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For commissioner race, trust your instincts

This election season has been particularly divisive.

For several of the local races, notably the runoff for Position 2 seat on the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, or the contested Position 1 spot to serve on the bench for Columbia County Circuit Court, the season really started in the spring, in the run-up to the primary.

It’s not surprising that these two local races have captured the competitive, democratic spirit of the electorate. Voters have a chance to decide, based on their individual experiences and understanding of the prevailing issues affecting the county, whether to maintain the status quo or begin to venture into new, uncertain territory.

Regarding the commissioner’s race, last spring we went out on a limb and endorsed perennial candidate Wayne Mayo in his challenge against Henry Heimuller. Some have questioned our sanity for doing so, and we received an angry phone call or two from those who wish nothing more than to see Mayo slip into political obscurity.

Mayo is not our ideal candidate. Indeed, his political baggage is almost legendary. One effort of his included authoring a bungled ballot initiative with the intention to place giant placards around Columbia County at work sites with the broadcasted message that the county is an illegal-free work zone. At the time, Mayo, who is in the construction trade, said too many jobs were going to contractors who hired undocumented workers.

Perhaps most troubling was Mayo’s inability to comprehend that his initiative risked painting Columbia County as a backward, intolerant community — indeed, that was a variable out-of-county media were assessing. Such a perception is bad for business, something Mayo seemed incapable of grasping.

Mayo is also known for shouting down a high school performance of the musical “Rent” because he believed it was inappropriate — a belief he reiterated when we asked him about it earlier this year. He has shown himself to be fast and loose with the facts, a flaw that caught up with him regarding comments made in the voters’ pamphlet, and he lacks discretion and composure when something — anything — confronts his perception of right and wrong. He has a lot of ideas, including some that are simply not feasible.

But it’s not all bad. We are convinced he took a leadership role toward establishing the Columbia River PUD, and we have few concerns about his commitment to openness and transparency. Regarding his comments about increasing the depletion fee to aid jail funding, it’s notable that not one local worker, other than those who have a management or ownership stake, at a gravel mine contacted us out of concern his or her job would be compromised by his proposal.

So, why did we do it? Why endorse Mayo over Heimuller? In many regards, it was in response to our concerns with Heimuller based on our efforts to report on him since he was elected in 2010. Heimuller quickly embraced the role of politician over public servant. His mismanagement of a cattle seizure operation conducted jointly with the Oregon Humane Society resulted in decisions being made in closed session — an action in violation of Oregon Public Meetings and Records Law — and, ultimately, a decline in the health of the very cattle that needed to be saved. See story on Page A1.

We had other incidents that called into question his dedication to transparency and fairness. After the May primary, he sat in a rulemaking position over a land-use decision regarding a proposed dog kennel. Despite his social involvement with the applicant at an election night function, including photographs to that effect and our questions about his apparently familiar relationship with the applicant, Heimuller opted not to disclose it a couple of weeks later was time for him to rule on the application. Why?

In an exchange with Carrol Sweet regarding oil trains, Heimuller pressed her about her comment that she was frightened when she was stuck at a red light with her horse trailer on the railroad tracks and an oil train was approaching. Heimuller asked, “ Would it have made any difference if it was a log train?” Sweet replied, “Yes, because it wouldn’t have exploded.”

Heimuller, incidentally, was appointed to the governor’s Hazardous Material By Rail Rulemaking Advisory Committee.

At the point of deciding the Port of St. Helens' land-use application to rezone high-end agriculture land at Port Westward so that it could be used for industrial purposes, Heimuller said that, throughout all of the testimony he had reviewed, he kept coming back to the fact that the port’s intention at the time it purchased the land was to rezone for that purpose. We had to ask, does the same standard of intent, at the point of purchase, apply to everyone? It was a question Heimuller did not receive well. And, notably, the state Land Use Board of Appeals rejected the county-approved application.

Heimuller, however, is considerably more composed than Mayo, and in the arena of political workmanship he provides a better option for representing the county to the region and nation, as the case may call for it. Mayo, on the other hand, is a loose cannon.

Neither Heimuller nor Mayo give us a great sense of warmth when it comes to management of the county. We would ideally see some of the many people who are engaged in county issues, on topics ranging from oil trains to jail funding, step up to the plate and challenge the traditional system of governance in Columbia County. In fact, a main consideration for endorsing Mayo in the primary was that he would not move in lockstep with the other commissioners, a situation that currently exists. At the least, Mayo would offer a dissenting opinion to Commissioners Tony Hyde and Earl Fisher, and we have fewer concerns he would be motivated by secrecy.

In the end, though, we don’t believe the county stands to benefit with either. So just trust your instincts, hope for the best, and move on.