Lake Oswego mayoral candidates address diversity, environment
In an election year that has seen Lake Oswego's current mayor come under fire for "all lives matter" comments, as well as deadly and unprecedented wildfires that struck dangerously close to city limits, it was fitting that the first forum featuring just the three mayoral candidates — Theresa Kohlhoff, John LaMotte and Joe Buck — focused specifically on two issues: sustainability and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion).
The forum, hosted by Respond to Racism and the Lake Oswego Sustainability Network, was streamed live Friday, Oct. 9. Recent Lakeridge High School graduates Mya Gordon and Anna-Marie Guenther moderated the forum, which lasted about 75 minutes as candidates traded answers on an array of topics. A similar forum for City Council candidates is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 14.
"We're all here tonight because we care deeply about this community," Respond to Racism co-founder Willie Poinsette said. "Our mayor plays a key role in setting the tone for city leaders and in charting the course for our city. This includes fostering a welcoming and inclusive environment for all community members. We're very fortunate to have three mayoral candidates who have a passion for making Lake Oswego a great place to live."
The first question referenced a policy regarding inclusivity that the City Council approved earlier this year, with the candidates being asked what steps they would take to "move the needle" on the policy.
Kohlhoff said she hopes people view these efforts as ever-evolving.
"I've been watching civil rights since the '60s and was reading the other night where people, when Obama won … thought (the fight) was over. So I ask you to see this as an ongoing action-evaluation, action-evaluation," Kohlhoff said. "But I think that clearly we have the DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) Task Force, which will conclude at the end of this year and have specific recommendations. But in the next year it's very clear we need a standing advisory committee."
She added that the city would also be examining its police force, and that work should continue into the new year.
LaMotte also referenced the DEI Task Force and examination of community policing, adding that the City Council (both LaMotte and Kohlhoff are current council members) is also doing its own DEI work.
"(We're doing) DEI training right now as a council," LaMotte said. "We've done some earlier as a council and there's more we can do. Our police (force) is doing a lot of training; there's more we can do."
He said the mayor's job would be to listen to the recommendations from the DEI Task Force and the review of community policing, then put them into action.
"The statement we put together was strong, and we just need to make sure other people know it and we put words into action," LaMotte said.
Buck, who served on the council from 2014-18, said the city needs to put action behind its words.
"Specific action is critical. I appreciate what the city has done with statements, but thus far we've seen lots of words and not a lot of action," Buck said. "The DEI task force, which has been very limited with its time and scope, needs to be made a permanent committee and it needs to look at what the city is doing to make sure we truly do have city services that are accessible to the wide variety of people that we do have in LO."
He added that the city should also find ways to provide tangible support for entrepreneurs of color and increase oversight to ensure that people of color in the city are not being targeted by the police.
Turning to the climate, the candidates were asked about the city's recently adopted Climate Action Plan and how they would take steps to meet the goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.
LaMotte said he prioritized sustainability well before he joined the council, particularly when he was part of the Lake Oswego Planning Commission's efforts to write the "healthy ecosystem" chapter of the city's comprehensive plan. The key now, he said, was to put the Climate Action Plan into, well, action.
"We finally have a clear plan that a lot of good people put a lot of effort in, so one of the big jobs of the mayor in the next term will be to implement that plan and get these things going," he said. "We've done a lot of good things in sustainability in the city with green energy, some electric charging stations — more are needed — new ride-sharing approach, water meters that are automated, etc. But we could be the most sustainable city in Oregon if we do it right and follow the plan."
Buck said the efforts should start with empowering city staff — which he said hadn't happened in recent months.
"Right now we're seeing a lack of empowerment at that level which is causing us to stall," he said. "That's why we're seeing absolutely no action on our sustainability plan since its adoption."
He added that along with the current sustainability coordinator position, the city should also add a natural resources manager. And while much of the city's infrastructure work in recent years has centered on road maintenance, Buck said attention should soon turn to active transportation pathways.
"I'd like to see a 10-year 'path to pathways' as I call it that will include focusing on connections from our neighborhoods to our town centers and from our neighborhoods to our schools, first and foremost," Buck said.
Kohlhoff said the city's first action should be to declare a state of emergency related to climate change.
"I think of (sustainability) as like Russian dolls," she said. "At the bottom is the economic issue, then the social issue and over and above is the environmental issue. I think the climate emergency says that that is what is prioritized."
Kohlhoff said some of the lack of action from the city was related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I agree that resources suddenly got jolted in terms of COVID and I would imagine there will continue to be a certain level of chaos around our budget arising from that and its effect," Kohlhoff said. "But climate chaos continues."
She cited regional transportation improvements as a major factor in combating climate change and added that the city's climate plan was "absolutely dreadful" when it came to tree protection.
"I believe the tree canopy has global implications and must go in the development code," she said.
The candidates also addressed a series of "lightning round" questions and were asked to simply hold up a "yes" or "no" card after each question. All three candidates agreed that the city manager should publish a quarterly list of all police traffic stops with information about ethnicity and the reasons for the stops. As for whether the city should create a permanent DEI committee, Buck and Kohlhoff said yes while LaMotte said "maybe."
View the full forum here.
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