Candidates stress Okanogan County’s economic challenges
By Marcy Stamper
Andy Hover and Ashley Thrasher are vying for the county commissioner seat for District 2, which represents the Methow Valley, Pateros, Brewster, and a portion of the city of Okanogan. The two outpolled incumbent commissioner Ray Campbell in the primary.
The new District 2 commissioner will be working with one or two incumbents, depending on the outcome of the District 1 race between incumbent Sheilah Kennedy and challenger Chris Branch.
In their campaign literature and on their websites, Hover and Thrasher state some similar platforms and policies.
For example, Hover says:
“I will work for a fiscally responsible budget, work to keep jobs and families in Okanogan County and support sensible county planning and land use with consideration of land diversity and citizen input. As a county we cannot continue to spend time and money defending against unnecessary lawsuits.
“I do not support the movement to transfer federal or state lands to counties.”
“I will support existing businesses and seek creative new industries to keep jobs in Okanogan County.
“I will maintain fiscal responsibility and oversight with the county budget.
“I will not privatize public-sector jobs. I will continue working with the cities and county to maintain our plans for disaster preparedness.
“I strongly support ensuring our public lands remain available to all people for fishing, hunting, firewood gathering and recreation.”
In the following interviews, they provide more specifics about their visions for the county.
Andy Hover has been the manager of North Valley Lumber for the past seven years, where he oversees day-to-day operations, supervises nine employees and is responsible for budgets, inventory and orders. Before that, he was manager at Winthrop Ace Hardware for three years.
Hover also worked in the nuclear-power industry for three years, as a general laborer and as a programmer and designer of testing equipment.
Hover has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture technology and management and a minor in business administration from Washington State University.
He lives in Winthrop with his wife and son.
Jobs and economy
Hover is seeking ways to create opportunities to help the 23 percent of the county’s residents who live below the poverty line.
He would like to see a more comprehensive vocational program at Wenatchee Valley College in Omak to prepare young people for living-wage jobs. Among the specialties he would like to see are mechanics, construction, fabrication, welding and HVAC.
Increased educational and job opportunities are a way of reducing drug abuse, which Hover called one of the most serious problems affecting young people in the county. “Heroin is a big culprit in the county,” he said. “It’s a social issue, a vicious circle. Kids feel they’re not worth anything.”
Hover also favors building more consistent and robust high-speed Internet so that people can live here and telecommute to other jobs. He would nurture light industry and create a climate that gives entrepreneurs the sense that moving to Okanogan County would benefit their business.
County staff and contracting
“They have to think business-minded. That’s what you’re doing — you’re running a multi-million-dollar business,” he said. Hover said that is what he has done over the past 10 years as manager of Ace Hardware and North Valley Lumber.
The commissioners need to look at each department and be involved in the budget process to see if there are areas where they can realize savings. “Will the income justify and cover the spending?” he said.
Hover criticized the current commissioners for privatizing so many county functions, including janitorial work, weed-spraying, legal representation and union negotiations. These jobs should be done by an employee who would in turn spend money in the county, he said.
“There’s a gap in the thinking,” said Hover. The commissioners outsource a function, believing it saves the county money because the costs appear equal, said Hover. But they don’t recognize that if the work is done by an employee, wages are circulated through the county from five to seven times when that person buys food and fuel or goes to the movies.
“So it’s not just equal,” said Hover. “It generates more economic vitality to keep the person here.”
Over the past two years, while spraying for noxious weeds has been performed by an out-of-county contractor, the commissioners have raised the assessment people pay for weed control twice, said Hover.
The county could pay less for its legal expenses, in particular by mitigating issues before they become lawsuits, said Hover. [Editor’s note: The county is currently facing lawsuits over its comprehensive plan, zoning ordinance and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) ordinance.] “If groups are brought in and respected and their ideas listened to,” that would help resolve these issues, he said.
Hover favors putting the lawsuits on hold to try to work out issues and appease the majority of people involved. “It could be different if people take a stance that isn’t just ‘it’s my way or the highway,’” he said. He vowed to take an active role in resolving the lawsuits.
“Being respectful of people who don’t feel as you do emotionally goes a long way,” he said.
With regard to ATVs, Hover noted there are three realms — federal, county and city roads. He supports taking the time to review all county roads to see which ones are appropriate for ATVs so the county can develop a plan that is acceptable to everyone. Roads that don’t go anywhere or that are only 1 mile long are not suitable for ATVs, he said. Hover believes that people understand that the county needs to reach a compromise about where ATVs can travel.
Hover puts a lot of faith in the ability of common courtesy to resolve issues. For example, ATV riders, cyclists or hikers can share a road if the ATV riders pull over to let the others pass, he said.
“It’s a fine line to walk when setting policy — you let people live their own lives. But you need some regulation to govern day-to-day issues,” he said.
Hover believes that working together can help resolve other differences. For instance, he recommends field trips where people can see cattle being grazed responsibly, in a way that helps rehabilitate grasslands. He’d like people in other parts of the county to visit the Methow Valley to see how planning has preserved open space while allowing residential construction and the development of tourism.
Hover stressed the need to use empirical evidence, rather than emotion, to support decisions on issues such as water use in the county’s planning documents.
The county’s current planning for emergencies and disasters is not adequate, said Hover. In addition to wildfires and floods, he pointed to concerns such as train derailments, toxic-chemical spills and earthquakes.
The county needs to improve its emergency-communications infrastructure. The commissioners must take an active role in coordinating strategies with cities and towns, he said. Hover is reluctant to rely solely on local control — the county needs a plan to transfer management to a higher level for disasters such as wildfires when they become too big to be handled locally, he said.
Working with other commissioners, staff
Hover believes he can work with the other commissioners with logic and empathy by putting himself in their shoes and by trying to sway them when necessary.
“I honestly believe I can get the two existing commissioners to budge. I can hold my own — I have a lot of self-confidence and the feeling I can go into a situation and work within boundaries to think about a logical solution,” he said.
Having lived in the Methow Valley his entire life — in particular, having grown up on a farm but being involved in building and development — is an advantage in working with others because it provides a broader perspective, said Hover.
“I put a lot of faith in human nature. I feel when we stop thinking human nature is good and that there are no ways to compromise, our society is going to fall apart and not be good for anyone.”
“You need to hold your own and be true to yourself and know where your moral-compass points are,” said Hover.
Ashley Thrasher worked as a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service for seven years, based out of the Methow Valley, Tonasket and Concrete, including five years on hand and hotshot crews. She was a smokejumper with the Redmond Smokejumpers in Oregon for two years and has been an incident commander.
Thrasher stopped firefighting last year to work as a carpenter for Charters LLC in Twisp.
Thrasher has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma in biology and a minor in African-American Studies.
Thrasher was born and raised in rural Vermont. She moved to Washington to attend college and was drawn to the Methow Valley to be closer to family members. She has lived in Twisp for seven years.
Jobs and economy
With many seasonal jobs connected with tourism and agriculture, too many jobs in the county provide low wages and no benefits, said Thrasher.
After consulting with the directors of local organizations that work on economic and employment issues, such as the Economic Alliance. Thrasher said she focus on helping existing businesses grow. That model has proven more successful than recruiting new businesses, she said.
The scarcity of solid, year-round jobs is one reason Thrasher would like to see Okanogan County continue to hire permanent employees rather than privatize services such as weed-spraying and road and vehicle maintenance. When these jobs are put out to bid, the county is required to accept the lowest bidder, which means the work can go to a firm outside Okanogan County, she said.
Thrasher noted that the county’s budget for weed spraying has increased by more than $100,000 over the past two years, although the work is no longer being done by individuals who live in Okanogan County.
Thrasher supports innovative ideas for new industries in the county. She pointed to the possibility of a bottle-recycling facility in Pateros that would make new products from recycled plastic.
Other projects she would like to explore include finding ways to use small-diameter wood to make flooring or other wood products, which would simultaneously achieve several goals — increasing forest health and reducing wildfire risk while creating a new industry. Thrasher would like to see the county support a biodiesel industry connected with forest thinning and restoration.
The county commissioners should play a supportive role in exploring the possibilities of these new industries, she said. They can also assist nonprofits and community groups in developing affordable housing. For example, some communities are pursuing the idea of creating affordable housing and retail space using low-cost, stacked shipping containers.
“We need to look at how we want to develop to be sustainable and provide jobs and housing,” she said.
The current county commissioners have been too antagonistic in their dealings with federal and state agencies and with some local groups, said Thrasher. All these entities should recognize their shared interests and work toward a common goal, she said.
Okanogan County’s diversity is one of its strengths, said Thrasher. “One size does not fit all,” and that should be reflected in the county’s comprehensive plan and other elements of land-use planning, she said.
Thrasher wants county plans to recognize diverse economic resources in different parts of the county — such as tourism, ranching and orcharding — and work to protect and develop the regions accordingly.
Thrasher sees the comp plan as a working document that needs to be updated on a regular basis — not every 40 years — in conjunction with local communities. “It’s a big plan and needs community input,” she said.
Thrasher believes the lawsuits against the county — over its comp plan, zoning ordinance and ATV ordinance — could have been avoided. “These issues can be resolved with compromise and discussion,” she said. “I’d like to talk to communities about what would work best,” she said. ATVs may not be appropriate for every area, but there are opportunities for compromise, she said.
Thrasher is concerned that not all citizens have been represented and that much public input seems to have been ignored or not taken seriously by the current board of commissioners.
“I’m hopeful and confident we can avoid litigation by truly considering each side and having enough input that groups feel valued,” she said.
Thrasher would build public involvement by being available to people throughout the county on a regular basis by setting up a regular schedule in each district in the evenings or on weekends so that people can meet with her and learn about county issues and the basis for commissioners’ decisions.
Thrasher would also make sure agendas and minutes of commissioners meetings are available earlier. She would record a weekly radio program to give constituents details about upcoming issues and to explain commissioners’ decisions.
Thrasher would also update the county’s website to make it more user-friendly.
It’s important to educate people about how to protect themselves and their property from wildfire and to have them understand that firefighters’ lives come first, said Thrasher.
With unhealthy forests, drier summers and increasingly destructive fires, Thrasher emphasized the importance for property owners to create defensible space around their homes and to use fire-resistant building materials where possible. “People need to recognize that they live in a fire-prone area,” she said.
She would support county efforts to find grants and other cost-sharing programs to help property owners create a more defensible space.
Being better prepared to live in a fire-prone area should also be taken into account in the county’s comp plan, in terms of where and how to develop safely, said Thrasher.
Part of the importance of developing good working relationships with the Forest Service and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is to be able to work together to identify and treat priority areas in the wildland-urban interface. By working together, these entities can share resources to accomplish these goals, she said.
Thrasher stressed the importance of relying on experts for matters such as firefighting and emergency preparedness. Local knowledge can help fire crews understand and work more effectively, but Thrasher said that the expertise of highly trained crews in managing large fires and other disasters outweighs the benefits of local knowledge.
Working with other commissioners, staff
Thrasher is confident that her approach to working with others — explaining the rationale behind a decision or opinion — would help make the board of commissioners and county staff more effective. “I have an open mind about how to work to identify the best vision for the county and how to move in that direction,” she said.
This is one reason she is running with no party affiliation, she said. “When people see labels, they often don’t think critically — they assume they know what someone stands for, but ignore the specifics about what that person wants to accomplish,” she said.
“This county has lots of shared values and interests. We need to work together to decide what’s best for farms, communities and land,” she said.
Her broad experiences and views, including a perspective that comes from having spent time outside Okanogan County, would make her an effective commissioner, said Thrasher.
Thrasher has already spent considerable time meeting with department heads in the county, and with regional managers for DNR, the Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, to learn about issues and build relationships, she said.
People have until Oct. 10 to register online or by mail for the Nov. 8 general election. People can register in person through Oct. 31. Search for Washington voter registration for more information or call (509) 422-7240.
The Methow Valley News will run profiles of the District 1 candidates in a future issue. In the general election, all voters vote for commissioners from all districts.