La Center City Council candidates discuss issues at candidate forum

The five candidates vying for position 1 on the La Center City Council participated in a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Clark County

There’s no shortage of candidates seeking position 1 on the La Center City Council in the Aug. 3 primary election. Five candidates are currently vying for the seat and each participated in a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Clark County and televised by Clark/Vancouver Television (CVTV) on July 15.

Ron Ostrander
Ron Ostrander

The candidates included Ron Ostrander, Craig Whited, Melissa Fox, Justin Keeler and Myrna Leija. Two of the five candidates will advance from the primary election to the November general election. Bios of each candidate appears in the voters’ pamphlet recently distributed by the Clark County Elections Department.

Here is a look at some of the questions the candidates had an opportunity to answer at last week’s candidate forum. To view the complete forum, see CVTV’s broadcast here

What background skills and abilities would you bring to the position of city council member?

Craig Whited
Craig Whited

Ostrander: “I’m interested in local politics. I’m retired from state government in Oregon. And I try to keep informed. And I’m a really good guy. That’s it.’’

Whited: “So I’ve spent my career as a fluid power specialist, business development and manager of those types of businesses. And throughout the years, my 20-25 years in managing those types of businesses and leading those types of teams, I’ve certainly learned the skills necessary to lead teams, work within teams, and manage budgets of a similar size to the city. So, I think those skills learned over my years of experience in business will be very applicable to a city government as well. And I believe in a general attitude of civil servitude. I’m here to do the job for the citizens and will be very valuable in this position.”

Melissa Fox
Melissa Fox

Fox: “I’m a lifelong resident of La Center. I’m a mother of two at La Center Elementary, and I’ve been a small business owner here for the last 11 years. So, I’m definitely dedicated to this town. When I could put my business anywhere 11 years ago, I chose to build it in a town that I grew up in and surrounded by teachers that I respect. And the skills that I have, that I think will really help our town, is one thing that we really need, is to increase our small businesses and our revenue. And so I would love to help support the small businesses that are coming in … I work outside of the clock all the time. And so I’m willing to put in the time and effort to help small businesses come in, help them with the process of what the city requires, so that they feel welcome here and how we can support that.’’

Justin Keeler
Justin Keeler

Keeler: “I have lived here in La Center for 12 years with my family. I hold a bachelor’s in fine arts and music, a master’s in library and information science, a master’s degree in public administration. I have been trained by the Institute of Public deliberation at the Foley School of Government and I’m a Harwood Institute public innovator, which is an aspirations-based approach to community engagement. My children have never lived anywhere other than La Center. I would bring to the position a deep understanding of public sector budgeting, administrative practices and procedures. And I understand property tax levies and special district taxation in Washington state in a way that any non finance professional probably shouldn’t. But, those are some of the things I bring to the job. Besides the fact that I love this community, and I want it to succeed, and to be able to provide a quality of life for families coming after mine, similar to what my family has benefited from.’’

Myrna Leija
Myrna Leija

Leija: “What I’m bringing to this candidacy would be all my training that I’ve had in college and criminal justice. The training at the academy as a corrections deputy, and hostage negotiation, and cultural diversity. So being able to talk to and listen to people of all diverse nationalities, ethnicity, being able to negotiate with them, because when you’re small like I am, you learn to talk well with inmates. And it keeps you safe. So, I have a really strong draw because of my law enforcement background, I really want to get the place back and running in this town. And I also want to see small businesses thrive, and we need a tax base. And there’s so many new homes going in all around that we need to have that tax base, and we definitely need to have our police department. And that’s what I would work on.’’

We understand that the police force has shrunk considerably. How would you like to see La Center respond? 

Whited: I’d certainly like to see the city rebuild the historical police force that has been here in La Center. I think that local policing is incredibly important and incredibly beneficial not only to the citizens, but the police force as well. But to do that, we do need the funding to make that happen. And we just currently don’t have that today. So I think it’s very important with respect to the police force to talk about having a vision for the town, a shared vision for all of us in this community … As we welcome new people, as we build a safe environment where businesses and families can flourish, we need to be able to support a local police force. That is incredibly important to do in this small and beautiful gem of a town.’’ 

Fox: “The police force is also extremely important to me, I am a single mom. So living here in town, growing up and driving in town and seeing the police officers, control the bridge, and they’re always driving through, that always creates a safety net feeling for all of us. And I’ve definitely seen since 2017 that things have started to kind of dwindle as far as our force goes. And we all know this. But I would love to see, and what I would be really working for, is to start with getting a working police chief. Right now we have an interim police chief, who is technically retired, and we’re paying him about $11,000 a month, and he can actually patrol and he can’t do a whole lot as far as really acting as an active officer. And so he can’t hire or fire to my understanding … The casino tax dollars, a certain percentage of that goes to the police force. So there needs to be some accountability somewhere of where the funds have been going and just start building it and not necessarily expect to go back to the seven police officers we had back in 2017, but just start building it up slowly instead of dwindling it down.’’

Keeler: “All sitting here at this meeting tonight agree that a safe community is the best type of community. Nobody currently in city administration wants to see our community destabilized. Efforts are being made to bring better law enforcement, effective law enforcement back to our city in a sustainable, cost effective way. Our policing, like any public sort of endeavor, needs to be budgeted for in a sustainable way that reflects our financial realities. Personnel cannot be continued to be paid for out of city reserves. It’s unfair to our city staff, especially police officers, because it doesn’t set us up for successful recruitment and retention. There is new legislation coming from the state that will directly drive up costs of policing in our community all across the state. Our communities will see an increase in costs due to the requirement for body cameras that cost $700 a piece. That’s not the big deal. The big deal is the infrastructure behind managing those cameras. We simply cannot afford the level of policing under our current model that our cities enjoyed up till now.’’

Leija: “Yes, that’s been my concern, too, is finding the funding for the police department. And I’ve already talked to Sheriff (Chuck) Atkins, because he was my boss most recently. So we know each other. I talked to him two Saturdays ago and talked to him about my concerns of the shrinking police department. And he said, they’re talking about contracting out the sheriff’s office with La Center and I said that’s not cost effective for us citizens. It costs way more, significantly more money to pay for Clark County Sheriff’s officers to come out here to cover and they’re already understaffed. And so he said, ‘if you win this position … you come and talk to me and I will help you find ways to get money for the police department.’ I was very excited about that.’’

Ostrander: “I’m pretty much in agreement with the rest of the candidates. We’ve got some really sharp, qualified people. As for the funding, find it. What’s the cost of crime? That’s a big question. It’s my understanding, sadly, I can’t prove this. So, it’s my understanding that money can be reallocated. And there’s various creative ways to get the money to fund a cop shop. We really need it. Senseless violence isn’t going to make it. I’ve discussed this with a candidate running for sheriff, Mr. (Rey) Reynolds.’’

How do you see La Center providing adequate funding for city services? 

Fox: “One thing you know if you pay attention to listener politics is that, almost 50 percent of our revenue comes from the cardrooms. We’ve known since 2017 that when a casino came in, that we were going to see a drop in revenue. That should have been a time, that in my opinion, that the council and the city should have been saying, okay, we need to get on building our next plan, which is bringing in small business, developing the I-5 corridor, looking at Timmons Landing, those things have been rezoned. I know that there’s obviously utility issues with that, but we need to push forward on that instead of looking at pumping money into a TBS building for employees. I think that the focus needs to be shifted drastically when your city is in a deficit.’’

Keeler: “If I were elected, I would help the city continue down the path that’s been laid out by the current council and the mayor to continue to reduce the number of physical plants that the city is responsible for maintaining via the purchasing and the equipping of the TDS building, I would continue to hire consultants able to, by allowing us to tap into their deep expertise in a flexible way. I would continue working with the city staff, if allowed to, to continue to shore up their workflows and administrative practices, looking for inefficiencies and redundancies in effort. I would pay careful attention and pursue thoughtful, but aggressive development at our I-5 junction. And I would work to bring city offices out of the multiple facilities that they’re in, consolidate them into the TDS building and free up those spaces for potential commercial development.’’

Leija: “I’ve already talked to, I believe his name was Jim Holder, who is with the Ridgefield Chamber of Commerce. I called him a week or so ago. And I said, La Center doesn’t have a Chamber of Commerce. I’m not sure how to start one up. So would you help me start one? And he said, I certainly will. In fact, he said, I talked to someone on the City Council a year and a half ago, and asked them if they would, if they wanted help in getting a Chamber of Commerce, I’d be willing to help them and that we can even combine our Chamber of Commerce with Ridgefield. Ridgefield has done great with bringing in businesses to help their infrastructure. And so I’ve already talked to him and am in the process of that moving forward. And I agree with Melissa (Fox), that we need to have those two cardrooms. There’s no reason, it was like the end of 2016 beginning of 2017 that those two card rooms closed? Well, there should have been something done, but here we are. So we need to get some businesses to fill the empty buildings downtown, and then aggressively get more up at the junction. 

Ostrander: “As far as getting more money, I think I do just the opposite with the consultants. And we were paying a lot of money for, what I’d like to see is just how much you’re getting. I understand it’s quite a bit. Why should I hire a consultant from Seattle, wherever, that doesn’t even live here that has no accountability to us? As far as development at I-5, I’d like to see some environmentally friendly businesses at the junction, definitely work with that. As far as city staff all being stuck in one building, probably not. But I certainly agree with Mr. Keeler, that some of this stuff could be freed up for commercial development.’’

Whited: “When we talk about providing adequate funding for city services. It all starts with a vision, right? We need to work together to develop a vision. And after we have that vision, where are we going? With all the benefits that are in this town, the great citizenry, the location, all the things that we have to offer businesses and citizens alike. What does the vision look like for the future and then develop a plan to get us to that vision, and then also develop metrics to measure our progress towards that plan. The idea of consultants has come up here and consultants aren’t bad, right? They serve an everyday function in businesses and government today, but managing their services and the amount of money that we spend on them is critically important in government. So if you want to use a consultant, have a plan for what they’re supposed to be doing, how they’re supposed to be doing it, what the end goal is, how they’re progressing, and then end it when the services are no longer needed.’’

Closing comments

Whited: ”I’d like to say that La Center is a beautiful town. It has great citizens, and I believe it has a bright future. However, we currently have a lack of revenue. We can’t afford the things that we want. If elected, I’ll tell you, I can’t do it alone. I will listen to citizens, I will work with the City Council, staff and mayor to develop and document a vision for the future of our town. The vision is the key to where we want to go. And then we need a plan to get to that vision, that shared vision that we have. And then we need metrics to measure our progress towards the vision as we progress. I’m confident that my experience leading teams and managing budgets of this size will benefit the citizens of la Center. Vote for me and I’ll be your civil servant, and civil servant is a key word there. I’m not doing this for me, I believe that I have something to add to the citizens. Allow me to be your voice, allow me to listen to you and get the things done that you want done.’’

Fox: “As a lifelong resident of La Center, I have decided to run for City Council to become a voice for the town that I love and to speak for the people that have become so much of my family over the years. I want to bring the approach of a small business owner in La Center. My goal is to work with Woodland’s Chamber of Commerce, Ridgefield’s Chamber of Commerce, and try to help establish one in La Center. And I’m willing to put forth the effort that it takes to help start to establish that and at the same time, just being open, and being a voice for the public and being open anytime to hear concerns. I do as well want to be a servant of the community. And I feel that my heart is in the right place. And raising my children here, I just want to create a better future for them and all of the generations that we have in our community.’’

Keeler: “It’s no mystery what the major themes of this campaign are, its community safety. But that has been framed as a locally managed and run police department. We all want our community to be safe. But, we cannot bring back a local police department right now with the revenue that we have coming in. It costs 40 percent of our city budget to run a $1.4 million police department the way it was before. Now, if that’s the vision that the city has for us, if that’s what we have for ourselves that we want to see a locally managed police department, then by all means let’s pursue that goal aggressively. But we need to find the revenue first. There was a comment made that Sheriff Atkins said it was gonna cost more to have to deal with the county sheriff. How do we know? How do we know it is going to cost more? Those contracts have been drawn up and the terms of service have not been agreed to.’’

Leija: “I want definitely to pursue that aggressively. But there has to be ways to get the money because $1.4 million for a police department is not nearly as bad as paying $2 million to contract out to another agency. And it is going to cost significantly more money because these officers are already working their 48 hours a week. That’s a 48 hours a week minimum and then come out here and do a day. So they’re doing 60 hours, two days, they’re doing 72 hours and they’re getting overtime for that money, which they should because they’re working that time. I’ve been a civil servant for 30 years … I would love it if you would vote for me for this position One, because I am an action person. And as you can see from things I’ve said tonight, that I have already taken action, and I haven’t even gotten to the primary yet. So, vote for me.’’

Ostrander: “Why vote for me? Well, charm, cuteness, good looks and whatever else alone is not going to do the job. I realized that we have some serious issues. I have years of public service, and retired from state government in Oregon and also served three years in the Army, part of which was an MP. So, I’m a little bit familiar with police procedures. By any means necessary, we need to have an effective police department, one that needs to be vigorously pursued. And, you know, as far as the funding? … Well, there’s ways to get creative. What concerns me more than money is a degradation and whatnot that rapid crime would bring about.’’

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1 year ago

Way to go. Hire a bunch of pretty girls to put a nice face on the county and city governance policies dealt by the real men in a smoke-filled back room of the casino next door.

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