Former St. Helens city planner runs against small business owner in city council election

The only contested race for a St. Helens city council seat pits newcomer Virginia “Ginny” Carlson against former city planner and community development director Warren “Skip” Baker.

Both candidates view their years of experience with city government, or lack thereof, as a positive contribution to the city council.

Carlson, a small business owner and employee at Riverside Training Center, thinks the current council is doing a good job, but believes she could offer a new perspective. While she has served on a the St. Helens tourism committee and the entrance sign committee, she has never run for a more political office.

“I just look at the city council as a group of people who are retired,” she said. “They lack somebody who is currently working, who is raising kids, someone who knows what changing the water rates means.”

“It’s just having a different experience to bring to the process,” she added. “It seems like the people we’ve had on city council come from the same demographic.”

Baker, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, was employed by the city from 1994 to 2010, working for much of that time as city planner and later as community development director before he retired.

“For the roughly 15 years that I worked for the city, I was in front of the council on a regular basis,” he said. “I saw the side in which I had to present my case and I saw how they had to make their decision.”

As city planner, Baker was in the position of telling people “no” a lot, he said. He was also involved in some more contentious community projects such as the much-maligned mini-Mt. St. Helens sculpture on Columbia Boulevard which was erected only to be demolished a year later after many residents deemed it an eyesore and a distraction to drivers. But Baker believes he brings valuable experience to the table.

“I do know the history (of the city) and I do know how it works,” he said.

He has run for city council once before against former council member Phil Barlow in 2010, but lost that race. When Barlow died unexpectedly, St. Helens resident Susan Conn was appointed to finish out his term.

Baker decided to run this year after he heard current city council member Patrick Martyn would not be running again.

“It’s not a ‘win’ thing,” Baker said. At the time, no one had stepped up to file for candidacy and Baker didn’t know of anyone else who was even interested in doing so.

Carlson decided to run because it was something that had been on her mind for a while and she said she would regret it if she didn’t ever try.

Carlson and Baker named the budget, public safety and business-friendly policies as big challenges facing the city.

“The city can’t be everything to everybody,” Carlson said. But, she added, there might be creative solutions the city could explore. She wants to lead the council to look around at what other small cities have done to generate revenue and provide services.

“Why can’t it work here? Focusing on what we’re trying to achieve as opposed to finger-pointing,” she said.

“Law and order, enforcing regulations sensibly, trying to make the city as friendly to businesses as you can make it,” Baker listed. Efficient communication weaves through all of this, he said.

“Communication is probably the key issue to a government job. You have to listen and you have to be asking.”

Neither candidate is seeking the position in order to make sweeping changes. Both say they simply want to serve their community more fully.

“I don’t go in as a changer,” Baker said. “I’m not a rabble-rouser.” Though, he added, “I have my own opinion about things.”

“I’m a uniter, not a divider,” Carlson said. “I like to build a consensus. But at the end of the day that job is almost a volunteer job. At the end of the day, it’s about your community. It’s a labor of love for your community.”

Locke running unopposed, says police levy needed

St. Helens city council member Keith Locke is running unopposed in this year’s election.

He decided to run again because, he said, there are still goals he wants to see the city accomplish and some problems he wants to help it solve.

One of Locke’s assignments as a member of the city council is with the police department, which has been hit hard by budget crunches over the years, he said.

This election, Columbia County voters will have a chance decide whether or not to pass a police levy that would tax property owners and use the money to fund a number of officer positions.

“If it’s not passed, we’ll have to think about how close (the votes are), and if we should try it again down the road,” he said. “That’s definitely a top priority. Our population keeps growing and we’re at the bottom of cutting for the police department. We’re down to a critical stage, absolutely.”

He believes the city council has worked hard on improving how it communicates with citizens, “but we still need a lot of improvement.”

“We do a terrible job sometimes of letting people know what we’re doing, what we’re working on,” he said. Faced with a bleak economy and a tight budget, the city made a lot of cuts to avoid raising taxes, Locke said. “We need to let people know what changes we made. They need to know, if we don’t have the money, what does that mean to the community?”

Development is also high on the list of what Locke believes should be the city’s priorities.

Boise Cascade announced this summer that it would be trying to sell its waterfront property, the site of a shuttered veneer mill.

“Depending on what goes on there, it could definitely change the future of St. Helens and Columbia County,” Locke said.

One of Locke’s ongoing hopes is to facilitate the building of a teen center. He believes the Boise property could be a good site. Either way, it’s a project he plans to keep fighting for.

“Our youth are important to us,” he said. “Right now they don’t have a lot to do in this city.”

Mayor Peterson wants to spur

economic growth

St. Helens Mayor Randy Peterson has been on the job for nearly nine years and is running unopposed this year.

“I just enjoy it,” he said. “I think that I’m doing a good job and I want to continue doing it.”

The former firefighter is ready to admit that the city has been going through hard economic times in recent years, but he believes that, under his leadership, service to citizens has not suffered as a result.

“I think we were able to restructure some things and do some things where service was not compromised,” he said. For example, actions they took early on with personnel and budget planning saved the city from needing to take furlough days, he said.

“It would have been easy to just lay a bunch of people off and cut departments and programs.”

That said, “the budget is the priority at the moment,” Peterson added. He said it is important for the city council to work with city departments to find alternative revenue streams.

“The mayor’s position in St. Helens is a position to provide leadership and direction,” he said.

When former city administrator Chad Olsen announced he was leaving earlier this year, Peterson stepped in and pulled double duty, acting as interim city administrator while continuing in his role as mayor.

With that position now filled, Peterson hopes to redirect his energies as mayor to provide leadership in the issue of economic growth.

“In the last few years we haven’t grown too much,” he said, referring to commercial business and residence options.

The steady decline of major employers such as Boise Inc., which recently announced it will cease paper mill operations at the end of the year, is another setback the city will need to address, Peterson said.

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