Q&A: Washington County commission candidates in their own words
Washington County voters have a big choice on their ballots this spring.
Voters at-large will elect the next Washington County chair. Kathryn Harrington is running for a second four-year term, challenged by Beach Pace.
District 2, which covers much of northern Washington County, also features an incumbent, Pam Treece, running for a second four-year term against a challenger, Don Frazier.
The only uncontested race for a seat on the Board of Commissioners is District 4, in western Washington County. First-term incumbent Jerry Willey is unopposed after two prospective challengers withdrew before the candidate filing period closed.
We reached out to all of the candidates for county commissioner with a short questionnaire. Their responses are listed below, in full and unabridged, with only light editing for style and grammar.
What is the most significant issue facing Washington County at this time? How would you go about fixing it?
Kathryn Harrington, at-large: As I've talked with residents throughout our community, homelessness and affordable housing are the top issues being identified. With financing from the Metro supportive housing services and affordable housing measures, which I supported, we are making progress.
There are almost 300 new apartment homes now open or under construction and another 800 in the construction pipeline for completion in the next 18 months. In the first eight months of offering supportive wrap-around services with temporary shelter, many homeless folks have moved off the streets and into stable housing, with job training, mental health and addiction services plus financial counseling offering folks a pathway to permanent stability. And there are more folks to help bring inside.
We are making significant progress, and I believe we can end chronic homelessness and prevent additional people from entering homelessness.
Beach Pace, at-large: Our housing shortage. The most significant issue facing Washington County right now is a severe shortage of housing inventory, which includes affordable housing, apartments, condos, single family homes, assisted living and even executive housing. This housing shortage is driving the cost of housing up to untenable levels and preventing access to housing for those currently experiencing houselessness.
Additionally, we need more services for our houseless and housing-insecure neighbors. Everything from rent and utility assistance to homes to shelters with 360 wrap-around services for the houseless will make a difference. Many of these services already exist but need to be coordinated across the county. We desperately need leadership here.
I will tackle this issue by working in collaboration with nonprofit organizations, community partners, developers, cities, and state legislators to identify systems that work to use available funds as efficiently as possible. This will include identifying and streamlining options and access to resources for those in need.
Pam Treece, District 2: Homelessness and housing insecurity are the most pressing issues facing both our county and our state. We must act with urgency to address this issue to reduce the current number of people experiencing homelessness and prevent further displacement.
I am actively supporting new shelters, expanded services to help those in our community who are struggling, and innovative solutions and partnerships to create safe places to call home for our residents. More housing, and more affordable housing, is another critical piece of addressing this issue. I work closely with local affordable housing providers to make effective investments in our community and am optimistic about the recent and upcoming affordable housing additions in our county.
Lastly, I am excited about the work currently underway on the Center for Addictions Triage and Treatment (CATT), a new project through our Behavioral Health Division to provide a 24/7 treatment center for those struggling with substance abuse. It will complement the existing Hawthorn Walk-In Center, which currently provides mental health and addiction services for residents.
I believe we must address issues comprehensively to achieve measurable results and I commit to Washington County residents to continue to prioritize our housing crisis with urgency.
Don Frazier, District 2: Special interest groups with pre-determined agendas.
I would review existing agendas and programs to re-qualify them, listen to all sides and then make judgments. I have no pre-determined agendas.
Jerry Willey, District 4: The demand for services is outpacing the available revenues. Currently inflation is 5+% and our tax base cannot exceed 3%.
Regarding the jail funding, the state is responsible for the care of felons; we provide for misdemeanors. The state has changed many felon charges to misdemeanors, meaning we are paying for significantly more individuals in jail. Also, our court system is significantly smaller than Multnomah County (number of judges and courtrooms) while our caseload is nearly the same size.
We need Legislature to pay for the services they are responsible for and stop unfunded mandates.
Washington County is becoming a much larger organization than in past years, with many more public services and departments. How would you address the need to work quickly while also engaging with a lot of different staff and community members?
Harrington: I first ran for Washington County chair in 2018 because I love Washington County and felt that our county government could do a better job of serving our community's needs, and do so in a more transparent way. It's been an honor to work as chair these last three years, and we've accomplished a lot even during this historic global pandemic.
With a shift in the board starting in January 2019, the philosophy of the Board of Commissioners changed to one which embraces the full services portfolio and accepts that Washington County is a safety-net government addressing community needs, especially the most vulnerable of our county residents.
The work culture at Washington County is changing. I have ensured that we are doing our board work transparently, modernizing policies, practices, and workforce expectations. Systems formal and informal were in place for decades without public service standards of performance, let alone excellence. Continuous improvement is now an expectation. I will ensure that this transformation takes hold and brings Washington County up to the highest levels of performance as a government.
Pace: Leadership is the key. I would start with getting to know the teams, team members, their roles, their pain points, their achievements and their goals. From there, we can have frank and honest conversations, internally, about the county's capabilities. Knowing what we've done and what we could do are critical.
We also need to know if the services being offered are effective. Are our programs impactful, relevant and reasonable in cost? Are the programs in line with the scope of our work? Are the communities using these services, or impacted by them, being consulted?
I believe one of my key strengths as a leader is my commitment to collaboration and engagement. I will keep listening and prioritize opportunities for direct engagement, with individuals and groups throughout the county, including nonprofit service organizations, businesses, and others. The county is considering a new strategic plan to replace the previous plan, which is 30 years old. Understanding the new plan, and working with staff and communities to adapt and adjust when needed, would be a crucial part of my work.
The county must do a better job of engaging in discussions, listening to our communities, sharing our progress and, of course, celebrating our successes.
Treece: Washington County, as an organization, has expanded to meet the needs of our fast-growing community. In the past 15 years, the county has nearly doubled in size, with my district showing the greatest growth in urban unincorporated residents. With this unprecedented growth comes increased needs we are working to address — including houselessness, behavioral health and addiction issues, public health, and much more.
Our new county administrator has, with commission support, implemented Design the Future, an initiative that requires restructuring the organization to serve our county now and into the future. We are well underway in that process, and I feel confident in our ability to respond to the needs of our community.
In 2020, I also led the change to our county charter to transition the commissioners from part- to full-time to be able to meet the expectations and needs of our residents now and into the future. As our community grows in size, the commission needs to be able to meet the needs of the 620,000 residents that elect us to serve them.
Frazier: Having developed several companies, I am quite ready to work with various groups and different backgrounds.
Willey: The two initiatives passed in the last few years have increased the demand for affordable housing and shelter housing. With the current employment demands, it is difficult to add staff to facilitate the demands from these two funding initiatives. We are inviting the communities of color and other nonprofit organizations to join with us to identify best practices and facilitate getting the new services into the market.
In what ways will you prioritize and implement better engagement with minority groups and other underrepresented people in the county?
Harrington: With my leadership and determination, two years ago, we adopted an equity resolution so that we center equity in all that we do. We hired our first-ever chief equity and inclusion officer and funded her new team to help the entire agency better serve our diverse community.
We have partnered with a wider array of community-based organizations such as Centro Cultural, Adelante Mujeres, APANO, Bienestar, IRCO and MET, and we are now doing so with our two largest city partners, Beaverton and Hillsboro, so that participating is less time-consuming for those organizations and their members.
Co-creation is a new norm in developing policy options and programs with equity at the center of all policy and investment decision-making. From using an equity tool in the formation of the new proposed fiscal year budget (July 2022 to June 2023), to the defining and adopting of countywide equity economic development framework, forming and using an equity-based evaluation criteria for funding county transportation projects, to the co-creation of the land acknowledgement and the Advisory Committee on Racial Equity, we have embraced equity and are advancing it in all county services.
Pace: To me, this is straightforward: meet people where they are. This approach means both meeting people in the physical spaces where they already are, as well as understanding their lived experiences to ensure I'm creating the space for what they need to connect. The county can, and must, be more directly engaged in conversations with minority groups and underrepresented communities, and that is something I promise to do.
It is also important to remember that minority groups take many forms, and include race, gender, LGBTQAI+, differently abled, languages spoken, geography, and more. As a woman who served in the military and as a lesbian, I consider myself a member of a minority and underrepresented groups. I understand what it means to be ignored or treated differently because of who I am. I know what it means to be refused housing because I have personally experienced it.
Although my experiences may be different from others', these experiences are what fuels my desire to do right by others; to provide services to all in an equitable fashion, and to ensure the voices of those communities are amplified, heard, and heeded. Honestly, it's what I am most excited about.
Treece: While there is always more work to do, I am incredibly proud of the tremendous progress the commission has made in engaging our diverse community since I joined the board in 2019. We engaged dozens of organizations in the creation and passage of our historic equity resolution to advance racial equity and create a more inclusive county and we consistently collaborate to operationalize this resolution.
I appreciate the opportunity to serve on the Centro Cultural Board and work closely with Adelante Mujeres to support and uplift Washington County's Latinx community, immigrants, and undocumented people. I am particularly proud of the work we've done to specifically engage our diverse communities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — from COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution to small business support — and will continue to pursue the same approach in my next term. I believe strongly in prioritizing an equitable future for our amazingly diverse county, and I embed this value in all of the work I do at the county — from our continued COVID-19 response to housing, transportation, and beyond.
Frazier: Interesting! I grew up in a reverse minority group. A white guy in a Mexican environment. I understand prejudice — been there, done that.
Willey: We are implementing the DEI resolution guidelines we passed in February 2020. We now have an Office of Inclusion, Equity and Community Engagement, and they are actively engaged with our minority organizations, as well as underrepresented communities. We are leading with race and implementing the equity lens in every policy and actions we are taking.
Do you see a significant rural-urban divide in WashCo? How do you think this would influence your time on the commission?
Harrington: I know that no matter where you live in Washington County, suburban neighborhoods, urban downtowns, or on rural farms and in forest areas, we all love the unique beauty, clean air and water, farmlands and forestlands that make up the 465,000 acres (727 square miles) of Washington County. It is that common love and appreciation for this land and all that inhabit it, that can bring us together, versus divide us further.
We may not agree on the causes of climate change, but we can agree that our clean air and water, and our agricultural economy, are under threat and that there is no time to waste. Future generations should have the opportunities that we have had in this beautiful place that I call home. Drought, fires, stream warming, and other climate effects are going to be increasingly tragic.
As chair, I will continue to take action on climate change and work to ensure that our work is rooted in environmental justice. Climate change is a key issue that the Board of Commissioners must spend more time focused on, with broader community engagement.
Pace: I do see a divide in the rural and urban communities in Washington County because of services that are or are not available or limited (examples: Ridwell/recycling, broadband). However, the conversations I've had suggest we have a lot more in common than many may think.
Regardless of zip code, people in Washington County are worried about the lack of available housing, the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on our economy, the environment, and many other shared concerns. And, to be frank, they are worried that the current chair does not have the temperament or the interest to hear from everyone in the county, from urban to rural, from cities to unincorporated areas.
We should also remember that Washington County has rural areas both within Metro and outside of the Metro. Even these two groups have very different needs, concerns, and goals.
I believe that my ability to work collaboratively will allow me to maximize my time on the commission. I am not seeking this position to push my own priorities. I am asking for your vote to drive the most diverse county, the fastest growing county, and the economic powerhouse of this great state forward together.
Treece: In Washington County, we are fortunate to have a healthy rural community that includes agricultural land and timber. The needs of our rural and urban community may be different, but, as a commission, we work together to address the needs of our residents regardless of where they live.
I have long held the belief that while each commissioner is elected by their district, we work together for the entire county. In addition, we have a structure called the Community Participation Organizations (CPOs). The focus of the CPOs is land use-related issues, and through this structure, the leadership of the county has access to the community voice for every area. I am active in all the CPOs in my district and see this as an important tool to connect with residents from both urban and rural communities.
It is the role of each commissioner to bring forward the needs of all parts of our respective districts to collectively address issues that our communities face.
Frazier: There may be a perceived divide, but I don't think that it is significant when everybody sits down to understand each other.
Willey: The demands are certainly different, but I don't see a "divide." My responsibility is to be engaged with both rural and urban needs and ensure that our budget decisions and policies reflect the different services necessary.
District 4 represents five and a half cities, touches four counties, large areas of agriculture and forestland. I get to work with commissioners from the southern counties as well as northwestern Oregon.
Looking ahead, the five small cities in District 4 are rapidly growing, which causes "growing pains" for the cities, as well as increased transportation demands on the commute to the employment areas. We need to be working with these cities, as they do not have the resources to adequately plan and implement the demand for services.
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