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Marijuana, transparency topics at Douglas County commissioner candidate forum Tuesday

April 18, 2018 GMT

Transparency, economic development, marijuana and the use of federal money on videos promoting timber salvage were among the topics addressed at a candidate forum Tuesday.

Seven candidates for two Douglas County commissioner seats answered questions before a standing-room- only crowd at the Umpqua Valley Arts Association building in Roseburg. The forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Umpqua Valley.

Five candidates for Douglas County Commissioner Position 2, incumbent Tim Freeman, Roseburg City Councilor Ashley Hicks, Brandy Stone, Rita Harris and Victor Petrucci participated in Tuesday’s debate. So did incumbent Chris Boice and Jeremy Salter, who are running for Douglas County Commissioner Position 3. Two other candidates for Position 3, Jason Leeper and James Hoyt, were no-shows.

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Public input in county government decisions was one of the first topics addressed.

Stone suggested commissioner meetings could be done in a round table format that gives everyone a chance to speak, with no time limits.

“I think we could increase meetings, and I think we could increase public participation, and I think we could incentivize public participation by making the people who attend really feel heard,” she said.

Freeman said the current commissioners turned the cameras on so people who couldn’t be at the meetings could still watch them, and he pointed to the 90 town halls the commissioners have held.

“By far this group of commissioners is the most transparent and has done the most work in that area and will continue to look for ways to do that,” Freeman said.

Harris said she wants to make it easier for people to find the information they need to be part of the decision-making process.

“I believe that everybody should be part of the government, especially at the county level, especially those decisions that are made that affect whether our children can go to the library after school, whether we are going to have public safety, whether we are actually addressing the housing and homeless issues that we are facing today,” she said.

Boice said as an elected official, his job is to consider public input before making a decision and to make the best decision for the majority.

“Since we’ve been on the board for the last three and a half years, we’ve had more public meetings than any board of commissioners before us. We’ve opened up avenues of communication that have never been used before, including electronic communication and social media,” he said.

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Hicks said there is “lots of opportunity for commissioners to display that transparency and that openness to listen with both ears to the community and their concerns and their suggestions.”

Salter said his business experience has taught him the best way to solve problems is to collaborate.

“If you bring people together around an issue, experts from each side of an issue, you listen to all of the opinions from all sides of the issue and you moderate toward a solution or path that works for all parties involved,” he said.

Petrucci said when “people choose to involve themselves we can make drastic changes in a minute.”

He said he’s sorry to see that there’s not more input from people.

The candidates were also asked whether they would support a severance tax on timber harvests on private land.

Hicks and Harris said it was worth looking into.

Freeman and Boice explained there was a severance tax in Oregon in the past, but the money went to the state, not the county. They said the state worked out a deal with timber companies to level out the payments so they’d be the same year to year rather than fluctuating with economic peaks and valleys. They said it’s revenue from federal timber harvests the county needs.

Salter said he’d be interested in a severance tax if the money went to the county.

Petrucci said the timber companies should pay a tax, and if they didn’t they should have to give the land to the public for its use.

Stone said in the 1990s, several pieces of legislation phased out the severance tax, leading to a “horrible loss of revenue.” She said the amount of tax revenue from private timberlands of over 5,000 acres dropped from $120 million per year to $18 million. That’s half a billion dollars lost every five years, she said.

On economic development, Freeman touted the commissioners’ work supporting Fred Wahl Marina. He said some of the ships out catching fish on the show “Deadliest Catch” were made in Douglas County by that company. Freeman and Boice both noted that economic development doesn’t do anything to improve the county government’s budget, since there is no income tax, but said economic development is important and the county invests in it.

Harris said the county can only grow and change if it creates a skilled workforce and brings in new living wage jobs.

Petrucci said the county should reduce permit costs he said keep business away.

Hicks said she’d like to see tire recycling here, and also said the county should support existing businesses.

Salter and Stone said the county could use marijuana revenue. Salter also said the county should reduce spending and save money by installing solar and being energy efficient.

Stone said marijuana is an industry that could compete with timber. She also said the county government has lost money because voters disapproved of marijuana businesses in the rural unincorporated parts of the county.

“The cut that Douglas County could be getting ... would be equal to $358,000, which would cover four deputy sheriffs, which I think is a really important thing to consider when public safety may be up for a levy soon,” she said.

Petrucci said he doesn’t think the county should be involved with marijuana, since it’s still against federal law.

Boice said the people of Douglas County twice voted down allowing marijuana businesses in rural parts of the county. He said if people want to ask the voters again, they’re free to follow the initiative process to place it on the ballot again.

Stone countered that many voters she spoke to said they didn’t understand the last ballot measure. She also said it would be easier for the commissioners to put the issue on the ballot than for citizens to collect signatures to place it on the ballot.

Title III Secure Rural Schools spending that went to the local nonprofit Communities for Healthy Forests, which spent some of the money producing a video advocating for harvesting timber burned in wildfires, was also a topic of debate.

The county commissioners came under fire for the expenditure, but an independent auditor recently found the county had spent the money correctly. Some of the challengers expressed skepticism Tuesday.

Salter said the director of Communities for Healthy Forests makes a lot of money, and he said the county’s money would better be used on fire prevention planning. Stone said the auditor has been on retainer with the county since 2004, so she’s not convinced the audit is independent.

Hicks said educating the public about timber harvests through videos is not a bad idea, but that the commissioners should listen to public criticism about the way this money was spent.

Freeman and Boice said that CHF grants from Title III money had been approved by a regional committee and by many commissioners over the years. Boice said the videos were a good use of the money.

“What if I were to tell you that I could keep the library open for 40 hours a week, fix all the county roads, keep the parks open to the public for free and do all of that by only cutting dead trees, and when I did that I could replant the forest with green trees? That’s absolutely true and that’s what Communities for Healthy Forests is trying to educate the public about,” he said.

Harris said if the decisions had been made more transparently, there would be more trust.

“We would already have been part of that decision making process and would understand as a community what that funding meant and what we could expect from the use of that money. This is really a question of whether or not we can trust our current county government to make decisions and be held accountable for those decisions,” she said.