Commission hopefuls cover range of issues
By Marcy Stamper
In a rancorous campaign season on the national stage, the four candidates for Okanogan County commissioner held a refreshingly civil forum where they addressed topics ranging from economic development to ATVs to privatization of public lands.
Andy Hover and Ashley Thrasher, running for the District 2 seat that represents the Methow Valley, joined District 1 incumbent Sheilah Kennedy and challenger Chris Branch at the Twisp Valley Grange on Monday (Oct. 17). About 125 people came to learn more about the candidates and the issues.
Candidates answered six questions developed by the Grange and five from the audience. Questions were about broad county topics and were not specific to any candidate or district.
In introductory remarks, each candidate was asked to explain why he or she was the best choice for the job.
Hover, born and raised in the Methow Valley, said that growing up here didn’t necessarily make him the better candidate. “But it gives me 40 years of insight into how we have changed as a county,” he said.
Thrasher pointed to her experience as a firefighter and smokejumper. “That’s the level of dedication and perfection I will bring to being a county commissioner. I know firsthand the importance of leadership. I have the confidence and humility to learn from those around me and the integrity to do the best thing,” she said.
Branch, who grew up on and around the Colville Reservation, pointed to his 26 years of experience in local government creating jobs, diversifying the economy, and keeping agriculture viable. “I’m the best candidate because I’m challenging the incumbent — when many people are not comfortable with how things are going in the county,” he said.
Kennedy said it has been an honor to serve the people of Okanogan County over the past four years. “I’m the best candidate because I don’t have to worry about hitting the ground running,” she said. She pointed to accomplishments such as adding a third work day for commissioners, completing the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance, and “tightening belts” so that there were no layoffs or tax increases after two disastrous fires.
On the environment
One of the starkest differences was in the candidates’ response to an audience question about threats to the county’s environment.
Hover pointed to windstorms, fires and floods and noted the importance of emergency management to respond to these threats.
Thrasher pointed to the effects of a warming and drying climate on the county. A reduced snowpack will mean less water for irrigation and domestic use. The county must start addressing those issues now, she said.
Branch pointed to water as the county’s most significant environmental challenge. The commissioners are responsible for how land is developed and need to ensure that we have the right development in the right place, he said.
Kennedy pointed to two summers of wildfires and smoke that created poor air quality and related health effects. Citing a recent watershed council study, Kennedy said the threat of a lack of water has not been proven and that some gauging stations in the Methow Valley show an increase in water.
On all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), Hover wants a plan based on sensible decisions about which roads should be open or closed to the vehicles.
“I’m not for blanket opening or closing of all roads under 35 miles per hour,” said Thrasher, who wants to look at each road and consult ATV users about where they want to ride.
Branch wants to balance regional needs and interests and tourist preferences while making sure there are protections to control illegal ATV use.
“I’m a strong supporter of ATVs,” said Kennedy, pointing to the significant contribution ATV riders can make to the economy. By opening all available roads, the commissioners made the situation less complicated, she said.
About those lawsuits
Asked about the number of lawsuits that have been brought against the county, Hover, Thrasher and Branch said that by soliciting and heeding comments from the public, they could ideally avoid litigation.
“If there’s lots of noise, pay close attention and have the conversation before you hire the attorneys,” said Branch.
Thrasher said the litigation was a result of a lack of transparency and not listening or responding to people who provide input.
Hover said lawsuits could be reduced by providing more information to constituents, such as making minutes of commissioners’ meetings available on a timely basis.
“We don’t set out to make a decision to have a lawsuit,” said Kennedy. She attributed some lawsuits to the fact that during her tenure the commissioners finally adopted the county’s comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance, which had been languishing for years.
Hover, Thrasher and Branch rejected the idea of privatizing state and federal lands. Transferring these lands to the county or state is not practical, and neither of them has the budget to manage them adequately, said Hover.
“I completely support public lands staying public,” said Thrasher.
Branch questioned the motives of groups who want to see these lands privatized. Kennedy would like to see a study that explains why the federal government loses money on the lands it manages, while the state makes money.