Neither candidate for Benton County commissioner likes advisory votes. But incumbent District 2 Commissioner Shon Small and opponent Timothy Dalton said they would support creating a conservation futures fund if voters recommend it.
The proposal to create a fund for acquiring park land, improving water quality and preserve farm land was one of the few areas the two men agreed on during a candidate forum Tuesday in Richland. It was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Benton and Franklin Counties.
Small and Dalton were the first of three sets of candidates in the Nov. 4 election to sit at a small table together. Also, there were Mary Phillips and Bill Spencer, who are running to replace retiring county Assessor Barbara Wagner, and state Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, and his opponent Eric Kalia.
Dalton criticized the county for refusing to ban recreational marijuana businesses after Initiative 502 went into effect, Dalton said. Other jurisdictions, including Franklin County and the cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland either have temporary or permanent bans in place.
"Right now we have a serious problem," said Dalton, executive director of the Historic Downtown Kennewick Partnership. "We have county residents' families whose kids are waiting for the bus beside marijuana grow operations."
But residents are actually safer because of a three-tenths of a percent public safety sales tax approved by voters in August, Small said. He disputed Dalton's claims that money from the tax could be moved to other parts of the county budget.
"These funds cannot automatically drift over," he said. "These funds are going to stay right here in this line item."
Benton County should stay with its current three-commissioner system, Small said. He said that other counties have changed systems, and ended up going back to three.
But Dalton would like to see five commissioners, with two people each from Kennewick and Richland, and a fifth member from the Prosser-Benton City area, he said. He called for cutting the commissioners' salaries in half, which would leave the county paying close to what it does now.
"With the (size) the county is getting, you need more than three people," he said.
Benton County would see unintended consequences, such as increased costs, if it were to split apart on programs it now does jointly with Franklin County, like human services, Dalton said. He said commissioners should not only work with their counterparts across the river, but with private organizations.
"This is where we work together and find common goals, and, right now, the most common goal is public health and mental health," he said.
Small agreed that mental health is a key issue, but argued that people with mental disabilities could better served if the counties split human services and Franklin County contracted with Greater Columbia Behavioral Health. The relationship is strained by an inability to have bicounty meetings while Franklin County awaits an opinion from the state Attorney General's office on whether they are legal.
"When it comes down to mental health issues, there are ever-changing evolving issues we have to respond to," Small said. "And we have to respond fast."
Both Phillips, the county's geographic information systems manager, and Spencer, owner of Spencer Appraisal Service, talked about ways they would help the assessor's office become more user friendly, if elected.
Phillips said she'd update residents using the micro-blogging site Twitter, similar to what the county auditor's office now does, she said. She also would follow the lead of King and Pierce counties and add informational videos about how to deal with her office on the county's website.
"It's just listening to your customers and knowing what they need," she said.
Spencer said he would call town hall meetings in areas that are going through large changes in their assessed property values to explain the reason for the appraisals. He said this worked well when he was in the assessor's office in Franklin County.
"It's important for them to know that we are always open and always accessible to any comments they have," he said.
Kalia, a Columbia Basin College student who has worked as a chef, and Haler, who was elected to his position in 2004, disagreed on the effect of Common Core standards on education.
The education program introduced by the Obama administration has been effective, said Kalia, the only Democratic candidate at the forum.
"The curriculum that is required is necessary," he said. "It leads to an enlightened society and acclimates young people to the world they will be facing."
The Common Core curriculum is not educating students enough in math, science, and, particularly, American history, Haler said.
"There will be another administration coming in two years, and this will be replaced by another national program," he said. "I believe we need to get away from national programs and get back to local control."
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom