Candidates for western Washington County commissioner talk issues
The two candidates for District 4 on the Washington County Board of Commissioners expressed their views on issues like affordable housing and homelessness, addressing the needs of rural and unincorporated communities, and improving the Washington County Fair Complex at a candidate forum in Forest Grove organized by several local Washington County Community Participation Organizations on Tuesday night, April 3.
Differences between Kimberly Culbertson, a Hillsboro civic activist and volunteer, and Jerry Willey, Hillsboro's former mayor, were seldom stark in the responses they gave to questions prepared by the organizers and submitted by audience members. Both candidates are from the largest city in District 4 — which covers most of western Washington County — and both referred at multiple points, at a forum put on by mostly rural groups, to being "urbanites," as Culbertson put it, who are seeking to learn more about rural issues and bridge a perceived urban-rural divide.
In general, both candidates answered the largely open-ended questions they were asked in broad terms that expressed their philosophies more than any specific policies they want to bring to the county board.
Willey praises Terry; Culbertson suggests she'd take different tack
Perhaps the most noticeable divide came in how the candidates answered an early question about how they would "improve" on the work of Washington County Commissioner Bob Terry, whom they are running to succeed on the board.
"Well, he's right here — I'm not sure I could talk about him that way," quipped Willey, with Terry sitting just a few rows back in the audience. "I think Commissioner Terry's done a great job. … One of the things about campaigning is you get to meet and greet a lot of people in your district, and with that, you get to hear the pros and the cons, the good and the bad, and what they like and what they don't like or what they want. And so most of what I've heard back in the feedback is that Mr. Terry did exactly that — he was out and about, and he met with them, and they knew he existed. And I think with that, it's most important that we continue that theme."
Willey ultimately said he would take a more hands-on approach in reaching out to smaller cities in Washington County.
Culbertson was markedly cooler in her response.
"Well, I do have to credit Bob Terry for going to CPOs and meeting with people out in the rural areas. That is really exceptionally important," Culbertson said. "I think the only way that I can improve on that would be to allow people to feel heard. I'm not going to be going into a meeting pushing an agenda. … I think that my capability of allowing people to feel heard and see the results of their suggestions is going to be my way of improving on it."
One phrase Culbertson repeated a lot throughout the forum was her desire to "build community," whether by encouraging more activity and input from the Washington County CPOs or replacing strip malls along the Highway 8 corridor with walkable mixed-use districts.
"I believe that when things are changing quickly, it's time for our leaders to listen carefully, do our homework and plan," Culbertson said at the outset of the forum.
Willey described his view of a county commissioner's role succinctly in his own introduction at the start of the event.
"We manage growth … and we manage taxpayer money," Willey said.
Candidates agree on some issues, differ on others
Culbertson and Willey were asked to answer the same questions, rather than questions being individually tailored to the candidates. Despite their differing styles and outlooks, Culbertson and Willey echoed one another in many of their responses to those questions.
Both candidates talked about Washington County's diversity when asked how they would foster more civic engagement in "underserved" communities, and they said the county needs to make a more active effort to ensure that those groups are represented in the governance process.
The candidates also agreed they want to improve bicycle safety and reduce conflicts between bikes and motor vehicles, that the county needs to prioritize care for people with mental health issues and other vulnerable populations, and that county officials should work to understand the differing needs of homeless individuals before adopting a "one-size-fits-all" approach to implementing Washington County's long-held goal of ending homelessness.
One issue on which Culbertson and Willey differed was relaxing regulations on accessory dwelling units being built on rural properties, outside the urban growth boundary.
"I would make it easier, in the cases of building a granny flat or an auxiliary dwelling unit for farmlands," Culbertson said. "I would encourage that, because it keeps families together."
Willey remarked, "I think that ADUs are a great thing. I'd like us to consider ADUs, but … inside the urban growth boundary in unincorporated Washington County. And the reason for that is because if we don't monitor that, what we'll end up with: farms being trailer parks. And if we reduce the restrictions on that … I'm concerned that we would lose control of our farmland, and it would look more like we had multi-family housing for all the family who's now living on the farm."
Another housing-related question divided the candidates. Asked whether the county should take a more "direct" role in providing emergency housing services for people who find themselves without shelter, Culbertson said yes.
"I believe that the efforts of the nonprofits that support our homeless community are tremendous, and they come from the heart," Culbertson said. "It takes a great deal to do that outreach, from the standpoint of a nonprofit or from the standpoint of a church."
But, she added, "I've got to believe that Washington County — being considered the wealthiest county in the state — I think that we can start stepping up and investing in our future by taking the homelessness problem in hand and bringing people into housing: shelter first, surrounding them with services, and then bringing them up to a level where they can go out and get a job and hold that job."
Willey said he would need more information to decide one way or another, but he argued that if the current situation — in which the Washington County Department of Housing Services doesn't provide emergency assistance itself, but does administer federal homelessness assistance grants — is working, then there is no need to change it.
"If they're doing a good job, and if they're meeting our criteria for subcontracting, then I would see no reason to take that back in-house," Willey said.
Interests of visitors, farmers weighed together
Neither candidate expressed much enthusiasm for the "Westside bypass" when posed a question from the audience about it. The proposed route — in most of its permutations, a new freeway or highway that would run diagonally across Washington County between the Hillsboro and Wilsonville areas, effectively creating a "shortcut" between Highway 26 and Interstate 5 — has been bandied about in some form for decades, with varying degrees of seriousness.
Willey suggested he doesn't expect the long-debated bypass to be built anytime soon. Existing routes like Cornelius Pass Road and Highway 217 should be "enhanced" more immediately, he said.
"I think the bottom line is we have to be looking at a Westside bypass as an option," Willey said, "but it is a long-, long-term, way-out-into-the-future option, and there's various different ways we can do that that doesn't transgress agriculture or farmland. There's some other alternatives we can have."
Culbertson said flatly that she is not in favor of a Westside bypass.
"We have about 137,000 people who come into Washington County every day to work, and they're mostly driving," she said. "If we had affordable housing so that they could live here … they would be spending less time on the roads, and we would have less of a need of a Westside bypass that only serves a small community."
Both Culbertson and Willey serve on a planning advisory committee for the Hillsboro Airport, and they both suggested they see the airport and Washington County Fairgrounds — which sit across Northwest Cornell Road from one another — as key to encouraging tourism and visitation in the area.
Recently, a decision by the Washington County Board of Commissioners to tear down the main exhibit hall at the fairgrounds and evaluate what to do with other aging buildings at the complex has generated some controversy in the county. Duyck, the board chairman, defended the decision by pointing to experts' recommendations that the hall be immediately condemned for safety reasons, as well as to an event center slated to break ground later this year. Opponents have criticized the decision to take down the exhibit hall without having a space to replace it immediately.
Willey said he is "really excited" by the plans for the event center.
"It's going to be the home for a number of events that, quite frankly, right now go to Portland," Willey said, predicting the event center will be "a boon" for tourism and local business.
Culbertson said she feels the fair complex is underutilized and that the planned event center is "kind of running in opposition" to the character of the other fair buildings. She would like to see more use of the buildings outside of the fair season, as well as spaces for visual and performing arts at the event center, she said.
"I would look on further emphasis on rebuilding buildings, but making them accessible more of the year," Culbertson said. "And I would, of course, encourage putting art into it too, so that more people can be engaged and experience what the county has in terms of agriculture, but, you know, in a more urban sort of way."
Another forum set for Forest Grove
Tuesday's forum ran nearly two full hours in length.
CPO 10, CPO 12F, CPO 13 and CPO 15, which represent various parts of western Washington County, collaborated to put on the event at the Old Town Church in Forest Grove. The forum was moderated by Chas Hundley, a Gales Creek resident who heads CPO 13.
Terry, for whose Board of Commissioners seat Culbertson and Willey are vying, is running for chairman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners. Three other candidates — former state Sen. Ryan Deckert, Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington and former congressional candidate Shabba Woodley — are also in the race.
The candidates for board chairman will meet at 6:30 p.m. next Tuesday, April 10, for a forum at the Forest Grove City Library. That event is also co-hosted by Washington County CPOs.
Culbertson, Willey and other candidates for contested Washington County Board of Commissioners and Metro Council seats will meet Thursday, April 5, for a debate at the Hillsboro Civic Center.
Election Day is May 15.
By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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