Facts? What facts?

If you wanted a summary of the issues facing Clackamas County, you shouldn’t have attended the debate among commissioner candidates Thursday in Happy Valley. Sponsored by the North Clackamas Chamber, the event was short on evidence or citations, but it provided entertaining insight into the descent of local politics toward a rhetorical circus.

Steve Bates, a 37-year resident of the Boring area running against Commissioner Jim Bernard, joined fellow challenger, Lake Oswego City Councilor Karen Bowerman, in hammering incumbents for the supposed apathy of county elected officials to support employers.

“Everybody’s entrenched in doing stuff other than making sure that we have a business-friendly environment for creating jobs,” Bates said.

Bowerman, a retired dean of business and public administration, said road maintenance and a stagnant economy are the most important issues for her. Stimson Lumber CEO Andrew Miller, whose Transformation PAC was crucial in the 2012 election of County Board Chairman John Ludlow and Commissioner Tootie Smith, donated $5,000 to Bates and to Bowerman’s campaign to unseat Commissioner Paul Savas.

Savas and Bernard both denied their opponents’ accusations. Bernard, the third-generation owner of a downtown Milwaukie automotive repair shop, said he has “personally brought hundreds of millions of dollars into Clackamas County transportation,” which he sees as intricately tied to creating jobs. That “personally” is not only supported by his one vote of five in support of projects such as the new Sunrise Highway, but also by his personal lobbying trips to Salem and Washington D.C., for state and federal funds.

Savas said his top priority was to create environment and infrastructure in Clackamas County for business land. When a company that wants to grow asks Clackamas County what it can offer, he argued that the county needs to have that “place to land” ready for any company. Metro regulations currently don’t allow for the flexibility he would like, so he will be asking regional officials for more local control in balancing growth with natural beauty.

“How we strike that balance is incredibly important,” Savas said.

A common theme between Bowerman and Bates was in asking why it is that only Washington County can use property tax money for road maintenance. Bates said that his first priority would be to fix zoning issues, and he plans to go to the Oregon Legislature for relief and also to be able to use general funds for road maintenance. He added that Clackamas County has the strictest regulations for surface water in the state, which doesn’t create a business-friendly environment. They also were in agreement about aggressive development of the Stafford/Borland area.

“It makes me sad that when I look at a list of the region’s top employers, none of them are in Clackamas County,” Bowerman said.

If we assume that Bowerman was looking at a list of the top 10 employers in the Portland metro area, then her statement would be true. It’s worth noting that the state of Oregon government is the region’s largest employer, the federal government is No. 4, and the city of Portland is No. 9. On this list, Intel and Nike are the only two employers based in Washington County, which has about 167,000 more residents than Clackamas County. Fred Meyer stores, and Providence and Kaiser health plans, are based in Portland but have large facilities in Clackamas County.

Ludlow’s letter looms

Savas, who became county commissioner in 2011 after being active in the county since 1985 as a business owner and elected official, said he’s “somewhat exhausted by the rhetoric that continues to be out there,” but he’s likeky to “rise above that.” Ludlow had recently sent out a letter of support for Bowerman and Bates for Bowerman and Bates that spent most of its 800 words criticizing Bernard and Savas.

“In my 12 or 13 years in elected politics, I had never experienced anything like this,” Savas said in reference to Ludlow’s endorsements.

Bowerman expressed her disappointment that media outlets have focused on the attacks rather than her support of the letter.

“Newspapers have never asked me,” Bowerman said. “There were a number of issues raised in John’s letter,” and she argued that the focus should be on those issues rather than the letter’s vitriol.

However, if Bowerman is wondering why she was never contacted, maybe she should read her own campaign email. In sending out Ludlow’s April 5 missive more than two hours before Ludlow himself, she wrote, “The letter speaks for itself and needs no introduction.”

Bates acknowledged that he was in the awkward position of being both a beneficiary of Ludlow’s endorsement and a target of Bernard’s campaign mailers.

“Using truth, fact and experience is OK, but not lies and innuendo,” Bates said.

Bernard said that his so-called “letter full of lies” had only one mistake in identifying the Koch Brothers as one of Bates’ donors, but Bernard stood by his opposition to the Transformation PAC’s participation in the Bates campaign.

Bates wasn’t satisfied with Bernard’s correction.

“Why am I running for a government position if I’m anti-government?” Bates asked. Referring to himself in the third person on his supposed anti-transit stance, he said that “Bates is on record” for his support for withdrawing from TriMet by creating the county’s own transit authority and his opposition to “standing in the shadow of Portland decision-makers.”

Bernard said that the county now doesn’t even have the option to pursue transportation funding regionally, and he was saddened that the current board no longer has those opportunities due to “Portland creep” rhetoric continuing after the 2012 election.

“Frankly, we can no longer depend on the federal government for that money,” Bernard said. “We’ve destroyed a lot of those relationships, and we need to rebuild them.”

As for the Clackamas County Commission, it almost always votes unanimously, but board members have fueled the fire behind their differences, in Bernard’s opinion.

“We tend to label one another, and that’s one thing we need to fix,” he said.

Bernard guesses that Clackamas County will be playing a greater role in the Blue Heron property next to Willamette Falls than just being supportive at the end of May, when he expects the county will own the property based on back taxes owed. He said that Damascus residents, experiencing the dysfunction of the lack of a comprehensive plan for land use, will be looking to a functional city like Happy Valley.

Calling himself a “problem solver,” Savas referred to his participation in solving issues over water rights while leading the Oak Lodge Water District and resolving a dispute between Clackamas County and Milwaukie over the Kellogg Creek sewage treatment plant.

Other notes on county candidates

Rick Best, who said he decided to challenge Savas rather than Bernard based on flipping a coin, came to Clackamas after 23 years of an active military career and plans not to take any campaign donations.

“Our veterans need help,” Best said. “There are organizations doing stuff for us that we don’t know.”

Clackamas County Treasurer Shari Anderson acknowledged that few people have ever heard of her, and she argued that’s a good thing, because she’s never gotten into trouble. Anderson spent some time addressing James Gleason’s attacks on her in the Voters’ Pamphlet. Gleason, who was not in attendance at the debate, has said that he is “former CPA,” but he has now completed continuing education credits to become an active CPA again. His license was suspended for a time for an event that happened almost 20 years ago.

Myhanh Best, another treasurer candidate who arrived as a political refugee from Vietnam in 1992, said that she’d take a 20 percent pay cut until county budgets were back on track.

All four candidates for the Clackamas County clerk position were in attendance at the debate, but the crowd had questions for neither the clerk nor the treasurer candidates after their introductory statements.

Citizens Informed and Aware will be holding another debate focusing on these three countywide positions 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 16, at Rose Villa Senior Living Community’s Fellowship Hall, 13505 S.E. River Road, Oak Grove.

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