Gresham mayoral candidates discuss issues at forum
The two Gresham mayoral candidates met for the first time during an issues forum Tuesday evening, Oct. 23, hosted by the Coalition of Gresham Neighborhood Associations at City Hall.
Incumbent Shane Bemis shook hands with challenger Allen Cox. The candidates introduced themselves then dove into discussing prearranged questions from the association and submitted queries from the audience of about 60 people. Topics ranged from the budget and homelessness to parks and recreation and the Rockwood neighborhood.
The first question was whether they felt existing revenue should be spent differently. Cox began by discussing the issue that spurred him to run in the first place — the $15 water bill fee that funds police and public safety. He said the decision was made without community input.
"I am hoping to address those kinds of issues, because there are ways not to have those types of fees," he said.
Bemis talked about his experience dealing with revenue and budgets, like leading the city through the Great Recession and the cutting of almost 70 positions with the city. He responded to Cox's problems with the fee by saying it was a way to advocate for needed revenue.
"We all crafted the fee proposal together," Bemis said. 'We had 10 town hall meetings on this issue."
The two were then asked their ideas for addressing homelessness and its impact on all residents.
"This is one of the most vexing issues you face in public office, because it's not illegal to be homeless," Bemis said. "We have to lead with compassion, but draw a firm line."
Bemis highlighted the work that has been done on the Springwater Corridor Trail, and said that when Portland abandoned it Gresham took a different approach. He also praised the work of the Homeless Service Coordinator and other city programs. He wants to move forward with two things — addressing mental health and dealing with drug and alcohol addiction through a detox program.
Cox said homeless issues are mostly inherited from Portland, but need to be dealt with.
"Young people who are addicted to drugs — I don't have a lot of sympathy for," he said. "They are choosing that lifestyle, and I would make it uncomfortable for them."
Room to roam
The final prearranged questions focused on ideas the candidates had for improving parks and recreation.
"I was looking at the website and there are 32 parks in Gresham," Cox said. " I don't think we need more ... for a city our size, we are adequate."
"We don't have enough parks, and the ones we have aren't good enough," Bemis said. "Gresham is getting younger, and those families say they want more."
He went on to talk about the importance of finding funding to support the parks system, and thinking outside of the box to come up with solutions.
The audience then asked the two candidates questions on a variety of subjects.
When asked about what needs to be done in terms of infrastructure, Bemis spoke of the Residential Street Paving program, which just entered year two. It is a way for the city to improve neighborhood streets and fill potholes. He also talked about the need for long-term infrastructure and how to proceed with less support from federal funding.
Cox said streets need to be paved, noting the cul-de-sac where he lives is cracked because the original developer did a poor job. He would also lobby the state to get another bridge built across the Columbia River to better connect Oregon and Washington and support commuters.
As a way to bring more diverse types of businesses, Cox suggested making it easier to open a business in Gresham through incentives and other programs. Bemis said the city has to center on what people want. He highlighted opportunities available at Gresham Station, which is under new ownership, perhaps even fulfilling a much-sought-after Trader Joes.
The mayoral hopefuls were asked how they would address the increased population.
"I would like to see less low-income housing," Cox said.
Bemis stated the need to work with neighboring municipalities and Metro regional government, but find a way to grow without disrupting existing residents and neighborhoods.
The final question related to engaging with communities of color and the Rockwood Neighborhood, and how they would move forward working with those groups.
"We have had a demographic shift in Gresham, and it was very important to me that those communities understood that 'Hate is not a Gresham Value,'" Bemis said. "We reject white supremacy."
The mayor said the city has held 10 sessions in Rockwood to listen to the people, and plans to continue the practice.
"The majority of people who move here of color are working people and they don't demand or need interactions with the city," Cox said. "The others engage with police in one way or another. Those who are going to break the law make their own fate."
Bemis jumped in after Cox's answer to add a final thought.
"I want to make the connection that (the question) asked about communities of color," Bemis said, "and (Cox) made the connection to breaking the law."