Washington County chair candidates talk issues at CPO forum
Candidates for Washington County's top seat shared their vision for Washington County on Tuesday night. And their visions are far from similar.
Four candidates are running to be elected chair of the Washington County Board of Commissioners next month, each hoping to shape the county over the next several years.
The race is crowded with candidates familiar to many county voters: Washington County commissioner Bob Terry has represented Hillsboro and Forest Grove for the past eight years and Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington has served much of Washington County since 2006. Former state legislator Ryan Deckert served in Salem for a decade representing the Beaverton area and Shabba Woodley, a Beaverton resident, recently made a run for Congress against Suzanne Bonamici in 2016.
A fifth candidate, longtime Tualatin mayor Lou Ogden, dropped out of the race earlier this year. Ogden is currently running for the head of Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries.
Tuesday's candidate forum at the Forest Grove Public Library was hosted by Washington County's Community Participation Organizations. The forum was meant to give residents a chance to speak with the candidates on a range of issues, from affordable housing to one day extending the MAX light-rail line to Forest Grove.
Many of Tuesday's issues were inter-connected, Woodley said. Issues of traffic congestion, affordable housing and homelessness all play into one another.
"People that work here don't live here," Woodley said. "Thousands of people drive into this county every day because they can't afford to live here. We need to make sure people are able to live close to their jobs, can take public transit and have less cars on the road."
Woodley, the only candidate running who has not held elected office, said his mission is to bring the voice of the people to Washington County's leadership.
"We need less talking and more getting straight to the point, and that's what I bring," Woodley said. "Today, we have the same issues we had 20 years ago, with the same people promising the same things. We need something different."
Deckert said Washington County needs to think outside the box more if it plans to be successful.
"We need to re-think how we develop," he said. Deckert has proposed transforming congested corridors such as Tualatin Valley Highway, re-zoning properties along the roads to bring in more affordable housing and increase livability.
"We need units desperately, but we have to do it differently," he said. "I don't blame developers. As political leaders we have to dictate the terms of development. We get to determine what those communities look like."
Deckert laid some of the blame for the county's housing shortage on Metro, which regulates where growth will occur in the county.
"We've increased demand in places like Damascus and Boring, but the job growth is in Washington County. Suddenly, we wake up and wonder why traffic is a mess? We created this situation."
A lack of affordable housing has made the county's homeless population easier to notice. Each of the candidates said addressing the issue of homelessness will mean more than supporting homeless shelters.
"One reason I'm running is because of the insufficient leadership we've had, which has left providing homeless services to cities, churches and volunteers," Harrington said. Emergency shelters are no longer working in emergencies but continuously."
Work is being done to address the issue, Terry said. The county opened Hawthorn Farms Walk-In Clinic last year, offering urgent care services for mental health and drug addiction.
"We've worked very hard on that issue the past four years," Terry said.
Traffic in Washington County is getting worse by the day. The Portland-area is the fifth most congested traffic system in the nation, and with more and more people moving to Washington County, candidates agreed congestion will only get worse. The county is poised to become the most populated in Oregon in the next several years.
Terry said current state laws won't allow the county to fix the problem.
"We have done well with the roads we have, but we need more roads," Terry said. "Our land use laws don't allow us to use rural reserves for transportation. Bringing Evergreen Road out and connecting it to Zion Church Road would immensely help, but we can't do that in the current laws."
Getting more cars off the road would not only help with congestion, Woodley said, but also air pollution issues. Woodley pointed to studies that link air pollution with increases in mental health issue and crime.
Deckert agreed, saying a major factor of both congestion and air pollution is freight along the region's highways.
"We need to get Highway 26 connected to Highway 30 to get the freight out where they want to be," he said. "We've given them no solutions except to go right through our communities."
Deckert said plans for a long-proposed Westside Bypass will never come to fruition, but said there are other ways to deal with traffic, by working with Salem lawmakers to pass a comprehensive transportation package that would help with congestion, as well as public transit, biking and other areas. Deckert said the county's issues with transportation are the result of poor planning in the past.
Terry said many of the county's biggest polluters, including the Hillsboro Airport and Intel, aren't answerable to the county, instead regulated by state or federal agencies, but pointed to the recent work to replace wood-burning stoves as a success story in the count's work to curb air pollution.
Harrington said the county has "been dragging its heels" on investments Metro and other counties have agreed to, which call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the region.
"That tells you something, doesn't it?" Harrington said.
Terry said he largely approves of the direction that Washington County is going, but said there is still room for improvement.
"It's unfortunate you heard so much doom and gloom (from the other candidates), because we live in a great county," Terry said. "You listen to some of the people up here and this county is falling apart, but they don't know what this county is doing. I do, because I've spent 20 years working in this county."
Terry pointed to Washington County's low taxes and high employment as examples of the county's success, but others at Tuesday's forum said the county has not done enough to be transparent and open with the public about plans for a few exhibit hall at the Washington County Fair Complex.
Harrington and Deckert both bristled at the plans, saying the new events center which is set to break ground later this year is a waste of taxpayer money.
The $46 million events center will be paid for, largely, through the county's Gain Share money, a portion of income tax revenue generated by job-related investments in the county.
But Deckert, who served in the Oregon Legislature when the program was created, said the funds weren't meant to be used for new buildings at the county fairgrounds.
"It is not the correct and appropriate use of those funds," Deckert said. "I know. I was sitting there when we dedicated that money."
Terry disagreed, saying the funds were being used properly to help improve the county.
"If what we were building was against the law, we'd be stopped. The state would stop us," Terry said.
Bringing more affordable housing to the county brought many different answers. Terry said he supports more public-private partnerships, while Harrington said the problem has been with county leadership unwilling to build the units the county needs.
"Making businesses pay for it is much better than having taxpayers pay for it," Terry said.
"The problem is that businesses won't pay," Harrington said.
Both Harrington and Deckert said they support plans to re-zone current traffic corridors, such as outdated strip malls along Tualatin Valley Highway, to build more housing.
"We need 23,000 new units today," Deckert said. "There are 3,200 children who will go to bed without a home tonight. Political leadership has created the situation we're in."
"We have to change our tactics and become more radical," he said, saying it was time the state looked at rent control and public housing to address the issue.