The five candidates for two positions on the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners faced off April 18, before a packed room at the Madras Central Oregon Community College campus.
For position 1, Kim Schmith, of Madras, is challenging incumbent Mae Huston, of Culver. Position 2, currently held by Mike Ahern, who is retiring, has three people running, Courtney Snead, Mary Kendall and Kelly Simmelink, all of Madras.
The forum, hosted by the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, featured a panel of three moderators: former mayor, city councilor and commissioner Rick Allen, of Madras, current Commissioner Mike Ahern, of Madras, and Marla Rae Vibbert, of Gateway, who worked for Bend radio stations in the 1970s, and then moved to Salem, where she became the senior assistant to two attorneys general.
A second forum — for county clerk candidates — is scheduled for Wednesday, April 25, at 6 p.m., at the Madras COCC. Meet the candidates ahead of the forum at 5:30 p.m.
Candidates agreed that the cost to the environment should be considered when looking for economic development.
"We want to be a responsible County Commission," said Huston. "We also have to keep it in balance, and pick what's important."
When balancing the environment and development, Snead said that the land-use system is designed to protect high value agricultural land. "There's more balance to find," she said. "We need to be realistic about how we create that balance."
Calling Opal Springs water "a gift," Schmith said that it needs to be protected, and she would support "clean industry."
Simmelink said that the key word is sustainability. "I'm super proud of what North Unit Irrigation District has done. Environmentally, we have to treat our river right," he said, while taking into account the needs of farmers. "In my opinion, if anything goes awry with this irrigation district, we're going to be in trouble."
Although economic development is "very important," Kendall said that she doesn't want to sacrifice the area's good farmland. In California, she said, the pendulum swung too far, and farmland was lost. "I'm very much in agreement with trying to find a balance."
Asked about spending county resources to enforce federal immigration laws, responses were mixed.
"From my perspective, local government has a lot to do," said Snead. "I don't necessarily think it is our role. When it comes to immigration, we have laws for a reason, and the law needs to be upheld." She does support a path for citizenship for young people illegally brought to the country as children — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — policy.
Schmith said that she doesn't agree with the federal government issuing mandates and then not backing the mandates up with funding. "That's the number 1 issue," she said.
Simmelink said that he supports sending troop to the U.S. southern border to assist with illegal immigration, but would also like to see a path to citizenship for DACA recipients. "I wish there was an easier way to citizenship," he said.
Kendall would first research to determine legal requirements. "As far as the immigration part, I'm an immigrant," said Kendall, who legally moved to the U.S. with her family from Portugal. "I have nothing against people coming here."
Huston said the she agrees with the court that the county needs to obey laws. "We're a country of laws," she said, adding that she supports the sheriff and the jail. "We have, as a country, welcomed people from around the world, and I think we always will."
Hot button issues were also discussed. For Schmith, the lack of affordable housing in the community was concerning. "More and more of us are on the fringe," she said.
Simmelink cited the Crooked River Ranch alternative exit and economic development, while Kendall said that she wants to maintain what the county has now with farmers and ranchers.
Huston said that she initially ran on the platform of fiscal responsibility. "At the time, the county was the only county in the state that was debt free," she said.
Snead said she didn't have a "hot button" issue, but wants to bring people together to do things more efficiently. "I view our county as so full of richness," she said.