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Walla Walla County commissioner candidates weigh in on local issues

  • Updated
  • 4 min to read
Screenshot of forum Tuesday

Screenshot of the online forum candidate Tuesday.

The COVID-19 crisis, childcare, homelessness and other social issues were front and center Tuesday night during the first of two live, online forums this week for candidates on the primary ballot.

Walla Walla County Commissioner District 1 candidates Roger Esparza, Jenny Mayberry and Tom Cooper all talked about their platforms in an hour-and-a-half-long discussion.

One of the three Republican candidates will be taking over for Jim Johnson, who recently announced his retirement from the board after eight years at the end of this year, and join commissioners Todd Kimball and Greg Tompkins of District 2 and 3, respectively.

The next live, online discussion is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, featuring candidates running for seats in the 16th District State Offices, including state senator and state representative positions 1 and 2.

The meetings can be viewed on the Chamber’s website at wwvchamber.com, where people can also pre-register to participate in the Zoom calls. Those watching on the Chamber’s Facebook page will not be able to ask questions, but those on Zoom will be able to do so. The stream will also be on AAUW’s website at wallawalla-wa.aauw.net.

Primary voting begins this week and ends Aug. 4, with District 1 voting on these three candidates specifically. The two candidates with the most votes will then advance to the general election on Nov. 3 and be included on the ballot for all Walla Walla County voters.

During the virtual Q&A led by moderator Bertha Clayton, the three Walla Walla natives were asked a large range of questions, which covered topics from childcare, to their stances on the COVID-19 crisis, to how they would address the homeless situation in Walla Walla.

Each candidate was given two minutes for opening remarks and had 90 seconds to respond to each question. The latter half of questions were volunteered by audience members who tuned in to watch.

COVID-19

First the candidates were asked if they supported the use of face masks, which has become a hot topic globally as communities fight to control the coronavirus pandemic while trying to restart economies and set school plans.

All candidates completely agreed with face mask and social-distancing guidelines. Esparza encouraged people to practice these precautions for the safety of older residents within the community and those, such as retiring Commissioner Johnson, who has a serious illness. Johnson has endorsed Esparza for the election.

Mayberry, as the owner of Hot Mama’s Espresso for the past 12 years, also had insight into the undue stress and discomfort placed upon employees and small business owners having to enforce mask wearing, which she felt was a shortcoming of Jay Inslee’s order.

Aware of the budget cuts and financial strain that COVID-19 restrictions have placed upon Walla Walla, the candidates were asked what their plan would be moving forward.

None believed that taxes should be raised, and all agreed that spending in certain departments would have to be cut. However, none had a specific plan as to which departments would experience spending cuts and said they would extensively evaluate priorities if elected.

Cooper proposed that one solution to relieve the strained budgets and increase revenue in part would be through grants.

One audience member asked which part of county government candidates would give the most attention to if elected, and all voiced their commitment to the county Department of Community Health to ensure residents’ well-being during the global pandemic.

Mayberry, who has been a volunteer firefighter and EMT for the past 17 years with Walla Walla County Fire District 4, emphasized the importance of all public-safety concerns, which she believes includes the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office and infrastructure such as roads.

Social issuesAll three candidates agreed that more accessible childcare is a must for the county, and that it’s necessary and advantageous to have all children attend preschool regardless of financial means.

“Childcare costs are a hot topic, and it comes up quite a bit with our county, and we need to find a way to make it available,” said Esparza, who is a member of the Walla Walla Public Schools Facilities Task Force and whose third child will start attending school in the fall.

With law enforcement seeing radical changes across the country, candidates were asked what, if anything, needs to be changed. Cooper, who has an extensive background in law enforcement and currently works for the Department of Corrections, says there is a need for more academy training and service training.

“Unfortunately, the first thing to go in a budget is training,” he said.

Esparza is part of Walla Walla Police Chief Scott Bieber’s new advisory council, and he said he fully supports the idea that changes should occur. However, he is dubious about whether funding would be available to make these changes happen due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When asked about how they would alleviate the local homeless situation, Mayberry said that there had been improvements since the city’s sleep center was moved to its new location in the industrial part of town and is interested in continuing the work.

However, she conceded that “you can only help people that want to be helped.”

Cooper stated, “Unfortunately mental health goes hand in hand (with homelessness) a lot of the time, as well as drugs and opioid abuse. This is where we get ourselves informed and get out and see what we can do to improve things for them.”

Esparza praised the work that Tim Sullivan has done for the homeless shelter since being hired as the first executive director by the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless and said that he will continue to work on these issues.

All candidates believed that bilingual education should be a priority and discussed the importance of reflecting the community in their work, since one quarter of Walla Walla County’s population is Latino.

With candidates’ varying levels of experience in county and departmental affairs, the common thread between was a desire to cater to the needs of Walla Walla County. Although Mayberry admitted she wasn’t a politician by any means, a wish to serve her community is what drove her to research and run for the position. Esparza, who was the past board chair of the Community Council, said, “Everything I’ve done in my civic engagement career has led me to this. Six years ago I sat down with Jim (Johnson) after a debate, and I talked to him a little bit about the county commissioner position, and I got excited about it.”

Cooper also echoed his past work, saying, “I’ve been in public service for a long time. I’ve watched Walla Walla County operate for 31 years as a day-by-day business.”

Ann Karneus can be reached at annkarneus@wwub.com.