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Top-seat aspirants discuss priorities, solutions for city's pressing issues from COVID recovery to policing

A diverse mix of five candidates are vying to become the next mayor of Gresham, hoping to bring new ideas and perspectives to the top seat in city leadership.

The candidates are Sean Bishop, Joe Demers, Eddy Morales, Travis Stovall, and Nick Switzer. The community will have the chance to vote on the person who best fits their desires for Gresham in the November 3 general election.

Bishop, 47, is a civic volunteer and activist who has lived in Gresham since 2012. He has worked in the fast food industry, for a manufacturing company, and with Portland Public Schools as a school custodian. After an accident falling off a roof, he has transitioned to volunteering in the Rockwood neighborhood and supporting local businesses by cleaning properties and dealing with any code violation issues.

Demers, 43, is raising a family of four in Gresham, where he has lived for 25 years. He has made a career supporting his community with a desire to drive — with that passion blossoming into a professional career as a commercial driver for delivery and distribution companies, as well as in the garbage service. He also worked in customer relations and management.

Morales, 40, is serving on the Gresham City Council after being elected in 2018. He and his partner bought a home in the city in 2010, and lived in and out of Gresham and East Multnomah County since Morales was in high school. He is the treasurer of the Democratic Party of Oregon, founder of East County Rising and serves the boards of many organizations. He also owns his own small business.

Stovall, 47, grew up in Kansas City and moved to East Multnomah County two decades ago — purchasing a home in Gresham in 2006. He is co-founder and CEO of eRep, a tech company. He led the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce as president of the board of directors; is a board member on several organizations, including TriMet; and is former director of the East Metro Economic Alliance.

Switzer is a Reynolds High School graduate and attended the University of Oregon. He is currently employed as a painter and insulation distributor, and works at a golf course. Switzer did not reply to multiple attempts to set up an interview by press time.

The Outlook spoke with the candidates to find out what priorities are important to them, as well as hear their takes on important issues — from COVID-19 recovery and public safety to parks and diversity.

Why are you running for mayor?

COURTESY PHOTO: SEAN BISHOP - Sean BishopBishop: "Because my grandpa, Wilbur Bishop Sr., was mayor of Tigard for 16 years. I think Gresham needs a change, screwy things are going on. Rockwood and Gresham need a change."

Demers: "I was running for state representative but all the stuff that happened in Gresham with the police chief, mayor and city manager stepping down caught my attention. A lot of people who were being pushed toward those positions were wanting to defund the police. We need to stop from having a council that would influence our governmental stance toward socialistic revolutionary policies. I don't want to see that happen here. These are all nonpartisan seats, and they shouldn't be taking a political stance."

Morales: "My life's work has been about engaging and empowering our community — to shape our city and the public policies that affect our lives. I had been doing that as a city councilor. In the last couple of years I discovered our city has been controlled by a small group of people, and a lot of recent events revealed how insular our City Hall has been. We can fix a lot of the problems we have in city government. We have to pull back the curtains and shine light, and I can do that as mayor."

Stovall: "I've been involved in Gresham for a longtime with the Chamber and subcommittees, and had the opportunity to learn about the great things we have, as well as the challenges. Recently I have been encouraged to delve into the leadership side because that is where we can have an impact. Mayor (Shane Bemis) was a great leader for the city — he gave us a foundation to build on. We have challenges with our budget, leadership and management, but also the other side of the conversation around racial injustice. I have an unique lived-experience and can take a measured and balanced approach to the changes we need to make as a city."

What are your top priorities as a candidate?

COURTESY PHOTO: JOE DEMERS - Joe DemersDemers: "Economic development — I see a big problem in Gresham when we come out of the lockdown. I'm anticipating 5-10 % of the population will be facing mass evictions. We need to cut livability costs for those families here in Gresham. Public safety — I don't believe we should be defunding the police, we should improve them and take advantage of training systems in place within the GPD that records positive effects of officers in community and bridge gap between officers and laypeople here in Gresham. Education — I want to see the system expanded to school choice vouchers for families and education savings accounts so money can follow their children."

Morales: "Government-wide accountability; making sure residents can share concerns about employees and police; allowing people to know the reporting mechanisms; creating diversity, equity and inclusion with council being more direct by setting a policy; reviewing hiring practices; supporting parks and housing funding. Two years ago when I was first elected I brought up the budget problem, with the city spending more money than it had. I was told we would create a committee to explore how to have a more sustainable budget — now we find ourselves in a pandemic that has exasperated the situation. We need to protect our seniors, parents, teachers and small businesses during the pandemic."

Stovall: "Public safety is a critical piece to leading our city. Poverty leads to the public safety issues. I am not a defund the police proponent, I am for reimagination of law enforcement. We have structural issues we need to unpack at every level of the organization. My focus is economic access and education, equity through jobs, development, affordable childcare and improved transportation."

Bishop: "Making the city better, keeping it clean, and getting rid of the trash and filth in the streets and neighborhoods. You have to walk around and take a look at what I have done. I help businesses and private properties in picking up garbage, painting the concrete and handicap markings, and call in when car accidents damage utility poles. The slacking off needs to knock it off — it's time to run a city the right way and a better way. Safety is my number one concern."

How would you support business recovery and the community during the COVID-19 pandemic?

COURTESY PHOTO: EDDY MORALES - Eddy MoralesMorales: "We need to explore more public-private partnerships to bring resources to our community. I would like to see more of the grants we provided small businesses during the beginning of COVID. We need to continue to reach businesses not supported in the first round of funds. I would love to provide more assistance for utilities and rent through our portion of the CARES fund, which is about $6 million. Also I would like to provide families with those CARES dollars, whether it is for childcare, rent assistance, or something else."

Stovall: "First is ensuring we are talking to our federal legislators, because they have resources we do not. We need to have programs for our businesses to get them what they need. Keep them stronger — not strong because we are all feeling a bit weak right now. Jobs and incomes are important, as is bringing outside dollars into our city. We have to continue the programs we already started, take a hard look at our budget, and find other grant opportunities. People are still opening new businesses in the heart of the COVID situation, and we need to support them. Large businesses can also help by buying local first, using their capital that the small businesses don't have."

Bishop: "I am helping them with any upgrades and if you need any help let me know — I do it for free. If I notice their business is lacking in some stuff I walk up and tell them. Whatever it takes to make that business look better."

Demers: "We need to create a contingency plan for our small businesses who had to close their doors during the lockdown and create incentives for them to return. We need to have a rainy day fund for small businesses if something like this happens again."

What is your stance on police reforms?

COURTESY PHOTO: TRAVIS STOVALL - Travis StovallStovall: "We start by looking at the challenges in our community supported by data. I am a Black man living in America who has faced more than my fair share of overt and subvert discrimination, somewhat at the hands of law enforcement. I did nothing wrong but was treated poorly because of the color of my skin. We have to work through the biases. We have to reduce the opportunity for chokeholds and be balanced in our approach. Some folks are making accusations that 'all police officers do x' but we get frustrated when folks say 'all Black people do x.' We have militarization of our police department. I'm not an expert, but I can provide leadership for our council and our city."

Bishop: "I think it needs a little bit of change here and there. If there is a shooting, take care of it quick and fast. You want to try and calm everybody down. Training and better ways to handle mental things and stuff, because mainly it's just pull out your taser or gun. Take a couple extra seconds to think and talk to the person going crazy. Get opinions from other people in the room. If (officers) are doing bad stuff slap them on the wrist and take a little money away, but I don't want to defund them."

Demers: "We can bridge the gap between our police and the community. Because the city budget has already been reduced, we have had to sacrifice 6 fulltime police positions. We have to balance the budget to help our police and prioritize projects and services to ensure public safety stays in place with what they need. I want to see a required amount of de-escalation training for our offices. And I want to make sure qualified immunity is not taken away."

Morales: "The police make up 40% of our city's general fund. We need to be thinking more creatively about how we fund public safety. We can create a resident oversite committee that receives regular reports and provides feedback to the community and council. I talked with the police about how difficult it is to find the process for filing a complaint —right now it's under the comments section on the website. When someone files a complaint, it is assigned internally and investigated internally. We need to give the option to file a police report outside the department, potentially with the city attorney's office."

What are your ideas for uplifting the Rockwood neighborhood?

Bishop: "I would have to sit and look at all the paperwork and figure out how to get volunteers together. The laziness needs to stop. We have a pandemic going on and nobody cares about all the trash."

Demers: "Rockwood is going to have to be the same as other areas and use opportunity zones and investors to come in and develop. The revenue on the city end just won't be there. Use priority and opportunity zones and find outside investors to build properties — low-income homes and stuff like that so families can continue to live in our community and invest in themselves and small businesses."

Morales: "Rockwood is our most populous neighborhood and our most diverse — but also one of our most under resourced. I am excited to see some of the investments happening there, with Metro funds that should be provided using an equity lens. We need to be direct about where the money is needed most. I am the vice chair of the Gresham Redevelopment Commission, and I support expanding and extending our urban renewal zone because during the 2008 Recession council put projects on hold instead of continuing to invest."

Stovall: "To some degree folks have not given much credit to the efforts being made by the city in the Rockwood neighborhood. The county courthouse in was seen as a catalyst to begin a reimagining of that part of the city so we can have that concept of poverty to prosperity. Renewing the Blue Max Line through the east side enhanced the area significantly with specific art that was culturally appropriate with community members. Overall the city is going to continue to have investments into the Rockwood area."

What is your stance on homelessness?

Bishop: "We need to get them off the streets into some kind of shelter or portable home. Being on the street and having the street so filthy with (excrement) — by Ruby Junction that is all you smell. It's not healthy. Code enforcement will walk the beats and ticket people. Trying to get the homeless out of here if they aren't willing to help clean because they have overstayed their welcome."

Demers: "I met with Joe Walsh and his team at the city, who have been very effective with helping homeless in the community and keeping them off the trials. We have a good program to operate between preventing campsites the community doesn't want to see and helping the homeless at the same time. Have that program continue and once the budget is balanced I would like to see that expanded if the city can help out in any way. They only have a team of three, we can expand that to affect other areas well."

Morales: "I would love to create a homeless task force that includes people that are currently experiencing homelessness to create set of recommendations for what we can do. We need to address the real causes of homelessness. I know that part of it includes addressing the barriers that prevent people from being able to rent or own a home. Affordability is another barrier, with people unable to afford first and last month rent, as well as a deposit. We need to continue offering resources about getting people back on their feet and getting the mental help they need."

Stovall: "We have been getting folks that are homeless off Springwater Trail and transitioning them into temporary housing over the last 18 months. It is critical we help out the homeless population and allow them access to temporary and permanent housing. We need to have varying types of housing in our community. I was on the affordable housing task force, and Metro just passed a large housing bond. Gresham needs to deploy our portion on creating a nice mix of housing."

How would you create funding for parks and recreation?

Demers: "I heard council talk about participatory budgeting and I am looking into that. There are a lot of people running on a parks district platform — I don't agree with that at this time, especially during a lockdown in our city when everyone is scared to be by each other and are staying away from our parks. A Parks District isn't viable and places another burden on the citizens if they can't find funding. As much as I want to see our parks expanded, unless we can come up with a way of another form of funding that is not viable right now."

Morales: "We have quite a bit of park and greenspace in Gresham that makes our city really beautiful. In the last 10 years we have continued to divest resources in parks and recreation, and now it is just a parks program that involves maintenance and upkeep — and even that is suffering. Having increased investments in recreational programming is important to the livability and economic viability of city. We can continue to reach out for public private partnerships for grants but ultimately the next steps is supporting a feasibility study and looking into participatory budgeting so the community can be involved in making decisions."

Stovall: "Everybody is talking about a parks district and I thought the info we received was on point that it provides for a more stable funding mechanism that lives outside the permanent tax rate. We need more info on the cost, but on the surface I like the idea of a parks district because recreation is part of the livability of a community, and we can enhance the experience. The challenges is having these conversations within the context of what is going on with COVID, so additional funding is a challenge right now even with the overall positive things it would bring."

Bishop: "I think the parks need to stop paying millions of dollars on pamphlets, which at the end of the year we threw in the garbage. Get rid of stuff like that and go online. You take the money and do the upgrades. Some parks don't even charge for stuff, why not charge a dollar for a movie night like a donation type of thing? You want to get a whole bunch of people together to talk about things and make it better."

Is lack of representation and diversity a problem in Gresham and City Hall?

Morales: "Over the last couple of months we have made strides in making city hall more diverse. The appointment of Councilor Vincent Jones-Dixon was an important to have a representative from our Black community at the decision making table. If I am elected mayor I would be the first mayor of color and openly LGBTQ person in our city. When I ran it offered an invitation to those who felt City Hall wasn't welcome. We still have a lot of work to do as a city to make our city more equitable and inclusive."

Stovall: "I can't answer if there is an equity problem in City Hall, but there is a perception of one. I haven't seen the numbers, but employment should reflect the population distribution. I believe that is something we can utilize as a starting point. On the surface people of color don't see many people of color within City Hall. It's about holding folks accountable as we fill positions that decrease inherent bias. Many folks think we are filling quotas, but it's not about that. We have many qualified people of color, women and gender fluid folks who have the knowledge and experience to fill a role."

Bishop: "I think there needs to be more African-American and Hispanic people active in the city. More knowledge on how they can participate."

Demers: "I think every nationality within our community has the opportunity to advance to those positions, but I agree with a merit based system. Everyone running for school boards right now is filled with diverse candidates. It's up to the people to vote them into those positions."

Why should people vote for you?

Stovall: "I bring a balance that I don't think exist in many candidates that run for office. I have had to lean into some tough decision that not everybody agreed with, but my goal is to be fair and balanced. I am somebody who comes into this conversation well-informed about the many challenges in Gresham and the knowledge of how to address regional and local needs. In his resignation letter Mayor Bemis said the best outcome would be if I was elected as mayor. We have an opportunity to do something great within our city, and I believe I am the person to lead us through it."

Bishop: "Because I am not a politician. I am funny, I get things done, and if I can't get it done I will find ways to do it with help from others. You see a lot of people who don't really care anymore. I decided to take over the entire city and clean it up."

Demers: "I am a citizen candidate who has worked in the community over 20 years. I understand what the community is about and a lot of our problems and power struggle is because of establishment candidates who end up being in office too long. Their ideological aspects take over and they end up leaning too far in one direction. I want to establish districts back into the community for those running for city council. The at-large vote is bad for our community because candidates can monopolize the vote. We need to give underdogs a chance to serve."

Morales: "Out of all of the people running for mayor I have experience serving on council and being part of the change bringing more people into City Hall and the governmental process. I have pointed out the problems the city has faced for more than a decade. By electing me I will put in place some good governance policies to prevent the insular culture we have had."

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