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Deschutes commission candidates share views at forum on issues from water to new landfill site and M. 110 fixes

Some - but not all - support proposal to expand from 3 to 5 board members, elected by zones

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – The four candidates for Deschutes County commissioner on the May 21 primary ballot shared their views on a variety of top issues during their first candidate forum Thursday evening at Larkspur Community Center, with Phil Chang’s three challengers more focused on the issues and less on criticism of the incumbent or the county.

From where to put the new county landfill and whether the Board of Commissioners should expand from three to five, as well as the challenging paths ahead for water needs and the new “fixes” to Measure 110, challengers Judy Trego, Rob Imhoff and Brian Huntamer shared their background, experiences and opinions and displayed fairly broad knowledge, if not as deeply involved on a daily basis as Chang is.

At a forum put on by Connect Central Oregon, the four seeking the seat in the first campaign since the board became non-partisan began with a chance to introduce themselves: Trego, executive director of the Sisters Are Chamber of Commerce and a county budget committee member, among other current and past roles, didn’t mention her unsuccessful run as GOP Oregon House District 54 nominee in trying to unseat Democratic lawmaker Jeff Kropf.

“I feel I have the qualification, skills and temperament to do the job,” she said.

Chang said he’s lived in the area for 20 years and worked on water issues for much of that time, and of course citing “a lot of progress” in his three years on the commission, despite (as he didn’t mention) often clashing with Republican colleagues Patti Adair and Tony DeBone.

Native Oregonian Imhoff said, “There’s a lot of things going wrong in our county – and a lot going right.” He spoke as one might expect about the overwhelming issues of homelessness and drug addiction, but said, “I’m a fighter by nature, but I’m also a deal-maker.”

Navy veteran Huntamer, sidelined from work by “long Covid” and injuries, said, “I have a really good ability to be able to listen to people, as to what are their needs.”

Imhoff said spoke of wanting to find “worthy partners, to find private solutions to public problems,” to be less reliant on federal and state tax dollars. Trego referred to the need for more public-private partnerships, as either sector “can’t do it alone.”

Asked about the current petition drive to expand the commission from three to five, Imhoff went first but was not the only one to say if it expands, he’d support elections by zone, to  “represent all corners of the county.” But Huntamer is not a fan of adding the cost when what’s needed is to get costs down: “I think we can be really effective with what we have now.”

Trego also backed the idea of election by zones, if it grows to five members, but said she’s not in favor of a board expansion, noting that “I haven’t heard rural folks say they feel underrepresented.” Although she joked, “Some folks would say they want zero commissioners.”

Chang backs a bigger board, saying, “To me, this is a question of access and representation. I can tell you, people are not as well-represented as they could be if we have more commissioners.” He pointed to “very well-governed” Hood River County, with five commissioners for 40,000 residents, four elected from districts and the fifth an at-large chair. Each has about 10,000 residents they can be more available to.

“I just can’t talk to 210,000 people a year – I do my best,” Chang said.

He also brought up that his two colleagues “voted themselves a pretty substantial pay raise last year” of $14,000, which he didn’t take and called “really inappropriate” at a time of “serious austerity.” He also said a bigger board “could do a much better job” of managing the county’s $400 million budget, which “could pay off in spades.”

Next up: where the candidates feel the new landfill should be sited, with the two finalist sites both in the east county.

Huntamer said he hadn’t decided but would look at how many private landowners would be affected, while Trego said she’s “no expert” but that the Moon Pit location “did seem better … unless an expert tells me different.”

Chang said he wished early on the county “had been doing more to divert waste from our landfill, so we had a little bit more time,” as well as “worked a little harder on sites that are closer to where we generate waste. We are going to spend a whole lot of money on a whole lot of trucks.”

Though he may well be one of the deciders, Chang said the Moon Pit, site of an existing aggregate mine, is his “personal favorite” and seems to be “a pretty good site” where there “is already a very large hole in the ground,”

He said the Roth East site farther east has a number of concerns, including nearby land owners and a possible threat to sage grouse, which could become an endangered species. He said it’s also “really close to Pine Mountain,” the site of a popular observatory that could be affected by the dust, noise and lights.

Imhoff agreed that the Moon pit “probably makes the most sense” and said friends out on Rickard Road are concerned that a federal-state land transfer now in the works could lead to it being built there instead. “I know certain counties have offered, asked us to send their garbage to them,” but he agreed with Chang about the need to reduce waste going to any landfill location.

After a break came discussion of groundwater issues.

Trego said the state Water Resources Department has “flipped its strategy” and she testified at a recent Bend meeting opposed to the new rules that could hamper cities’ ability to deal with growth She said 80$% of diverted surface water in the area if for agriculture and that a key is to help farmers and ranchers conserve water and be able to share it through lease or sale without losing rights.

Chang, a “water resources professional by training,” pointed to the benefits of canal piping but said groundwater is a whole other story,”  where “the major users are homes and businesses and cities.

And with “at least 200” domestic wells going dry in just three years, the state has to move away from issuing permits without knowing if the groundwater is there, But he added that the state is “now using a hatchet, when you really need a scalpel.” He said groundwater would continue to decline even if they cut off new permits, and that conservation is the real key.

Imhoff said, “The first thing we have to do is dismiss the fear narrative.” He spoke of a stronger emphasis on helping people drill deeper wells and that juniper trees use 50 to 70 gallons of water a day: “There is a direct correlation between cutting junipers down and having increased surface and groundwater flow.” Huntamer agreed on needing to find ways to conserve water.

Then came talk of Measure 110, and Chang was first, speaking of the past problems and hope that the new  “special misdemeanor” and deflection programs being geared up by numerous county departments, including the sheriff’s office and Behavioral Health, “to drive people into treatment.”

While Chang said he wanted the county to sign onto the policy proposal from the DAs, sheriffs, police chiefs and cities, “my fellow commissioners wanted something different.”

Imhoff, on the other hand, said, “I think it was a mistake” for Chang not to join his colleagues in declaring a fentanyl state of emergency. He said courts need to be able to mandate treatment: “A lot don’t to admit (their addiction) until they hit bottom. They need to find that bottom in court. … Until people want to change, they won’t.:

Huntamer, who has worked as an addiction counselor, echoed those views: “It’s hard to just counsel them out of use. They have to want to.. … I also think incarceration in the early phases of their treatment is important.”

Trego said, “”Our county jail is the front line for treatment right now” and expressed concern about stable funding, also stating that she’s changed her mind and now believes marijuana “is a gateway drug. We are in a crisis.”

One candidate has to take more than 50% of the vote on May 21 to win the four-year term. If not, the two top vote-getters advance to the fall election.

Article Topic Follows: Deschutes County

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Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.

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