Walla Walla County Superior Court and commissioner candidates shared their visions for the community in a virtual forum Thursday evening.
The debate, which followed one Tuesday for 16th Legislative District candidates, was hosted by the Walla Walla branch of the American Association of University Women and the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce. Led by moderator Bertha Clayton, candidates were given two minutes each for opening and closing statements, one minute to respond to a question and 30-second rebuttal times.
Walla Walla County Superior Court candidates Brandon Johnson and Mike Mitchell were up first with discussions on equality in the courtroom and equal access to the legal system.
The two are vying for the nonpartisan Position 1 seat held by John Lohrmann, who did not seek a fourth term.
Johnson began serving as a Judge Pro Tem for Walla Walla County Superior Court in 2016, and Mitchell was appointed in 2013 to serve as court commissioner.
Johnson expressed support throughout the night for using technology to increase access to the local legal system. Through video appearances, those working do not miss time from their jobs, which can lessen the financial stress, he said.
With the pandemic, the courts have not been able to have in-person court appearances, Mitchell said.
“Technology is being adopted to make things more efficient, for example, video appearances from the local jail and now court hearings over Zoom,” Johnson said.
Mitchell said he prefers in-person appearances because it gives him a better view of how people testify or argue in order to draw conclusions, something challenging to do through video platforms.
When asked to assess how the local court system is serving Spanish speakers, the candidates agreed more bilingual and interpretation assistance people is needed.
Johnson said it is important to ensure that easily accessible court documents are presented in Spanish and that Spanish speaking staff members are available in the clerk’s office.
One audience question — a feature available through the virtual chat function — sought the candidates’ stances on drug-addicted defendants and whether they belong in jail if their crimes are nonviolent.
Though they would not be able to make policy, Johnson said, it is crucial to treat addiction as a medical condition and not as a criminal issue.
Mitchell said “drug courts” help those charged with crimes into drug treatment, and defendants need to be given that opportunity.
Candidates were asked if they believe there is an underrepresentation of women and people of color in the court system and if they feel they would have a role in correcting the problem.
Mitchell said it can still be a problem, and there is not a lot a judge can do to resolve it beyond supporting those who want to appear as attorneys or litigants from any particular race or gender.
Both agreed the system must treat everyone equally.
Walla Walla County Commissioner, Position 1
Roger Esparza, a Walla Walla Realtor, and Jenny Mayberry, a volunteer firefighter and co-owner of Hot Mama’s Espresso, participated in the second portion of the hour-and-a-half-long event.
The two Republicans seek the Walla Walla County Commission District 1 seat that will be vacated by Jim Johnson after two terms of service.
The candidates were asked about the county’s responsibility to address systemic income inequalities by school, race and neighborhood.
“The suggestion of structural inequalities proposes that the counties or city governments have built-in inhibitors towards certain groups of people,” Mayberry said. “If true, these built-in structural inequalities would be illegal.”
She said if there is an issue with school district funding, the school districts need to assess how those funds are distributed and reallocate them for a better solution.
“As far as the county government goes, they can focus on areas that need attention and partner with private and public entities to provide for those who truly need it,” she said.
Esparza shared the story of his upbringing, saying his mother lived on a single income from Providence St. Mary Medical Center.
“In the kitchen, there was days where we didn’t even have food on our table,” he said.
His mother’s work ethic led him and his siblings to break the cycle of working minimum wage jobs, he said. Mentorship for young people is one path to help, he said.
“Have them do job shadows,” he said. “Get them involved from a very young age civically.”
He said it should be a county effort to involve nonprofit organizations, businesses and government.
Around tourism positions Clayton described as offer part-time hours for minimum wages for employees who often do not earn enough for housing or to provide for their families, candidates were asked what model of economic development they think should be in place.
Mayberry said she wants to attract businesses outside of the tourism industry to provide good-paying jobs for residents.
Esparza said he would want to work together with cities, counties and the Port of Walla Walla to attract businesses to the county and look into grants and tax incentives for developers of multi-family homes or condominiums.
He also said the county could provide information to employers about resources available for their employees.
On the a 25-year vision for the county, Esparza said he wants to maintain the same quality of life.
Mayberry said she would like to see Walla Walla with a thriving economy and be one of Washington state’s safest places.
She said she would work with the Port and surrounding areas to attract more businesses into the region and provide the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Department with the workforce, training and equipment needed to get illegal narcotics off the streets.
She said she would provide the county Department of Community Health what it needs to bring a mental health doctor and counselors to Walla Walla.
“Few causes are as important to me as raising awareness in our communities as mental health issues, suicide, illegal narcotics, and what happens to the families affected by them,” Mayberry said in her closing statement.
Esparza declared himself a supporter of balancing regional growth, law enforcement, fire protection services, health services and roads.
Both candidates said they are preparing themselves for the position by reaching out to elected department heads and current and previous county commissioners.
At the end of the forum, Chamber CEO Kyle Tarbet reminded the audience the deadline for registering to vote by mail or online is Oct. 26, and people can still register to vote in person at the polling place at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds.
The forum is available on the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page.