St. Helens candidates share their views
Read what the candidates for St. Helens City Council have to say about transparency, racial justice, and their prior involvement with St. Helens government and community.
Responses to some questions were included in the Spotlight's Oct. 23 paper. This version includes the candidates' responses to five questions about the city's present and future, edited for clarity.
How would you describe the city's level of public transparency? What are the strengths and weaknesses?
Patrick Birkle, Position 2: "The city's level of public transparency is uneven.
"I think that the city makes a good faith effort to communicate with residents but there is always room for improvement. In my personal experience, city staff usually respond in a timely manner to question when I email or call. The city has a presence on social media including Facebook Twitter. Notices of meetings are made according to legal requirements.
"I think that one improvement needed is to find a way to provide clearer information about city finances. Our city is audited every year. The audits have not shown any major issues about how city finances are managed. Yet I would like to explore ways to communicate more clearly to a lay person how revenues are used without having to refer to the city budget document."
Mark Gundersen, Position 2: "I would describe the city's level of transparency as inadequate. Although the meeting minutes are published on the city's website, I don't believe it adequately describes what processes the council is working through to obtain and reach the goals it has focused on. I believe there should be a stronger focus on social media to allow the residents of the city to comment and give the council much needed feedback and to allow the citizens to feel they are part of the governing process."
Ginny Carlson, Position 4: "The city makes considerable effort to exceed standards of public engagement and transparency, Covid has made that challenging this year, but streaming meetings on social media in real time is a big strength. The city has the strength of countless open houses and forums to gather input from the community, unfortunately attendance is not as good as we would hope.
"A weakness is the lack of support from media, being a bedroom community and a few folks that like to seed false information, no matter how blatant the facts are to the contrary."
Jessica Chilton, Position 4: "I think there is a great deal of improvement that could be made in this area. I am hearing from many constituents that they feel their concerns when brought up in Council fall on deaf ears and then the Council makes their own decisions by themselves.
"There has also been a lot of noise about the current tourism program. There was once a citizens advisory committee that steered our tourism initiatives, but the current City Council disbanded that committee. I would like to see that committee returned, so that St.Helens citizens can readily voice their opinions."
How can the city of St. Helens help local businesses recover from losses associated with the pandemic and attract new businesses?
Birkle: "This should be a priority. Strategies that the city council should consider: Personal contact by councilors to business owners, in particular small business owners. Collaboration with the South County Chamber of Commerce, SHEDCO, Keep It Local, and the Columbia County Economic Team to coordinate recovery efforts. Creation of a city staff position focused on business and community development or revise the job description of another position to include this goal."
Gundersen: "I believe the city council could assist local business recover from the pandemic by reducing taxes, fees, and other related economic constraints to help these folks recover and remain viable until this crisis is over. I feel the same way about bringing new business to the city. I think we should streamline the permitting process, lower fees and offer incentives to new start-ups so we can make St. Helens a more business friendly city. I would like our citizens to have the opportunity to work and live in their city rather than having to commute to other counties for job opportunities."
Carlson: "The city has stepped up as a pass through on recovery grants, worked to expedite new rules allowing sidewalk dining, directing event contractor to pursue more avenues to promote business. Made contributions and support to South County Chamber of Commerce and Keep it local groups. Partnering with County, Port and local groups to facilitate a more cohesive coalition supporting economic growth goals. Continue to move plans forward on Waterfront Development and implement Industrial Park plans now being developed."
Chilton: "I believe the City should re-access how they are spending their tourism dollars with a greater focus on ongoing activities to bring revenue in to the city's businesses. It won't be easy but by engaging with other organizations like the Port, Columbia County Economic Team and other community service organizations, we can work towards not only recovering but thriving again."
What formal or informal involvement have you had with St. Helens government and community in the past four years?
Birkle: He served on St. Helens' budget committee and the library board and Friends of Dalton Lake Nature Preserve steering committee. He's also attended and participated in council, city committee and community meetings. He has volunteered with Friends of Nob Hill Nature Park, participated in a citizen science project to identify invasive species, done restoration work at city parks, and worked with the St. Helens School District on outreach and translation services for Spanish-speaking families.
Gundersen: He has no past relationship with the city government. He previously coached and served on boards of St. Helens youth sports.
Carlson: She has served on the St. Helens City Council since she was first elected in 2012, winning re-election in 2016. She has also volunteered on disaster preparedness projects, completed Citizens Emergency Response Team training, coordinated the "Everybody Swings" project to bring "inclusive play" in city parks, worked with the South Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, volunteered with the Spirit of Halloweentown, participated in fundraisers and walks for mental health and cancer treatment organizations, and organized Earth Day clean-ups.
Chilton: She previously sat on the Head Start Policy Council and was elected to be Head Start state representative for Columbia and Clatsop counties, using the position to advocate for local Head Start programs. She was also previously on the board of the St. Helens girls softball program. She has been involved in local volunteer networks for economic development and mental health.
What is your take on calls for racial justice and policing reforms across the United States, particularly in St. Helens?
Birkle: "It is necessary to promote and work for justice, equity and inclusion for all St. Helens residents. I am proud to have participated with my family in the June 3rd event in St. Helens in support of Black Lives Matter and the Juneteenth event with my family. I want the City to go beyond making statements and policies against racism. I want to work to ensure that the statements and policies are put into practice.
"We are all responsible for public safety and I believe that the St. Helens Police Depart plays an important role in this community effort. There issues for which a police response is not what is needed but for which other community resources are lacking including mental health crises and homelessness. I want to see the formation of a group of residents to work with the police to examine the role of policing in St. Helens."
Gundersen: "My take on racial justice in St. Helens and around the country is that although we've come a long way, we still have a long way to go, and education will be the key to social change. This issue is not going away and I believe we have to start with ourselves and change our world view, which in itself is difficult because we can't experience the institutionalized racism that is occurring in our country. It starts with one individual educating themselves on what others have experienced. I also think it is beneficial to have an open dialogue to get racial issues out in the open to understand how others feel. I actually think the City of St. Helens has done a good job of outlining these issues with the document on the city's website."
Carlson: "St. Helens on the surface doesn't appear to have as many issues, however citizen testimony would show differently. The city has issued a statement and is taking steps to reduce barriers and support inclusion and equity. The Police Department has issued a pretty comprehensive action plan this year. Council is looking at changes to better include everyone in our community and reduce barriers. I would like to see the library continue to engage in conversation projects and outreach in our community, unfortunately COVID-19 is a barrier to face to face engagement. I am pushing hard to find ways to overcome."
Chilton: "As with anything, we should always strive to do better, if we don't, communities become stagnant. We have come a long way in assuring equality for all and we still have work to do. The part that saddens me is that there is so much divisiveness surrounding the issue. We must all come together and, listen to each other and find common ground from which we can all work. I am not certain we have the same problems with a need for police reforms as more metropolitan areas may need but I personally believe any needs for reform cannot come at the expense of public safety. They must both be equally considered."
What are the three biggest issues facing St. Helens? What would you do to address those issues?
Birkle: "The three biggest issues are: 1. Recovery of our community from effects of the pandemic. 2. Responsible development of city-owned properties. 3. Inadequate revenues to fully provide essential city services.
"All three issues should be addressed with as much public input as possible. In addition to the channels of communication already in place. I would hope to have more frequent public informational meetings and "town halls". I would seek out individuals with expertise or interest in a topic and invite them to give public testimony at meetings of the council, boards and commissions."
Gundersen: "The three biggest concerns I have facing the city are making sure our youth have parks to participate in sports. I think it teaches discipline, the benefits of working hard, and introduces the concept of being a team player, all of which are necessary in today's business world. One of my focuses will be on improving parks so that our kids have places to participate in sports as well as leisurely activities. I would eventually like to see a multi-sports complex completed which would bring tournaments to the city, which in turn would bring tourism and money.
"I am also concerned with bringing new business to town that would provide living wage jobs to our residents so they can live and work in their community. I would like to see St. Helens become more business friendly by reducing fees and offering incentives to bring new business to the area. I also believe that we need to reach out to community partners as well as the public to find out what areas need to be improved. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to listen to what the people of our community have to say. The city council should be listening to what the citizens and what our community partners want, and not the other way around."
Carlson: "The need to increase diversity in businesses and employment opportunities, Work with CCET, the Port and Regional solutions to find incentives and partnerships to bring more jobs to town.
"Balancing community needs within current limits of the budget. Increase community involvement to find solutions that work for everyone.
"Coping with the lasting effects of COVID-19, i.e. distance learning, economic disparity. Continue developing partnerships with the School District like the Recreation program and finding ways to support programs that provide services, like the block grant for the relocation and improvement of the Food bank.
"Mending the divides in our community for everyone's benefit is my personal goal. Finding compromise when ever possible and making listening a bigger part of government."
Chilton: "Our biggest issue is a lack of family wage jobs and the tax base that is associated with those businesses. Money can't solve all problems but they can solve a lot of them. Again, I would work with other local and regional organizations like the Port, Business Oregon and CCET to help grow local industry. Livability is another issue in St. Helens. Our parks are not up to par and we are spending resources elsewhere that I think would be better utilized in an incremental matter to improve that part of our infrastructure that makes our community more appealing, attracts employers who want a nice place for their employees to live. We keep swinging at the fences for the big hit on our waterfront and I think we are letting other important areas of the City suffer for it."
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