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Hyde, Fisher best bet to steer county forward

by: Chelsea Tull,

Over the past four years, Columbia County has joined the ranks of municipalities across the nation - indeed, around the world - in its struggle to maintain solvency amid crumbling financial markets and failing tax structures. It has gone through the stages of catastrophe, from event occurrence to taking stock of the damage and attempting to rebuild.

Two people running for Columbia County commissioner - incumbents Tony Hyde and Earl Fisher - have the perspective of steering the county through this period, arguably one of the most globally turbulent of any in our lifetimes.

Unquestionably the biggest wallop to south Columbia County over the past four years, despite those who have singularly challenged the hospital project and who have theorized about the events that transpired as of its demise, has been the decline of the wood market as demand for new housing has dried up. Columbia County businesses - in fact, our national economy - have been inexorably tied to the success of wood products, and for south Columbia County it's been the production schedule at Boise Inc., a shadow of itself following the massive production cutback that occurred in 2008, that has defined the line of struggle.

But employment challenges don't solely characterize the past four years.

Statewide budget cuts and program reforms - such as a revamped Coordinate Care Organization model that will define social welfare programs, or Early Education Councils, which fortify the tie between schools and government funding - as well as the loss of tax revenue due to the devaluation of housing markets, federal changes in timber policy and the demise of a long-envisioned local hospital initiative have all affected our expectations of local government. And, correctly or incorrectly, the response to those issues has colored our perceptions regarding how we gauge the success of a Columbia County commissioner.

To be clear, our primary expectation of a county commissioner is that he or she adequately manages county finances to deliver services as expected via collection of tax revenue, including pass-through dollars from state and federal sources. Secondly, the county is largely responsible for delivering state and federal programs at the local level. In today's economy, securing financing to deliver those services is no longer a guarantee. Instead, it's competitive, and the people running the county we expect to be adequately motivated and equipped to ensure services for Columbia County residents are provided. This is all about representation and the ability to work with the other chains of government to ensure services.

We expect the commissioners to communicate their actions and provide candid assessments on the county's state of affairs and programs being pursued.

We also expect the commissioners to exert their influence, when called upon, for the benefit of the people they serve. While this does not mean we want the commissioners to police other agencies and boards, there is a clear expectation they will use the full weight of their influence to steer developments toward the best benefit for Columbia County residents, whether the topic is coal trains, hospitals, rock mining companies or wood industries.

In rendering our endorsement for Positions 1 and 3 for Columbia County commissioner, the Spotlight's editorial board, consisting of Publisher Darryl Swan, News Editor Stover E. Harger III and Sports Editor John Brewington, sat down with each of the candidates for a candid discussion about the issues confronting the county. As a result, we have made our picks for who we collectively believe are the best choices for Columbia County for the next four years.

Earl Fisher for Position 1

We had admittedly high expectations for Earl Fisher when he took ownership of Columbia County commissioner Position 1 in 2008. Fisher, a former Port of St. Helens commissioner who Terry Luttrell had defeated in a re-election bid, had served the Port well by helping rectify some of its systemic personnel problems.

Unfortunately, it has taken Fisher the bulk of his four-year term to find his niche on the county commission.

Had there been a deeper bench of candidates challenging Fisher in the current race, we would have been hard-pressed to provide him with our endorsement.

But there have been ample, encouraging signs of his evolution as a commissioner, and we believe he is the best positioned of all the candidates for the Position 1 seat.

Fisher has taken point on the state's transition to a Coordinated Care Organization model, of which Oregon last week secured $1.9 billion in federal grants to implement. The CCO program has the trappings of serving as a national model for health care reform, and Fisher has immersed himself in how Columbia County factors into that transition.

He additionally is the lead on the state's conversion to Early Learning Councils, which disbands the commission system for providing services to at-risk youth. Fisher, a former superintendent for the Clatskanie School District, brings a background in education specifically tailored to address this program revision, and he has served as the county's lead voice for ensuring its youth are not left on the cutting room floor as these sweeping changes are implemented.

In this election cycle, Terry Luttrell provides the starkest challenge to Fisher. Luttrell, a two-term Port of St. Helens commissioner with a well-known name and family history in St. Helens, now has what we believe is sufficient experience in public service to manage a role on the county commission. We still harbor some reservations, including concerns about Luttrell's track record on access to public information and his seeming willingness to avoid uncomfortable decisions despite evidence backing the need for those decisions.

Additionally, Luttrell has based much of his campaign on the notion of delivering jobs to the county. Though he doesn't solely cite his interest in the commission as a jobs advocate - also citing roads, veterans' issues and lowered regulation - we believe his voice on the Port of St. Helens is well positioned to lead the quest for job growth in Columbia County.

Fisher's greatest fault is the ease in which he is baited into arguments with his critics, allowing his sense of justice or what he perceives as the absence of fair criticism to goad him into heated debates. We additionally believe he has been lax in communicating with his constituents, and would like to see considerably stronger efforts on that front.

In our experience, however, Fisher is fair, well-intentioned and possessing of the necessary experience to guide Columbia County as it enters one of the most transitory periods of Oregon's, and indeed the nation's, history.

Tony Hyde for Position 3

Tony Hyde's accomplishments for Columbia County, and what he brings to the table regarding intelligent representation on local, state and federal stages, is unmatched within the pool of competing candidates. He understands the extent of his authority as a county commissioner and is prepared to handle the week-to-week small stuff - land use decisions, property disputes, etc. - while keeping his focus on moving Columbia County forward. Unlike others in the race, he is not a single-issue candidate motivated solely by the popular notion of righting perceived wrongs as orchestrated by the Columbia Health District, a special district of which the Columbia County commissioners had no authority over barring the contract with the CHD to provide the county's state-mandated public health services.

Regarding the single-issue CHD candidates, there has been too much emphasis, from our point of view, on how the incumbent commissioners have committed perceived wrongs, and not enough on how the CHD candidates would make it right. Additionally, we discovered too many candidates who are not knowledgeable about the mechanics of particular issues, and instead offer knee-jerk criticisms without taking the time to learn the specifics to better address challenges and opportunities from all sides.

Hyde is not one of those candidates.

Hyde has been an integral part in the development of the Crown-Zellerbach Linear Trail, which is now gaining traction as a regional tourism attraction with possible links all the way to the Oregon Coast. He is active in his presentation of Columbia County issues to broader audiences, whether it is during the course of his service on several distinguished state boards - including Oregon Business, the state's foremost business recruitment body, and as a representative for the Association of Oregon Counties, an association that serves as an advocate for county governments as they interact with state agencies and the Legislature. We know through professional experience that Hyde is the go-to commissioner for most topics of relevance, and that he has a finger on the pulse of events transpiring nationally and regionally that have the potential to benefit or harm Columbia County and its residents.

We've seen Hyde balk at proffered agreements, even those with the blessings of attorneys. He follows his own moral compass and we believe it is pointed in the direction for what is best for Columbia County.

His greatest fault has been failing to adequately communicate his work for Columbia County residents. His approach for advocating for Columbia County lends fuel to his critics, as well; he often works individually behind the scenes, lobbying for the county in the areas of federal payments, economic development and, not least of all, recruitment for new businesses. That behind-the-scenes approach has led his critics to complain he is secretive and has a hidden agenda. We do not believe that is the case.

Still, while we understand the need for discretion when strategically working in a competitive environment, communication with his constituents should be paramount. We expect him and the other commissioners to adopt a real communication strategy with their constituents, one that is open and geared toward keeping all county residents in the loop about how their tax dollars are being spent.

Despite this fault, we believe Hyde provides, and will continue to provide, the best representation for the county, and that he offers the best hope for steering the county forward.