A freewheeling Forest Grove candidate forum
Candidates for Forest Grove City Council made their cases for election on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at a forum put on by Community Participation Organization 12F.
The event was held at the Forest Grove Community Auditorium, with more than 50 people in the audience and more watching on a Facebook Live stream.
By the standards of most local candidate forums, Wednesday's event was a wild, woolly affair, with a format that loosened considerably after candidates made their opening statements. All questions came directly from audience members, some were addressed to specific candidates, and the candidates generally took as long as they felt they needed to respond, sometimes speaking up twice during a round of answers.
Unusual, sometimes tense moments during Q&A
The questioning got off to a rocky start when former City Councilor Victoria Lowe excoriated the current council's track record on sustainability, one of her main issues when she sat on the council.
"Do you understand what the word 'sustainability' is now? Because every time I asked you that, you weren't sure about a definition," Lowe said, addressing the four incumbents. "Sustainability of healthcare — we have no hospital anymore. Sustainability in air quality, water quality and soils quality — you're bringing a chemical factory right to your water intake. Now explain to me how that is sustainable decisions."
Councilor Ron Thompson, who is running for a fifth term on the council, said the MGC Pure Chemicals America facility to which Lowe referred has promised to bring 35 jobs, and possibly more in the future, to Forest Grove.
"We need jobs in this community. … I'm sorry, but I'm in favor of economic development in this community," Thompson said.
"Well, I sure wasted my 16 years defending your water and your forest natural resources," Lowe retorted.
Mayor Pete Truax and Councilor Malynda Wenzl noted that the MPCA development was approved administratively, rather than coming before the City Council, because it met all of the city's requirements in an industrial zone.
Johnston added his thoughts on the Forest Grove hospital. Tuality Healthcare converted the emergency department to an urgent care clinic earlier this year.
"I felt like I got kicked in the stomach," Johnston said, describing how he felt upon hearing the news. However, he added, "Corporations have a way of doing what they're going to do with their businesses and their property."
The Lowe exchange wasn't the only awkward moment. At one point later in the forum, first-time candidate Devon Downeysmith asked to move on to a new question after every candidate had answered, pointing toward someone in the audience. Thompson, who had raised his hand seconds earlier as though he had something more to say, took exception.
"I don't think you're running the meeting, please," said Thompson, jabbing at Downeysmith's upper arm with his pen.
"OK," Downeysmith said, appearing surprised, with a short laugh.
'Privilege' debated, defined as term
At another juncture, another audience member chimed in as Planning Commissioner Hugo Rojas asked a question about diversity in Forest Grove, remarking that she does not believe the city is always sensitive to the needs of Latino residents.
Downeysmith, who is white but speaks Spanish fluently, has lived and studied in Latin America, she said, and more recently, she has volunteered to work with Latina girls at the Forest Grove-based nonprofit organization Adelante Mujeres.
"I'm hearing from community members, when I'm canvassing the different neighborhoods, that particularly Latino community members have had slurs yelled at them while they're walking down the street, or someone has confronted them in Safeway," Downeysmith said sympathetically. "And so for me, as a white person who speaks Spanish but I don't have that fear, I feel an extra duty, an extra obligation, to use my privilege to speak out for people who are afraid."
Council President Tom Johnston, also seeking a fifth term on the council, agreed that the city needs to do more to bridge the divide between English- and Spanish-speaking residents. Jokingly, he described his grasp of Spanish as "un pocito," telling Downeysmith, "I feel very inferior when you can speak it."
"You can learn," Downeysmith responded.
Wenzl said the predominately white Forest Grove City Council needs to recognize its "privilege."
"What Councilor Johnston just said, 'I feel inferior when Devon talks Spanish,' that is how 24 percent of our community feels," she said, as Johnston nodded at the other end of the table. "This is how some people feel every day. They're worried about being pulled over. They're worried that they can't go to the library. They have to show proof of everything. That because of the color of their skin, that they're automatically undocumented. So the very first thing that needs to happen for any work to get done regarding this is to address the white privilege."
Downeysmith and Wenzl have endorsed one another in the race, and their answers echoed each other throughout Wednesday's forum. Both supported an unsuccessful push to declare Forest Grove a "sanctuary city" last year, which Wenzl has described as perhaps her biggest disappointment in her four years on the council.
Downeysmith called the sanctuary resolution a "purely symbolic move … and it still did not pass." More than 100 people, she and Wenzl noted, came to the Forest Grove City Council meeting where it was debated, and the public testimony was overwhelmingly positive.
"Now we have to repair and make up some of that damage," Downeysmith said.
Thompson was one of the councilors who voted down the sanctuary resolution. He said he has still sought and received support among Forest Grove's Latino population, remarking, "Yes, I don't speak Spanish, but they know my heart's in the right place."
The topic of "privilege" recurred throughout the forum, with Downeysmith delivering a brief part of her opening statement in Spanish at the beginning and Thompson ending with a defensive closing statement in which he recounted his support of migrant worker housing in Forest Grove and told the audience, "I want to make sure that you don't walk away and think that I have a white privilege."
That, in turn, prompted Downeysmith to spend part of her closing statement defining the term.
"White privilege just means there are certain things that I don't have to deal with," Downeysmith said, adding, "For me, being a woman, I can't necessarily ever guarantee that I'm not going to deal with sexism. That's something that I have as a woman. … My husband, as a man, has the male privilege. But being someone who is white, I can 'take off' having to worry about being profiled based on my accent or how I look or how I sound. So it's just important to acknowledge that. That's all that privilege is, is just acknowledging where you have that advantage and how you can use that to help other people who don't have that."
From different perspectives, candidates find common ground
Solomon Clapshaw was, by his own admission, the quietest candidate at the forum — "I've probably spoken the least," he said at one point — as he kept most of his answers brief and did not respond to every question.
One audience member directed his question specifically to Clapshaw, asking how his youth — Clapshaw turned 18 last month and is in his senior year at Forest Grove High School, making him by far the youngest candidate in the race — can be an asset on the City Council.
"Well, I definitely speak with youth a lot more often … well, maybe with the only possible exception being Councilor Wenzl, because she's a teacher," said Clapshaw. "But beyond that, I think I speak with youth the most."
He added, "I'm just running like anybody else. I'm 18, I can run. But I understand why it was brought up."
On a few questions, the candidates seemed to be in agreement with one another, such as on the topic of banning backyard burning within city limits (all agreed they want to look into doing so) and extending the MAX Blue Line west to Forest Grove (all agreed there are more urgent priorities). All of the candidates responded to a question about Ballot Measure 105 — which would repeal a so-called "sanctuary" provision of the Oregon Constitution preventing state and local law enforcement resources from being used to pursue people purely on suspicion they have violated federal immigration law — by saying they do not support the statewide measure.
The candidates also agreed that homelessness and the availability of affordable housing are issues, but they took different tacks in their responses to the question.
Truax urged support for Measures 26-199 and 102, the former a Metro bond measure that would raise money for thousands of new units of low-income housing across the region and the latter a state constitutional amendment to relax restrictions on public-private housing partnerships.
"It would be a start," Truax said. "It wouldn't solve all the problem. But doing what we've been doing … and expecting different results is insanity. We have to do things differently. It's a new paradigm."
Johnston pointed to mental health as a major obstacle to dealing with homelessness. Many people who live on the streets, in Forest Grove and elsewhere, suffer from mental illnesses that are not always treated. Some have turned to "self-medicating," as Johnston put it.
"I think if we take care of the mental health issue and get people help that particular way, we get them stabilized, then we talk about the housing, temporary housing and getting jobs," Johnston said. "Mental health, to me, is the first issue that you have to take care of, because there's so many issues going on there."
Downeysmith said the "lowest-hanging fruit," something the city can encourage without the need to raise taxes, is to have more residents volunteer at shelters like the Forest Grove United Church of Christ's temporary emergency shelter, which provides bed stays a couple nights per week for people in need during the winter months.
"I volunteered at our homeless shelter last winter once a week, and it was an extremely eye-opening experience for me," Downeysmith said. "I thought I knew about homelessness. It completely changed my perspective. … I think there's a lot we can do to just kind of surround those people with love and support, and that doesn't cost money — that just takes our time."
"The best thing that we can do is get the knowledge of it, the opportunity to go volunteer at this homeless shelter out there, because I'm willing to bet that most people don't know about it," Clapshaw said. "I didn't know about it until just now."
Thompson said the city needs to work with private and religious groups as well as encourage more development on lots near Highway 8 and TriMet bus line 57, which provides 24-hour service between Forest Grove and Beaverton. He is also leery of raising taxes or fees for affordable housing.
"I'd hate to see more lose their home because we overspend in that area," Thompson said.
Wenzl agreed the City Council needs to keep in mind not just those who are currently homeless, but also people who are are "one healthcare scare away from losing their home," as she put it — or "one paycheck away from economic disaster," as Truax added.
Incumbents, challengers make final appeals
Not surprisingly, the incumbents framed their closing arguments around the work they have already done on behalf of the city and said they hope to continue doing it.
"I hope tonight, by answering questions and telling you a little bit about myself, I've been able to give you a taste of my policymaking approach," Wenzl said. "I am what you would call an emotional leader. My approach is to listen to the community and examine the issues from an inclusive and equitable lens, to ensure that the policy supports the goals and objectives of the community and the city."
Clapshaw and Downeysmith, the challengers in the race, both stressed that they want to be a voice for their constituents on the City Council.
"Communication is the biggest problem that our community faces," Clapshaw said. "The city doesn't have a really good way of talking to the community like you guys, and of course, you guys need a really good way to talk to us."
Truax, who has an enduring fondness for quoting statesmen of the past, concluded with a quote from former Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
"The moral test of a government is how it cares for those people in the dawn of life, the very young; how it cares for those in the sunset of life, the elderly; and how it cares for those in the shadows of life, the disadvantaged, the disabled and the otherwise challenged," Truax said, paraphrasing. "If we can do that, we can make this town even better than it is."
Wednesday's forum was the first in Forest Grove featuring all of the city candidates in this year's election. It was also something of a pinnacle moment for CPO 12F, which has returned to relevancy after being considered "inactive" for about 17 years. The group, one of several CPOs that provides input to the Washington County government from areas across the county, was effectively restarted earlier this year by a group of community members in Forest Grove.
Voting is already underway in the election. Ballots are due by 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6.
In Forest Grove, five candidates — Clapshaw, Downeysmith, Johnston, Thompson and Wenzl — are running for three seats on the City Council. No opponent filed to challenge Truax in the mayoral race, so he will appear alone on the ballot in the city's top election.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with more details on an exchange between Ron Thompson and Devon Downeysmith over moving on to the next question.
By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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