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Six of the seven candidates for two positions on the commission attend the April 13 event at the Chehalem Cultural Center.

PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Position 1 candidate Bob Luoto addresses the audience on April 13 at the Chehalem Cultural Center.

Despite recent political tension in the community, organizers said last week's candidate forum in Newberg was a resounding success.

"(It) went incredibly smooth," Scott Parker, executive director of the Chehalem Valley Chamber of Commerce, said in an email. "I have had conversations with a few people who all agreed that it was an informative and beneficial forum."

The event was sponsored by the CVCC, Newberg City Club and George Fox University's Civility Project.

Around 150 people trickled into the Chehalem Cultural Center's grand ballroom on April 13 to listen to contenders for Yamhill County commissioner Positions 1 and 2 answer questions about their candidacies as the election looms.

Voter pamphlets will be available on April 27, ballots May 3 and the election is May 17.

Position 3 candidates Doris Towery and incumbent Mary Starrett attended, as did Position 1 hopefuls Beth Wytoski, Kit Johnson, Harry Noah and Bob Luoto (David Wall was absent).

Questions came from Ron Mock, Civility Project organizer and GFU professor emeritus; Kat Ricker, Chehalem Park and Recreation District public information director; Alex Brydon, CVCC board member, and Mike Donahue, a member of the Newberg City Club.

Candidates were allowed a minute for opening and closing statements and 90 seconds to answer each question.

Candidates' opening statements

Towery, Wytoski, Johnston, Luoto and Noah sought to connect with citizens based on shared backgrounds.

Towery said she is the child of a steel worker and a first-generation college graduate.

Wytoski described herself as a "fourth generation resident of Yamhill County raising the fifth" who is seeking to make the county better for her three daughters.

Johnston and Luoto, also longtime county residents, talked about their respective industries, farming and logging. Johnston also listed property rights, land and resource preservation and supporting local businesses as top priorities. Luoto highlighted his past lobbying efforts and community leadership roles.

Alaska native Noah also referenced his farming experience. He also pointed out his strengths in fiscal responsibility, managing agencies and developing infrastructure.

Starrett, who has lived in Yamhill County for 30 years but is originally from New York, focused on state government overreach and its negative impact on counties, especially regarding child welfare.

"I think what happens in Salem doesn't stay in Salem and the legislative priorities can sometimes have an enormous impact on the counties today," Starrett said, adding that her "perspective has always been, no sacred cows and the county residents come first."

Question: Describe the responsibilities of a county commissioner and explain why you believe you are qualified for the position

Common themes among the candidates were budgeting, improving infrastructure, city-county collaboration and finding common ground.

Additionally, Johnston advocated for communication between county officials and citizens, referencing the Yamhelas Westsiders Trail as a failed example. PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Doris Towery is challenging incumbent Mary Starrett for the Position 3 spot on the Board of Commissioners.

"We need to make sure the channels (between county officials and citizens) are open and communication is straightforward," Johnston said, so "we don't waste our hard-earned money on stuff that probably won't end up coming to fruition."

Starrett said county commissioners "go above and beyond what the average politician would do."

Question: How do you plan to fix the community division and include all perspectives in the decision-making process?

All the candidates said in various iterations that they would seek common ground.

Wytoski, Luoto and Towery said they would sit down with warring sides to find collaborative solutions.

"Bringing people together is what I do. …," Wytoski said. "I know that when people gather, it's hard to be angry at your neighbors ..."

Luoto said one of the reasons he's running for commissioner is to address the county's divisiveness.

"I have no illusions that it's going to be simple; I don't think is. But I'm going to sit down with people on both sides and … figure out what's best for Yamhill County," he said.

Johnston encouraged opposing sides to communicate and engage with each other.

"If you can just have an open line of communication and a willingness to engage with someone, I think that will help a lot. …," he said. "To me, it doesn't matter (if someone is Republican or Democrat). You have that open line of communication and it starts with both sides."

Noah said people need to listen to one another and give credit where credit is due.

"You could not survive in business the way people treat each other in politics," he said.

Starrett said she has learned that even if she vehemently disagrees with people, she knows they at least share a love for the county.

Question: What do you view as the most critical issue facing our county and what is your proposed solution?

Johnston said transportation, while Noah, Towery and Luoto highlighted infrastructure and Noah homelessness.

Starrett said foreclosure prevention and opioid addiction.

Wytoski said county-city partnership and, most importantly, planning.

"I think the biggest challenge the county is facing is actually planning," she said. "That is what is the backbone of all the things were talking about. (For example) If we had a better plan for urban sprawl and housing, we would have less issue with our unhoused population."

Question: We've seen the devastation that COVID-19 has had on our community and local businesses. How will you support the recovery effort and help foster a strong local business economy?

Noah said retired professionals should teach trade skills to students who plan to enter the workforce immediately.

Luoto proposed tax incentives and recruiting qualified people to work in the county.

Starrett implied she would fight government overreach when she criticized the state's COVID policies.

"It is not incumbent upon the state to take away the ability to make a living and for people to stay healthy and sane, and we watched that really, really horrible stuff happen in the last two years," she said. PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Organizers were pleased with the turnout for the forum in the grand ballroom of the cultural center.

Towery championed finding creative solutions to both support businesses and keep people safe.

Wytoski and Johnston both said investing in the Strategic Economic Development Corporation (SEDCOR). Wytoski also suggested leveraging tourism dollars so as not to raise taxes, while Johnston mentioned supporting McMinnville's Economic Development innovation center.

Question: Despite what you see when you drive into Newberg, there is a housing problem in Yamhill County for working families. That housing problem, that gap if you call it that, creates a problem for our economy and for our community. If you're elected, what would you do to close that gap, to solve those problems?

All the candidates championed affordable housing but presented a variety of solutions.

Luoto suggested expanding the urban boundary, while Towery encouraged the county to support urban growth and renewal projects in cities.

Noah said the county's biggest obstacle is land availability and recommended trading land.

Starrett blamed the housing problem on Oregon's restrictive land use laws. She and Wytoski agreed that the county should install more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in rural residential areas.

Towery recommended reserving some percentage of housing development for affordable housing.

Wytoski called for county-city partnerships to address the impact of short-term vacation rentals on the cost of living and housing availability.

"Short-term vacation rentals really hurt our neighborhoods and they really drive up the prices of housing," she said, adding that they prevent families from securing housing as "that house is a lot more valuable when you can rent it out for $1,200 a week than $1,200 a month."

Johnston proposed employee housing and utilizing extraneous space.

Question: Describe a time in which your thinking about an important public issue was changed because of your interactions with someone you disagreed with.

Starrett said that she has often had to change her mind on land use issues. She added that while she might not always like a proposed outcome, she must consider "what does the law allow?"

Towery said while on Lane County's transit district board, she had to collaborate with business owners who opposed the construction of a bus corridor to find an appropriate compromise.

"Ultimately we crossed the finish line on that bus corridor and it is a crown jewel of the bus system now in that community and has beat its projections for transporting people across our community," Towery said.

Wytoski and Noah both said the homelessness issues are much more complex than they initially thought.

Johnston said his opinion about the Yamhelas Westsider Trail changed after he talked to farmers that claim they would have been adversely effected by its creation.

"There needed to be more communication up front," he said. "Those farmers were up in arms. They were alerted at the 11th hour that there was going to be a trail coming through and that's when they started fighting back."

Luoto said resource management regulations.

"I've seen a lot of changes, and not all of them are good, but I've had to learn to live with them and work with them and I think that's something that gives me that flexibility to be a commissioner because I'm willing to look at all options," Luoto said.

Question: What is the proper balance between county and local interests on city initiatives such as the Newberg urban renewal project?

Both Towery and Wytoski said county commissioners should support their cities' decisions, as the county has a vested interest in their success.

Wytoski added that while "cities have jurisdiction to make these decisions … the county has an opportunity to be more proactive and participating in those decisions … so that we can grow our communities."

Johnston said he would allow taxpayers to decide how their money is spent.

Noah and Luoto said the county should take the lead on bringing back jobs.

"One of the highest things I think for people is to realize where the city stops and where the county begins," Luoto said, adding that commissioners should "close those gaps" and "do what we can to get people's jobs back," especially living wage jobs.

Starrett criticized what she said is the lack of communication and respect from public officials to county citizens, citing the Yamhelas Westsider Trail as an example.

"I will never say that the people who are the smartest people are people involved in government decisions or involved in focus groups," Starrett said, adding that taxpayers are the ones who are "ultimately going have to pay the price" and should be consulted for their opinions.

Question: When your terms ends, and it is deemed successful, what will you have accomplished?

All the candidates but Starrett promised to improve infrastructure.

"If we could put some systems into place where the county could go after projects and there would be a way to take the money, complete the projects but in a way that we don't grow county government but get the job done by using contractors," Noah said.

Wytoski and Towery said they would increase cooperation between cities.

Noah, Luoto and Towery said they would strive to reduce homelessness.

Despite being a hot topic earlier in the session, Noah was the only candidate to address community division.

Starrett said she would work to keep children out of foster care and juvenile detention facilities, increase beds in rehabilitation centers and reduce foreclosures.

Final Statements

Johnston doubled down on open communication and infrastructure.

"I've seen a couple of projects come down because the communication breakdown has cost the county money, and I don't like seeing that," Johnston said.

Starrett said she would continue to keep the county "fiscally restrained" to prevent major program cuts as neighboring counties have had to do. She also criticized the use of grants.

"We need to wean ourselves off of grants because what government gives, government holds conditions on …," Starrett said.

Towery countered Starrett's statement, arguing that government can be a "tremendous force for good."

"When managed well, it can have a huge positive impact on everyone single resident in our community," Towery said.

Like Luoto and Wytoski, she advocated for finding common ground and coming back together as a community.

"We're exhausted from these divisive politics," she said. "This is not who we are … The very core of our fabric is we roll up our sleeves, we stand side by side, we work together to find solutions, we support each other, we help our neighbors, we are kind to each other and we're all working to be successful and to help each other out. And I want to bring us back to that."

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