Citizen-organized group wants to foster discussion on important issues affecting county residents

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - A planning meeting is held in St. Helens by the newly formed Columbia County Citizen Education Committee. With the help of a county commissioner, the group aims to organize regular town hall-style meetings for residents to discuss and learn more about issues affecting the county.A grassroots group of Columbia County residents could be the newest conduit for county-wide citizen discussion.

During a planning meeting Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 21, a table at a Thai restaurant in St. Helens seats seven people, including County Commissioner Alex Tardif.

The group is chaired by Scappoose resident Hal Ritz. Ritz says the group is a non-partisan effort to hold town hall style meetings with residents about issues affecting Columbia County.

The idea came on the heels of a visit Ritz had with Tardif to discuss his take on citizen engagement and how to better inform the public about county issues. Ritz then talked with Commissioners Margaret Magruder and Henry Heimuller, to pick their brains on the same topic.

"I decided it was important for me to talk to each of the county commissioners," Ritz says. "I wanted to find out what kind of problems they were having, and what their outlook for the county was and just get a sense of what's going on at the top level of our county here."

The three elected officials said they were often discouraged by the lack of public participation in county meetings and events.

"They would set up meetings for budgets and different events coming up and even provide food, and get a turnout of three, or one who came out just for the food," Ritz says of the county. "It is a problem, because most of our people commute. Timing is a big issue. People are busy, but what we plan to do is try to get everyone involved in this."

The idea is to hold bi-monthly meetings on a particular topic and have guest speakers address each topic, with feedback from county residents culminated via Q-and-A sessions and survey questions.

The first of the town hall style meetings is scheduled for September 12, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the auditorium within the Columbia Learning Center at the St. Helens Public Library. A panel of guests is slated to discuss jobs and the economic outlook for Columbia County. Tardif will moderate.

Guests speakers include Bill Gerry of Boeing and the Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center, Doug Hayes from the Port of Columbia County, Shawna Sykes who is a workforce development analyst for the state, and representatives from the South Columbia County Chamber of Commerce and the Columbia County Economic Team.

Future topics being considered range from transportation to education and healthcare. Ritz says he hopes to see everyone from high school civics class students to elected leaders and seniors in the county at the sessions.

"It started with a conversation about education, as in, what is happening in the county?" Tardif says of the newly formed group. "I'm interested to see how this first forum goes. I think it's going to be really informative."

The county commissioner says he likes the idea of citizens, industry leaders and elected officials conversing with each other, but aside from putting the word out, getting people to attend the sessions, and fostering productive discussions and information sessions, the group's biggest challenge lies in bridging the gap between staunchly different demographics within the county.

"We're in a time of hate and despair and if we can't overcome that with hope and opportunity, then we continue that division," Tardif says.

Across the table from Ritz sits Chip Bubl, Jolene Jonas and Jim Lichatowich. Nancy Bubl sits adjacent and the group talks fliers, scheduling, and the logistics of lining up guest speakers for each session.

"Hopefully these panelists will give us something to talk about, that's really the hope of this discussion," Chip Bubl tells fellow committee members.

As of Tuesday, the group didn't have a name yet. By the following day, they settled on Columbia County Citizen Education Committee.

"I'm not sure this has ever been tried," Ritz admits. "It's to benefit everybody. We can't lose if we're talking to each other about important issues in our county."

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