The public got its first good look at the six contenders for the Democratic nomination in the May 15 primary during a forum attended by about 70 people on Tuesday night at the Corvallis library. The event was moderated by Rick Osborn, a local media consultant and chair of the Benton County Democratic Party.
The candidates each got three minutes to introduce themselves, touting their experience and qualifications for the commissioner’s job:
• Vincent Adams, 49, is a Navy veteran who directs the Rural Communities Explorer program at Oregon State University and chairs the Corvallis School Board.
• Nancy Wyse, 34, has a background in sales and property management. She represents Ward 6 on the Corvallis City Council and serves on the Benton County Planning Commission.
• Pat Malone, 69, owns a Christmas tree farm in Kings Valley and is the former chief of the Hoskins-Kings Valley Rural Fire Protection District.
• Joel Hirsch, 60, helped run a pair of medical startup companies before embarking on a musical career. He served four terms on the Corvallis City Council.
• Christine Kramer, 52, is a single mother and neighborhood activist who owns a dog-grooming business.
• Mark Page, 46, is an Army veteran who owns a satellite TV and internet business. He represents Ward 8 on the Corvallis City Council.
For the remainder of the two-hour forum, the candidates took turns answering a barrage of questions from the audience on a wide range of issues.
One of the questions that drew the most impassioned responses was what to do about the affordable housing crisis in the area.
Hirsch pointed to the low rental vacancy rate due to high enrollment at Oregon State University and said any solution would require the university’s cooperation.
“I don’t have a solution, but it’s something I’m excited to focus on,” he said.
Kramer suggested encouraging more multistory construction.
“I’m not opposed to us building up rather than out,” she said.
Page said the best way to address the issue is by encouraging business.
“The goal should be to incentivize developers to build the homes we need and having the tools to, for want of a better word, force them when we have to,” he said.
Adams called housing the most important issue in the race and said there are plenty of ideas available for addressing it.
“The problem we have is not the technical solutions — we have them,” he said. “What we’re lacking is courage; we’re lacking the political will to do the things we need to get things done.”
Wyse said she would focus on encouraging denser development in the urban fringe around incorporated communities.
“Let’s not zone these areas in 5-acre lots,” she said. “Let’s create a little density here.”
Malone took a different view, saying there is no money available in the county budget to finance housing projects.
“If we’re going to shift money from law enforcement to housing — what are we using here?” he said. “The county really isn’t in the housing business.”
Asked what to do about the county’s over-capacity jail, only two candidates — Malone and Hirsch — definitively said a new jail is needed, but both also joined Wyse and Adams in saying they wanted to see the recommendations from a countywide criminal justice system assessment before deciding the best path forward.
Kramer said she wasn’t sure whether it would be best to build a new jail or continue paying to house additional inmates in facilities in other counties.
And Page said he thought it might be better to shift the focus to expanded mental health treatment to break the cycle of incarceration.
Asked how to preserve Benton County’s quality of life while growing the economy, all the candidates said they would work to protect the county’s green spaces and rural character, but they differed on the economic side of the equation.
Page advocated community involvement to guide development, saying, “Growth is going to occur whether you want it or not.”
Adams argued for more housing to accommodate an expanded workforce.
“If we want to grow our economy, we have to build some housing,” he said.
Wyse called for green energy jobs and said managing growth “all comes down to planning.”
Malone argued for denser development but cautioned that “we’ve got to be careful that we honor our land-use laws that are constantly under attack by development forces.”
Hirsch said a strong economy is important but “economic vitality does not mean we have to sacrifice the environment.”
Kramer talked about expanding Corvallis’ ban on plastic shopping bags to the county but also called for streamlining regulations governing development.
“It’s very difficult to start a small business in Corvallis, I can tell you that.”