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Rainier Chamber of Commerce hosts forum to question four candidates for Columbia County Board of Commissioners

The four candidates for Columbia County Board of Commissioners, Position 2, answered questions at a forum hosted by the Rainier Chamber of Commerce on April 26.PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Kelly Niles

Kellie Jo Smith, Kelly Niles, Brian Brust and Jonathan Barclay are running for the open seat on the three-member county commission. Henry Heimuller, the longest-serving commissioner of the trio, is not seeking a fourth term.

The candidates were asked what metrics they would look at for supporting or opposing a large investment energy project wishing to come to Columbia County.

Niles said his first step would be to talk to communities where the company already exists.

"Are they being a good neighbor? Are they part of their community," Niles said. "Or are they just going to come out here, blow smoke, hope we give a big tax break … and then things go to hell in a handbasket?"

Barclay said he is "a little bit of a dreamer. I don't have any problem with business moving here, we need more of it."

But, Barclay said, he doesn't want to see a major increase in housing construction, which means new companies would need to hire local.

"As far as all the political red tape, I would like that all to go away," Barclay added.

Brust said his primary concern is the land.

"Is there anything that's going to damage the land, the air, the quality of life we have here today? That is the first metric, by far," Brust said.

The most important considerations would be the environment, any quality of life impacts for people living around the proposed development, and then revenue, Brust said.PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Kellie Jo Smith

Smith said any project like NEXT Renewable Fuels would have to go through lengthy permitting processes.

"Even though we don't like it, it's something we're living with right now," Smith said. "We want to know that it's a good fit for us and if our infrastructure can handle it, even down to our bridges. … Then, does it affect our livability in our county?"

The candidates were also asked specifically about NEXT and the Port of Columbia County.

Barclay and Smith both said they had not reached out to either group.

Brust said he had scheduled a tour of port property with a port commissioner and had reached out to NEXT but had not yet heard back.

Niles said he has had multiple conversations with the port's executive director, Sean Clark, in part due to his job with the Oregon Department of Forestry. Niles did not say if he had reached out directly to NEXT, but did know that Natasha Parvey, one of the organizers of the forum, works for NEXT as a local representative.

The candidates were also asked what they would do as a commissioner to get more investment in broadband in Columbia County.

Barclay suggested that the county build an internet server farm.

"Maybe we invest in a server farm where we actually own something and we create money because we're creating a revenue stream," Barclay said.

Brust said the county could work with utility companies to develop a wire mesh network.PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Jonathan Barclay

"I would present it as raising the fees of electrical prices on everyone, at a very minimal cost, we're talking like $12 a month, until we were able to put enough funds together to start it," Brust said.

"It would not be easy and it would not be cheap. And it would take years to finish. But if we had started this 10 years ago, we wouldn't be having this discussion today," Brust added, noting that numerous individuals and groups had tried to get the support to expand broadband internet in the county over the years but never got enough traction.

Smith said that with recent federal and state broadband funding opportunities, the county "will definitely need to stay on top of getting our share of this funding and then use it wisely," through public-private partnerships. The county also needs to "be extremely cautious that we don't invest in obsolete or about-to-become-obsolete technology," Smith said.

Niles said that more collaboration between the cities in the county would help expand broadband.

"Instead of everybody competing against each other for these grants, why not work together with the cities and rural areas, special districts … across the county, so we can pull our money together so our dollars will go farther," Niles said, noting that many of the grant programs require the recipient to provide matching funds

The candidates were also asked what the role of county commissioner — the job they are all applying for — really is.

County commissioners "hold the purse strings … make decisions for the county, given the guidance of all their different committees … and they are the front-desk administrators that get to hear all the complaints from citizens," Brust said.

Smith and Niles both said the role is similar to roles they currently hold — Smith on the St. Helens School District board and Niles as a Columbia River Fire & Rescue board member.

However, those roles are both unpaid, part-time positions and primarily interact with the school district superintendent or fire chief. The county does not have a county manager; the head of most departments, from land use to public health, reports to the county commissioners.PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Brian Brust

Niles said that the county commissioner role boils down to "budget, policy, planning."

"Planning, to me, is the big key, because we need to be looking to our future to start things now," Niles said.

Smith also said the county should develop a strategic plan.

Barclay said "roads, budget and then land use is essentially the three functions of the county commissioners. … And those three things aren't even done well, so it's amazing that they only do three things for the most part."

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