good thing for all of us to be involved in.”

Asked by Johnson about the best ways of helping students who have “fallen through the cracks,” Cooper said that while there are many reasons, including socio-economic factors and drug and alcohol abuse, that students may fall behind, they do have several options available to them for assistance.

“I think the programs that every school district implements to help save those kids from falling through are extracurricular activities; good, strong counseling programs; and community programs,” Cooper said. “The career and technical education program that Washogual has developed is another track that can help kids get an education and be productive citizens.”

Durgan also mentioned the district’s career and technical education (CTE) program in his response.

“The Excelsior program in Washougal has helped a lot of kids stay in school, stay focused, get refocused and continue their education instead of just falling out and being lost in a world that’s getting easier to lose people in,” Durgan said. “The para-professionals that I’ve seen, I’ve spoken with a few of them, and they really seem involved and willing to help. They were very nice, very open and willing to help the students. Those things are what make a school great, when you have people that will come in there and help.”

When Johnson asked them what programs they would fight to save in the wake of budget shortfalls, Cooper and Durgan provided differing responses.

“I wouldn’t want to see the school meal program cut. That is helpful to a lot of people,” Durgan said. “The school counselors should always be on staff, always be available, there to help people. And for the third I’m really kind of stuck between the arts and crafts and computer skills. Arts and crafts really expand (students’ perspectives) and get them involved, and they learn more when they’re involved in those classes. At the same time, computer skills are just the wave of the future.”

Cooper said that he would “prioritize smaller class sizes.”

“There’s strong evidence that that smaller class sizes allow teachers to teach more effectively and allow students to learn more effectively,” Cooper said. “I would work to protect the STEM (programs). I think they are really the future for our world and every student coming out of Washougal. And I would hope to protect the career technical education programs that have been developed. I think those provide a pathway to a successful life for students and get them ahead of the game in terms of getting a job and living a happy life.”

Port of Camas-Washougal Commission

Ward, the incumbent, and Marshall, the challenger for the Port’s No. 2 commissioner position, talked at length about the Port’s waterfront development at the League’s forum, but also discussed their views about the Port’s biggest upcoming challenges, the Port’s role in combating climate change and personal goals.

Ward highlighted some of his achievements as Port commissioner in his opening remarks.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished in those (11) years,” he said. “We’ve restored the confidence of the people in the community. We’ve got very open dialogue with everyone within that area. We have got full tenancy in our industrial park. We’ve opened the Steigerwald Commerce Center for new business. A total of 62 companies now are tenants in the Port, all providing family-wage jobs. We’ve got an airport (and) we’ve got a marina.”

Before answering questions, Marshall said that her engineering background volunteer experience would help her in a Port commissioner role.

“I would work with our partners to make sure that the area grows smartly and sustainably,” she said. “Also (I would) promote collaboration, both in the port and also regionally. I have a background in structural engineering and residential construction, I have experience on the staff side of a publicly elected board at the Washington School District, and I have commission and committee experience through my years on the Camas Parks Commission, so I know deeply the importance of public input, transparency, equity and partnerships in a public organization.”

Both candidates talked about the Port’s waterfront development as the agency’s biggest upcoming challenge.

“This is a big undertaking, and it will be a challenge for the Port to balance the desires of the community, the input, the environmental considerations and the growth of the area,” Marshall said. “Second, it’s the Port’s mission to create jobs and economic development, but (it should) manage that growth … responsibly and sustainably with the properties that the Port already does have. And third, I think long-term the Port’s going to have opportunities for some large-scale cleanups, maybe in Camas. There’s already a mill property that’s available for development, and the Port can have a huge role to play in that.”

In addition to the waterfront development, Ward talked about the importance of expanding the Port’s industrial park to recruit more tenants and provide more jobs.

“Immediately, our biggest challenge is going to be to bring the waterfront development to fruition in a manner in which it maximizes the benefits to the community,” he said. “At the same time, we want to build out the Steigerwald Commerce Center and get full employment in the jobs there. Lastly, our role long-term is going to be to get the properties needed to continue development to support jobs in the community.”

Johnson asked both candidates about the steps the Port should take in the next two years to help combat climate change.

“I’ve been concerned with this, and those of you who have been following the Vancouver oil fiasco, you’ll know I was at the forefront of the efforts to stop that terminal because I realized that climate change (issues), congestion and transportation safety issues were involved,” he said. “I’ve been working with the Washington Public Ports Association to very strongly put the kibosh on fossil fuel terminals that are threatening to inundate the Pacific Coast. And in our waterfront development, we will have EV (electric vehicle) charging stations.”

Marshall said that the Port “can be a leader and a shining example of being able to build structures that are energy efficient and economically successful.”

“I think the waterfront development can give us a good chance to showcase that,” she said. “The Port can make suggestions and standards as to energy efficiency. I’ve already talked to the preferred developer, Roy Kim, and he’s very amenable to the idea of renewable energy sources. He’s super open to the idea of solar on some of his structures. And I think the industrial park is probably just crying out for renewables too when you see all those south sloping large roof structures. I think it could be a win-win for the Port, for the tenants and for climate impact.”