Special Election candidates address ‘Our Town’ at forum

Former Coast Radio News Director Bob Sneddon ended his 18-year career hosting the monthly Our Town broadcast Wednesday with a forum for many of the Florence-area candidates in the May 16 Special Election. The forum included candidates for the boards of directors for Lane Community College, Siuslaw Public Library, Siuslaw School District, Western Lane Ambulance District and Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue and the Port of Siuslaw Board of Commissioners.

Sneddon held the 3-hour forum at Florence Events Center and broadcast live on Coast Radio. The show also aired the next morning. About 70 people made up the live audience.

“If you want to boo me, then boo me,” Sneddon told the audience before broadcasting began. “But try not to direct anything at the candidates. They’re sticking their necks out and they’re the ones on the ballot running for something. If they’re elected, they’re going to be serving us. They’ll get plenty of ‘boos’ over the next two to four years, trust me.”

(Note: To view complete video coverage from any portion of Wednesday's candidate forum, simply click on the heading of any of the sections highlighted in bold below.)

Lane Community College: (Click headline to watch video for this portion)

Sneddon began with the candidates for Lane Community College Director Zone 1. Although three names appear on the ballots that most residents have received in the mail by now, Florence resident Sally Wantz has withdrawn her candidacy. 

The first candidate, Jeffrey Gratreak, is the co-owner and general manager of PizzAmoré in Albany, though he does fit the residency requirements for running for a position in Lane County.

“I always wanted to run for public office,” Gratreak said.

As a recent graduate who attended two Oregon community colleges and two Oregon universities, he expressed his familiarity with the ways educational institutions are run.

“Running a successful business (had me) thinking of what I want to do to give back to the community,” he said. “I want to help right things.”

The second candidate, Melanie Muenzer, worked for 7 years with the U.S. Department of Education and served on President Obama’s transition team in 2008. She currently is the associate vice president for academic administration and chief of staff to the provost at University of Oregon. On April 12, Lane Community College’s board appointed Muenzer to fill the vacant Director Zone 1 position.

“Besides my family, there’s actually nothing I care about more than ensuring that everybody, regardless of their background, has the same opportunity for quality, affordable education,” Muenzer said.

During their discussion, Sneddon guided the candidates onto the topics of the community college’s $10 million budget shortfall, student enrollment and the role of the board, especially with regard to the college’s new president, Dr. Margaret A. Hamilton, who begins in July.

Gratreak said, “It really should be about the students. The problems that face the college can be supplemented by more students. My perception of the board is they shouldn’t be affecting (students) other than providing opportunities for (them).”

Muenzer said, “The board plays a key role in ensuring the institution is holding up its end of the bargain to the community by making sure we are using the resources we have wisely, taking into consideration the impacts budget decisions have, and knowing full well we have a $10 million gap that has to be addressed.”

Siuslaw Public Library (click on headline to watch video for this portion)

Next, Sneddon called up the four candidates for three Siuslaw Public Library Board of Directors positions. Current board members Susy Lacer and Mark Tilton, along with first-time candidate Brad Miller, discussed the changing roles of libraries, the general excellence of the Siuslaw Library District and their backgrounds. Current board member Michael Falter could not attend the forum.

Miller is a former librarian and library services manager who said he is running “because I have background and experiences that I thought might be of use.”

This includes more than 20 years in various positions in library services, as well as a masters degree in public administration.

Tilton has a background in science and a history of working with various government agencies. He was appointed to fill a board vacancy in February, though he has been a longtime member of the Friends of the Siuslaw Public Library.

“I’m a strong library supporter. … I see libraries as a very important and valuable community asset. In fact, when my wife and I moved here 12 years ago, one of the primary reasons was the quality of the library here,” he said.

Lacer has served on the board since 2014. She is a self-employed grant writer and volunteers with several other community and nonprofit groups.

“Libraries provide an essential role these days as far as information for all across the demographics, across the socioeconomic scale,” she said. “It’s open information and access to info for everyone. Our library serves 16,000 each month. We are an amazing resource for our community.”

Sneddon asked all three what the library district faces as it moves forward.

Lacer said, “One of the biggest challenges is for libraries to continually grow and be relevant in our changing world. ... Maintaining that relevance and educating people on all the things they can do is one of our biggest challenges.”

Miller said, “Libraries have become clearinghouses for a variety of information and media. The book is no longer ‘king.’ It’s now, at best, first among equals in the library world. Helping patrons and users find their way through a much more complicated information environment jungle is more of a role now.”

Tilton said, “The focus of our library system is on lifelong learning and community enrichment. One of the things we need to be aware of is how our patrons’ tastes are changing and how are they going to get the materials they want.”

Siuslaw School Board: (click on headline to watch video for this portion)

The third board Sneddon brought forward was the Siuslaw School District. Both John Barnett, Director Position 2, and Bill McDougle, Director Position 7, are running unopposed for their current positions. McDougle is a retired teacher and Barnett works in property appraisal.

McDougle asked for the microphone to give a quick announcement.
“In the last election, there were 1,200 votes that were not counted because people did not sign the back of their envelopes. Please be sure to sign them before you mail them in,” he said.

Both Director Positions 4 and 6 have two candidates each. Twelve-year board member Paul Burns, who works as a biologist, is running against Elizabeth Miller, who has a background in public relations and who did not attend the event.

Current board member Suzanne Mann-Heintz is running against Jesse Chapman.
Burns said, “As a board, our main task is setting policy for the district and setting overarching goals and objectives. Hiring the superintendent is one of those main jobs that we have to lead the district.”

Chapman said he was running since Siuslaw is his alma mater, and many of his family members have graduated from the school. He has also been involved in student athletics as a coach.

“When I graduated from Siuslaw, I went into the U.S. Army,” he said. “I found out I had an awesome education from SHS, and I want to maintain that.”

He brought up Siuslaw’s low ranking among Oregon schools and its 68 percent graduation rate, as well as the importance of the district’s sports programs.

Mann-Heintz said she is on the board because she wants to be a voice for the 1,500 youth under 18 years old in the community.

“They need people like Jesse, me, Paul, Bill and others, those seven board members, to represent them and their true right to a free, appropriate public education,” she said.

Her background in teaching and involvement with community organizations gives her “a handle on what our community and its kids need,” she said.

Sneddon guided the discussion about budgets, the role of the board, the possibility for a charter system and the future of sports before getting to one key issue.

“I had at least three people ask me a specific thing,” Sneddon said. “Is the Siuslaw School District obligated, and what would your feelings be, to provide an education for students who don’t have legal status in this country?”

“I believe that we need to honor federal regulations and state regulations,” Chapman said. “We can’t pick and choose what level of government law we want to serve. We are one nation under God; we are not a half nation.”

Sneddon asked him again what his personal thoughts were on the issue. “No, I do not,” Chapman answered.

Mann-Heintz said, “Oregon law says that we have an obligation to educate children that are enrolled in the schools. … That’s what law says, that students get to go to school. It’s not just state or local law.”

She said the district only requires proof of age of the child — “either through a birth certifi-cate or affidavit process” — before the student can be placed in a classroom.

In closing, Chapman said, “We need to listen and be open to new voices and new ideas.”

Mann-Heintz said, “The reality is, schools have to be strong in order for a community to be strong. We’ve lost professionals and businesses in this community because we didn’t make that bridge between us retirees and the foundational educational schools that we’re offering.”

Western Lane Ambulance District: (Click on headline to watch video)

Shortly after 5 p.m., Sneddon brought in the Western Lane Ambulance District candidates.

Current board president Mike Webb, Director Position 5, and recently appointed Director Position 3, Rick Yecny, are running unopposed. Webb is vice president and commercial relationship manager at Oregon Pacific Bank. Yecny is the chief executive officer (CEO) of PeaceHealth Peace Harbor Medical Center.

“Here’s where the disclosure comes. It’s a position I held for the last 20 years,” Sneddon said of Yecny’s position. “I resigned from the board earlier this year because I was seeing increasing conflicts in both what I was doing professionally at the time and with covering the news. I had already chosen not to seek reelection and stepped down in February.”

For Director Position 4, 20-year board member Anne Stonelake is running against Larry Farnsworth.

Stonelake said she and Sneddon began serving on the board at the same time in the 1990s and that she was asked by the then-administration to run.

“Proudly I have done it. I have enjoyed every year of it. It’s been a pleasure and it’s been a well-run district,” she said. “I believe I have been a good steward of your tax dollars.”

Stonelake is retired from various organizations in the Florence area.

Farnsworth was appointed to be the citizen taxpayer advocate on a board managing the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) for shared administration between Western Lane and Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue. His background is in Homeland Security, finance, business ownership and working with United Airlines.

“I feel like I have some unique qualifications,” he said. “Aside from being an airline captain, I used to have a previous career in hospital administration. I was a senior financial analyst for a major healthcare company and also was director of patient-business affairs for two different large hospitals.”

Webb described the process of the IGA that was implemented July 2016.

“The community wanted the ambulance and fire districts to work and play better together. We opened the door again to finding a way to create an agreement where management could be provided by one,” he said.

Stonelake was the only dissenting vote on both districts’ boards for the IGA.
Sneddon said, “Anne, you have some concerns about the IGA.”

“Without a doubt,” Stonelake answered. “As this has gone on, I’m not against the IGA. To cut to the chase, I’m not sure I like the people who are managing it. I don’t think we have the right players. I have stated in every board meeting that we need to stand alone, get our own manager, and get our office back in place and get it running well.”

Farnsworth, however, fully supports the process.

“I do support the IGA that was implemented by both boards and which is working very, very well. I look forward to describing how it is working for the taxpayers today,” he said.

He brought in a chart to demonstrate the order of administrative succession and said that, under the IGA, four and a half full-time employees now fill the roles of six full-time employees.

Ultimately, he said, it is fiscally responsible and saves the taxpayers money.
The real confusion, however, is that no one seemed able to quantify how much.
During the discussion, several numbers were claimed, but neither Webb, Stonelake nor Farnsworth had matching answers.

Stonelake said she has been asking for itemized statements and an easy-to-read format since Western Lane began exploring the possibility of the IGA after the district completed its strategic plan.

“I want it so that I can understand it, and I can take it to one of the people in the audience and hand it to them — if they’re not a banker or a head of a hospital or wherever — just us plain working folk,” she said.

Farnsworth said that much of the data is available to the public on the organizations’ websites.

“Keep in mind the IGA was not Jim Langborg’s idea,” he added. “He was tasked with implementing it.”

Sneddon summarized the discussion.

“Larry, your point is that it has been an open, transparent process. What I think Anne is saying is that she has specific questions and she doesn’t feel like they’ve been answered well enough … The key defining issue here is trust and trust in the fire chief and administrative team that the ambulance district is contracting with,” he said.

He then encouraged listeners to look into the information that has been presented.

Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue: (Click on headline to watch video)

Running for Director Position 1 are former volunteer firefighters Crystal Farnsworth and Ned Hickson. Running for Director Position 2 are former Siuslaw Valley Operations Chief Marvin Tipler and President and CEO of Oregon Pacific Bank Ron Green.

“This is a good one to come right after the Western Lane Ambulance District because we’ve heard about the IGA that was enacted within the last year, and I think it has become a bit of an issue as well,” Sneddon said.

He asked the candidates to explain why they are running.

Hickson said, “The reason I decided to run for the fire board is that I was with the fire department for about 5 years ... and I realized that I was really missing a lot of my kids’ stuff.” “In three more years, they’re all going to be gone. I thought of how I can’t get that time back. I decided that what I could do to be part of something that means a lot to me is to get onto the board. I could contribute based on my experiences as a volunteer firefighter, my business experience as a corporate chef and my many years in the community. I thought it might bring something to the board that would be unique.”

Hickson is currently the editor at Siuslaw News.

Farnsworth has been a volunteer with the fire department for six years. She and her husband Larry own Heceta Self Storage. She also retired from teaching middle and high school.

She said, “I decided to run for the board with the intent and goal of perpetuating and encouraging the increased and more rigorous training that has been taking place at the fire department over the last three years. I want our firefighters, both the paid employees and the volunteers, to be really well trained, so when they show up at your house for your emergency, … they know exactly what they’re doing.

“I also think it’s important as a board to hold the chief accountable for the things that have come out of the strategic plan. … There are goals, initiatives and objectives within that document that we need to be aware of and stay on.”

Green is the CEO of Oregon Pacific Bank and has financed municipalities like the fire district and other districts throughout his career.

“I should say, first of all, that all three of these candidates are (firefighters), and I appreciate their service. I’m not a firefighter. I’m a 28-year banker,” he said. “As I look at why I ran, there are two very important members of this board who are stepping down. John Scott and Lori Gates both have quite a bit of experience in management and finance. I see a hole of knowledge that is on the board, and I think my skill set as a community leader and finance expert ... could lend a tremendous amount of financial input and an even perspective.”

The final Siuslaw Valley candidate is Tipler, who retired in November after 35 years with the fire department. In his career, he also worked as an EMT with Western Lane.

“It’s in my blood,” he said. “I started with the fire department when I was 17 years old.”

Tipler added that he began attending board meetings early in his career.

“I learned what a good board member is, what bad board members are and which ones just showed up. ... I decided probably 25 to 30 years ago that when I retired, I would be a board member someday. I always respected the board members who gave up their time, just like the volunteer firefighters, to be on the board,” he said.
Sneddon said, “It’s good that there are a lot of people involved. ... But it brings up some issues that are uncomfortable to talk about. It brings up some disagreements.”

He directed the conversation toward the IGA and the role of the fire chief. Then he gave some background on the current board’s decision to terminate Chief Jim Langborg in July 2015 and a public forum held soon afterward, where community members spoke for and against Langborg’s eventual reinstatement.

“There are things the chief has done that I think are good things. Somehow it’s been painted as me being ‘anti chief,’ and I think some of that comes from the meeting,” Hickson said.

At the time, he was president of the Siuslaw Valley Firefighter Association.

“On behalf of the volunteers, I said, ‘We need to come together as a department and for the benefit of the community and the people. We need to put aside our differences and we need to come together for the department and the community,’” he said.

Farnsworth was also a member of the firefighter association at the time, and read a letter in support of Langborg.

“I do have confidence in Chief Langborg. I have also met with him in preparing to run for this position. ... He answered a number of our questions and I think he has an open door policy and is willing to answer any questions he is asked. I think he is also willing to accept critique and try to go forward that way,” she said.

Green said he did not attend the contentious meeting.

“Now, I should say I’m not a chief sympathizer,” he said. “I like Jim Langborg, I think he’s doing a good job, but if I was elected I’m not going to pass on him. ... The board will hold him accountable. As well they will for the operation of the IGA. I think he’s doing a good job, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to keep our eye on him.”

He also said that as as someone who holds a similar role — that of chief administrative officer — he knows the role of the board to direct the position.

Tipler said, “The board sets policy, procedure, a budget and guidelines. This IGA is something that I’m really confused about.”

Like the candidates in Western Lane, he had a hard time tracking the numbers that refer to the amount of money the IGA will save.

“I still to this day feel he is not a good fit for this community,” Tipler said of the fire chief. “He’s leading us in the wrong direction.”

The candidates talked about the “family-hood” felt by members of the fire department and additional budget topics before wrapping up.

Port of Siuslaw: (Click on headline to watch video for this portion)

The sixth and final board Sneddon invited was the Port of Siuslaw.

“If we’ve had contested races in this community the last few years, it’s been the Port of Siuslaw,” Sneddon said.

For Commissioner Position 1, incumbent Terry Duman is running against Shayne Burnem. Both candidates are business owners in the area.

For Commissioner Position 3, incumbent Mike Buckwald is running against Frank Eisele. Buckwald, who is a certified public accountant, was absent.

For Commissioner Position 5, former commissioner Bill Fleenor, Bill Meyer and David Swinney are running for the position currently held by Ron Caputo.

Sneddon asked the three candidates for Position 5 to begin.

Swinney, who is retired, said, “I chose to run because of my past experience of 35 years living on boats in one harbor or another, San Francisco Bay and up and down the coast. That gives me a very unique perspective of what’s going on at the port. … I think the port should remain an open space and have public access ... where my grandkids can go down and dip their toes in the water.”

Meyer said, “There are towns that are mill towns, there are towns that are textile towns, but Florence is a quality of life town. People move here, stay here, live here because of quality of life. … Florence makes up an important part of this region. … I have an emotional and financial investment in Florence and I want to see the port thrive.”

He has a background in consulting and systems design and advocated taking a deeper look at the port’s assets to determine next steps.

Fleenor said he has served on the boards of Central Lincoln PUD, on Lane County Commission and the Port of Siuslaw.

“Each time I believe I delivered transparency, accountability and results. This election is no different. I believe that it’s time that the port engages in some soul searching. We need to figure out what we’re doing, why we are here, and whom we are serving. I think it’s time that we ask those questions and demand some answers. I don’t have all the solutions, but I believe I have the education, experience, wisdom and knowledge to see the port through this transition,” he said.

He handed out a form on the port’s financials and focused most of his discussion on restoring the port’s economic base.

Eisele, who is a local barber, said the real problem the port has is with communication. He said that he knew of a number of people who were “trespassed” off port property, even if they were within their public or sacred rights to be there.

He said his reason for running “is all river — protecting aboriginal rights to the river.”

Duman was elected four years ago.

“I’m a sport and commercial fisherman. I use the port. I’ve lived on the Siuslaw my entire life. I was born on the Siuslaw River. ... I never had any desire to leave. I’ve been accused by my opponents of supporting the fishing industry — and I’m guilty of it. I support the fishing industry, whether it be sport, recreational or commercial aspects,” he said.

Burnem said he ran against Duman four years ago.

“I really like to push the economic development side, but all the reasons (stated) here are my reasons for running. … I love this port and I love our community. I want to give back. I want it to be a strong port,” he said. “It’s an economic resource and a tool that can be used. ... We need to get it cleaned out and running well.”

Sneddon brought the conversation around to current Port Manager Steven Leskin and the board’s role in working with the manager and with the public. Most of the candidates agreed that the Port of Siuslaw Board of Commission’s power needs to be redefined using Oregon Revised Statute 777. This would give greater clarity on the order of authority and clear up some of the contention at recent Port meetings.

The candidates also discussed finances, port assets and possibilities to fill moorage and campsite vacancies before concluding.

“The port certainly needs to move forward,” Fleenor said. “I believe that under 777, our primary direction is economic development, job creation. The port can’t be all things to all people, so we must re-vision and re-determine what the port should be doing. … My point is that the Port of Siuslaw is greater than the sum of its assets. It’s a port authority, and that’s what we need to take advantage of.”

At the close of the forum, Sneddon thanked all the candidates and the listeners, as well as his Coast Radio producer Michael Simmons.

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