Clark County Councilor Jeanne Stewart pushed back against a suggestion that the county wasn’t doing enough to address homelessness during an interview of candidates running for her position by The Columbian Editorial Board.
During the interview, Temple Lentz, one of her Democratic opponents, remarked that the issue of homelessness is treated as a problem facing the city of Vancouver rather than the whole region. She suggested that the county should consider going to the voters with a housing and homelessness levy similar to what the city of Vancouver did in 2016.
“What I’d like to see the county do is be a more active partner rather than sort of holding the line and saying, ‘We’re doing what we’re supposed to do,’ ” said Lentz. “It’s clearly not enough.”
“Well, I’m disappointed to hear a claim that the county isn’t doing anything or isn’t doing enough,” shot back Stewart, who stressed the need to address substance abuse disorders, mental illness and other root causes of homelessness. She also said the county is considering how to direct extra money in the county’s mental health sales tax fund.
“There’s limited things that the county can do,” said former state Rep. Jim Moeller, the other Democrat in the race. He suggested that the county could adopt zoning changes to address the issue. He also highlighted his career as a chemical dependency counselor at Kaiser Permanente, which he said gave him insights into people’s struggles.
During the roughly hourlong meeting, Stewart had other pointed interactions with Lentz (who made a point of praising the incumbent councilor’s past work) as the candidates discussed the issues and touted their resumes.
Moeller, who also previously served on the Vancouver City Council, was a seven-term state representative before stepping down for what ended up being unsuccessful bids for higher office.
Lentz mentioned her volunteer work in Vancouver, including her current service on the county’s Commission on Aging. Previously, she was elected to the Clark County Board of Freeholders, which wrote the county charter approved by voters in 2014.
Stewart, a Republican, mentioned her work on the Vancouver City Council before being elected to the then-county commission, where she pushed back against fellow Republican County Commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore, who have since left office.
Previously, Stewart was elected on a countywide vote to the commission. Now she faces re-election in a more urban and Democratic-leaning district.
Veny Razumovsky, of the CascadiaNow Party, was invited but did not attend the meeting.
Here’s what the candidates said about the issues.
Clark County is experiencing a structural deficit where revenues aren’t keeping up with expenses, primarily around personnel. Clark County’s current two-year budget is $946.9 million.
Stewart said that during the budget process, county managers try to protect their budgets and keep staff positions. She said that while the county has changed its budget cycle from a two-year to a one-year cycle, the county should think in terms of six years. While she said she’s voted for the 1 percent levy increase allowed by state law, she said “there is no magical wand on this.”
Moeller called on the county to lift its ban on recreational marijuana businesses, which would result in more tax revenue for the county.
For years, the county didn’t take its 1 percent levy increase, which Lentz said was a mistake with which the county is now reckoning. Under state law, if counties don’t take the increase, it becomes “banked capacity” that they can use later. According to the Clark County Budget Office, the county has $944,560 of banked capacity. Lentz said the council should cautiously consider using it.
“It’s not taxing just for the sake of taxing,” she said. “It’s actually paying what services are worth.”
Moeller called for immediately lifting the county’s ban on recreational marijuana businesses. He said it will require some convincing of more skeptical councilors, but he touted his experience as a legislator.
Lentz said she supported lifting the ban with conditions.
“I want the council to have a discussion about regulation and what it’s going to mean to lift that ban,” she said.
Stewart has opposed lifting the ban. She said that today’s marijuana is stronger and poses a danger to people who are struggling with mental illness or opioid addiction.
In 2014, Clark County voters passed a home rule charter that changed the county commission to a county council that has only legislative functions. It also created a new county manager to administer council policy.
Lentz said that when the charter was passed, it had no support from the three members of the county commission, which included Stewart.
“I feel like we haven’t really had a good run at seeing how effective the charter is because we still need to work on the implementation of it,” she said.
Stewart said the charter was unnecessary. She criticized it for creating council districts that she says made councilors more territorial. She also shot back at Lentz.
“I don’t appreciate your characterization of me as a commissioner and then a councilor violating the spirit or the letter of the law by not following the charter,” she said.
Moeller said he agreed with Lentz.
“It needs some work,” he said.
Lentz said that the Columbia River Crossing, a replacement for the Interstate 5 Bridge that died in the Washington Legislature in 2013, was a missed opportunity despite its notable problems. Part of the project’s controversy was how it would extend light rail to Clark County. Lentz said she favors light rail.
Stewart said that she favored a third bridge connecting Clark County to Oregon. She said the congestion in the area is hurting the economy and called on the federal government to help.
Moeller said he opposes Oregon’s plan to impose value pricing, or tolls, on interstate freeways in the Portland area without a new bridge first. He also called the process Oregon has used to pursue tolls an insult to Clark County, which he said wasn’t given enough input.
In God We Trust
In 2015, the Clark County commission controversially voted to place “In God We Trust” in their public hearings room. The candidates were asked if it should stay.
Moeller suggested replacing it with “e pluribus unum,” a Latin phrase meaning “out of many, one” that’s served as the unofficial and widely used motto for the U.S. Lentz agreed with Moeller.
She suggested as an alternate slogan: “let’s just get some work done.”
“Gosh, I hope that doesn’t mean you think we’re not doing any work,” said Stewart, who cast the only vote against placing the motto in 2015.
But Stewart refused to answer the question of whether the motto should stay. She said her answer is on her website. Her website, jeannestewart.org, makes no mention of the issue.