Al Wilson, left, moderates a public forum in Brookings Wednesday during which candidates running for county commission seat and Circuit Court judge answer questions submitted by audience members.
More than 80 people attended a candidates forum at the Brookings library Wednesday, and they had plenty of questions for the political hopefuls.
It was the same at a second public forum at Gold Beach City Hall Thursday night, where a standing-room-only crowd grilled the four men running for Position 1 on the Curry County Board of Commissioners.
“One of the four people up here will be your next county commissioner,” said Al Wilson, moderator for the non-partisan League of Woman Voters of Curry County, which hosted the event at the Chetco Community Public Library Wednesday.
Wilson also moderated the forum in Gold Beach.
The four candidates were incumbent David Itzen who is being challenged by Tom Huxley of Harbor, Port of Brookings Harbor board member Jim Relaford, and private businessman Randy Dowler.
Up for reelection in Curry County Circuit Court is Cynthia Beaman; she is pitted against Shala McKenzie Kudlac, a local attorney (see related story on Page 3A).
After setting the ground rules, Wilson gave each candidate three minutes for an opening statement and then launched into the first of many written questions submitted by audience members.
The first question asked was why the candidates, other than Itzen, had not filed campaign contributions and expenditures with the state.
Huxley said he had not raised enough money to met the $3,500 threshold that requires him to report.
Relaford said the same. However, he did receive some donations at a recent Tea Party event and was in the process of filing the information this week.
Dowler said he has spent about $25 on campaign flyers.
The candidates were asked why a county of 100 employees needs 20 departments.
Dowler said because federal and state governments require the county to offer specific services.
Relaford called the situation “ridiculous.”
“Any business consultant will tell you that you don’t need that many departments for that many people,” he said. “It comes down to functions. What functions do we need to provide? What do taxpayers want us to provide?”
Itzen defended the number of departments within the county. He said the county structure is very different from that of a city.
“The county structure is complicated. Twenty departments is the norm for many counties,” he said.
Huxley scoffed at the idea, suggesting that, of the 115 county employees, keep the 40 in the sheriff’s department, 20 in the road department, and get rid of the department heads that oversee 30 people.
“Show me 25 supervisors supervising 30 people and I’ll show you a company that is bankrupt,” he said.
When the question of increasing county revenue via tax proposals was raised, Relaford said raising taxes was not the solution.
“Gas tax. Property tax. These have never solved any problems,” he said. “We had revenue coming out our ears for years. Did we do anything with it? No.”
Dowler said “We all have a budget. We need to cut spending and cut taxes.”
When asked what is the main problem with county government, Relaford said, “There is a lack of trust, a lack of credibility, that residents have for Curry County Commissioners. If you solve the trust problem, you solve a lot.”
“We need more character, more integrity,” he said. “Go to my website and you will see videos of commissioner meetings where commitments made by prior commissioners were not met.”
Itzen countered immediately, saying, “Mr. Huxley implies on his website that the county has lied, but people should decide whether that is a lie itself.”
He added, “There are no lies. We follow public meeting laws. Yes, sometimes our debates get intense.”
Gold Beach forum
One thing on which the non-incumbent county commissioner candidates agreed is their frustration with county government and its fiscal problems, but none offered specific solutions.
They said the Internet redundancy recently put in place “should” bring in new business, and there are some successes with the various collaborative groups working on long-term problems. The idea of revenue being the county’s main problem was only mentioned by Itzen.
Political experience was also admittedly lacking, with only Itzen having served as a county commissioner and Relaford as a port commissioner. Dowler said his experience in the political arena stems from listening to the Board of Supervisors in Cambria, California, on the radio.
Relaford said he’s been watching county government for 20 years and “it seems to me something is broken in the method of running our county,” he said in introductory remarks, adding that the county’s fiscal crisis must be addressed immediately and the county needs to regain the trust of the people.
Huxley agreed, saying there are too many administrative leaders leading too few employees, and retirement benefits must be realigned with fiscal realities.
Dowler said consolidated infrastructure — including that of the cities — and strong law enforcement are key to the county’s success.
“I’m for a chainsaw charter,” he said. “Cut spending, cut taxes and cut to the chase.”
Relaford also believes more revenue is not the key to the county’s woes — particularly in the form of taxes — and would instead restructure county operations via a Home Rule Charter.
Itzen touted economic development — and noted his Healthy Forest Collaborative, ReHome Oregon and other endeavors he has spearheaded — and “some form” of revenue enhancement to keep the county in its barely solvent condition.
“Some people seem a little confused, and don’t seem to realize it’s a revenue problem,” he said. “I cannot live in an imaginary world. I have to live in the real world and attempt to solve the problem.”
Itzen said he believes the system works well.
“We come together in open meetings, discuss the issues, reach a conclusion and put that conclusion into effect,” he said.
Relaford and Huxley said requests to county commissioners are routinely ignored, and information — including a list of the volunteers serving on the planning commission — are difficult to obtain.
Despite being asked not to address Measure 8-76, all the candidates flitted around the issue, particularly when asked how it would be possible to attract qualified citizens to a part-time job that pays a $10,000 annual stipend.
They all said they’d be willing to work many hours and some said a county administrator would alleviate many stressors of current commissioner duties.
Huxley, who often attends commissioner meetings, said many employee hours — and thus money — are wasted in board meetings where department heads wait to be heard on various issues. Huxley says he’s “attached his candidacy to the outcome of the charter” and believes an administrator would be able to more efficiently address the issues employees bring to the board. He said he will work however many hours it would take for the annual $10,000 stipend outlined in the charter.
Relaford was asked how his experience in the computer realm — he owns Mainbrace Technologies — would benefit the county, and he said updated programming can, once organizational problems are solved via Home Rule Charter.
When asked about the political accomplishment about which they are most proud, Itzen cited his work on various economic development projects he has started, and Relaford credited his work on the port board with getting an administrator that brought the port budget away from the brink of insolvency.
Dowler said he was the inventor of the polyurethane skateboard wheel and a surf wax product; Huxley cited his passion for the job: “I feel I need to do this. I am here to work for the benefit of the people and protect the peoples’ interests.”
All agreed that face-to-face interactions, particularly with legislators in Salem, are vital to networking, but some admitted that teleconferencing is what should be used for far away meetings.
“I’m skeptical,” Relaford said. “I’ve never met a meeting yet that didn’t spawn another meeting and another meeting and another meeting.”