Chris Branch was elected to the District 1 seat on the Okanogan County Commission in 2016, when he defeated incumbent Sheilah Kennedy.
Please provide information about your background.
I’ve been married for over 30 years, have two grown children and three grandchildren. I’ve lived in Okanogan County for the past 45 years and lived here in the early 1960s attending grade school in Omak and at St. Mary’s Mission. I was born in Nespelem and worked in Ferry County on the Colville Reservation in my teenage years. I lived for eight years in and around Portland, Oregon, where I joined the U.S. Coast Guard at 17. My work experience includes farm worker, ranch hand, sawmill worker, logger, mechanic, and truck driver before achieving a college education in 1990. I accrued 27 years in planning and community development experience for cities and towns in and around Okanogan County, including 20 years for Oroville. With 3 1/2 years as a county commissioner, I have 30 years of local government experience.
How would you describe your political views?
I don’t subscribe to partisan politics. I am motivated to seek solutions with a willingness to change my position given what I find as credible information. In my decision-making I often consult tools from “The School of Thought,” where recognition of our own biases and fallacies results in better decisions. I am open to hearing people out but am most interested in hearing about ideas leading to consensus on solutions that overcome conflict.
Why are you seeking a seat on the Okanogan County commission and what background and skills make you the best choice?
Extensive experience in all aspects of local government in Okanogan County means I am already grounded in the work. I represent eastern Washington on the Washington State Association of Counties including the Legislative Steering Committee, and was engaged with the Association of Washington Cities for many years.
What do you consider to be the top three issues facing Okanogan County? Why? What should the county do to address these issues?
Any state mandate requiring resources that comes without funding for implementation is an ongoing and overriding issue.
COVID suppression and recovery rises to the top as we move into fall and winter when we could see another surge, especially if we become lax about social distancing and wearing masks. The county continues to move CARES Act funding to county health, and to businesses that continue to decline under the restrictions. We should continue to lobby for extensions of time to use CARES funding to ensure we are stable.
Water planning and management are important as we continue to see a change in snowpack and weather patterns as has been projected. Commitment to the implementation of science-based plans after they are approved should be the priority.
Open government is especially important. Videoed meetings, improved website, citizen participation in future planning efforts and education on comprehensive planning and zoning help citizens understand the issues, thereby avoiding confusion and costly delays in planning and implementation.
Okanogan County has been working on its comprehensive plan for some time, and is facing a lawsuit over inadequacies in the current plan. What’s the best approach to address diverse situations across the county?
I believe the county was on the almost on right track in its comprehensive planning effort until around 2012 when the sub-area “listening” effort was abandoned. Reduced participation in planning typically results in challenges. Another complication from the beginning was updating the plan and zoning together. I believe we are finding our way back to the right track when we set the zoning aside and shifted the focus on vision, goals and objective statements, which has been challenging because it has taken a while to set aside the notion that the comprehensive plan is regulatory. Allow the adoption of the current draft that is now going to hearing (and) restart the sub-area citizen involvement process to incrementally adopt sub-area plans.
Water is an increasingly serious issue throughout the state, and particularly for arid counties like Okanogan. What are the primary water issues in Okanogan County and the Methow Valley? How would you address them?
Responsible water management planning and implementation are in play for the Okanogan basin under the Streamflow Restoration Act; however, I advocate focusing on each sub-basin to assess water availability prior to allowing more subdivision of land in areas of uncertainty. There is a question as to whether existing lots in some basins can be adequately served without risking impairment of senior agricultural rights, especially during drought. Water management in the Methow has been an evolving issue for decades. There are currently a number of sub-basins that have been closed to allocation since 1977 when the “Methow rule” set a flow allocation of 2 cubic feet per second for single-family domestic use. Plans are being developed to better track and assess the current status of the flow allocation.
Some people who want to build homes in the Methow Valley face hurdles in obtaining a legal water source. There’s a moratorium on subdividing land for residential development. How should the county address this situation?
The county has been ignoring the water allocation issue for decades and the legal use of the allocation for new subdivisions has been in question since 2003, leading to a legal challenge on further subdivision and subdivisions that have been approved since then. The current Board of County Commissioners has chosen to respect Washington’s “vesting” law, making certain exceptions to the moratorium we enacted in response to the legal challenge. The county needs to appropriately limit subdivision until there is more certainty in water availability decisions but act quickly on assessing the situation to protect vested landowners before more are created. Building is occurring at an increased pace in the Methow which is evidence that the allocation is being consumed. This work is underway with a consultant developing a well tracking system for the county. Better citizen involvement and consensus-building should overcome the need to have the courts decide our destiny.
Large portions of the county have been damaged by wildfire again this year. What does the county need to do to help with recovery? How about wildfire planning and prevention?
The county responds to immediate needs but relies on nonprofit volunteer assistance for long-term recovery as there is always an influx of donations and assistance almost immediately for victims of such fires. These efforts have been very effective and this year the response for long-term recovery has been ahead of the game in many ways. The county supports and lobbies for state investments in fire suppression capacity. In rebuilding and in new construction the county partners with the Okanogan Conservation District to implement “Firewise” assistance. Standards for new construction and fire resistance are a must despite adverse feelings about mandated compliance.
Is Okanogan County Public Health adequately equipped to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic? What measures does the county need to take to deal with the pandemic? What is the role of the commissioners in pandemic response?
County Health is currently operating with ample resources to address the pandemic; however, acknowledgment and cooperation amongst the masses is key to keeping this virus under control. County Health has used federal CARES Act funding to substantially augment the Board of Health budget. Increased testing, contact tracing, and public information are three areas where CARES funding is being used to bolster these important elements of disease control.
What is the state of the economy in Okanogan County? What measures should the county take to address economic issues and promote recovery and future resiliency?
Sales tax revenues have increased in the county so there are certain sectors of the economy that are doing OK. Online sales and delivery appear to be a part of that increase. However, small businesses most impacted by closures are still struggling to stay in business and the most creative seem to be surviving. The county just allocated another $200,000 of federal relief funding to award another round of direct business assistance grants. Pandemics are very difficult to manage or predict but adaptation to necessary control measures are changing the way business is conducted in many areas. There is an impression that people with extended unemployment benefits are not motivated to return to work. My experience with layoffs is there are a bunch of folks that are anxious to be working.