Last Thursday evening's "candidates' night" forum in Lyle provided a demonstration of democracy in action -- and it turned into a marathon.
Candidates from all around the county were on hand to offer voters a brief summary of why they are running for office, and to answers questions from citizens.
The meeting, sponsored by the Lyle Community Action Council and held at the Lyle Lions Club/Community Center, attracted approximately 100 people.
With all the candidates and many questions from the crowd, the event stretched to almost four and a half hours.
Dani Burton, who is running unopposed for a second four-year term in the position of Klickitat County Treasurer, offered her own perspective regarding the large crowd: She recalled the previous time she attended a candidates' night forum in Lyle, when she was running for her first term.
"There were about one-third as many people here four years ago," Burton commented. "I'm glad to see so many people active in government."
In all, 19 candidates came to the event. A wide variety of topics were covered, including economic development, budget decisions, plans for the transport of nuclear waste to Hanford, impacts of the National Scenic Area, education, health care, legislative gridlock, over-regulation of businesses, loss of farmlands to housing, the aluminum industry's troubles, the "Rails To Trails" issue, the county's expenses for outside legal fees, the proposed energy overlay zone, building a senior center, the county's landfill fund, the Dallesport sewer project, needs of the Sheriff's Office, and unemployment.
Perhaps the hottest debates came in the races for the Klickitat County Prosecutor's Office and for Klickitat County Commissioner.
In the Prosecutor's race, Gwendolyn Grundei, Democrat, is challenging the appointed incumbent, Tim O'Neill, Republican.
Among other topics, the two clashed over policy relating to the former railroad corridor between Lyle and Goldendale.
O'Neill had charged a teenaged bicyclist with "criminal trespass" for being on the trail in July, but Grundei pointed out that the state's assistant attorney general sent a letter to O'Neill in January, advising him not to prosecute those using the trail.
"I don't know what kind of disconnect there was between January and July," Grundei said.
State officials claim the trail is owned by Washington State Parks and thus is public property.
O'Neill suggested that the state should better mark the trail and install fencing to protect private land, and added that the matter was best left to civil courts.
"This should be between the state and the individual land owners," he said.
In the contest for a four-year term on the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners, three-term incumbent Republican Joan Frey is facing a challenge from Chris Connolly, a Democrat from Snowden.
The two were on opposite sides of almost all the issues addressed, although Commissioner Frey said she agreed with one statement Connolly made:
"You're right, we can't put all of our economic eggs in one basket," Frey said, referring to Connolly's call for more support for small businesses in the county.
Frey pointed out that construction of the Dallesport sewer plant could lead to a significant economic boost.
"I believe we're moving in a very positive direction," Frey said, noting that the project is likely to bring new employers to the county.
However, Connolly said she wondered if development at Dallesport might provide more of a boost for the nearby city of The Dalles rather than for Klickitat County.
Connolly also questioned the county's plans to develop an "energy overlay zone" throughout the county. She called it a "trump zone," meaning it would have priority over all existing zoning.
Frey supported the energy overlay zoning, claiming it would boost the county's tax base and result in lower property tax payments for residents.
Connolly suggested that the county's priorities in using the landfill money were out of balance. She pointed out that the county takes in $6.2 million a year from the landfill contract, yet the county government was not providing more support for the Sheriff's Office, nor has it built the long-promised senior center in White Salmon.
"Our seniors have worked for 40 years or more, and they deserve to have a place of their own to gather," Connolly said.
Frey garnered applause when she said she would never agree to have the county sign on to administering the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act.
However, in an indication that the political climate may be changing on that issue, Connolly also won a round of applause when she pointed out that by refusing to accept the Scenic Area, the county was missing out on economic benefits and the opportunity to administer Scenic Area regulations locally instead of directly through the Gorge Commission.
One persistent questioner in the crowd asked each of the county candidates what their salaries were, and how many employees they managed in their respective departments. One by one, the candidates responded, and this was the result:
Clerk: $43,500, four full-time employees (FTEs); Auditor: $43,500, nine FTEs; Assessor: $43,500, eight FTEs; Treasurer: $43,500, five FTEs; Sheriff: $46,500, 48 FTEs; Prosecutor: $80,000, eight FTEs.
The questioner was Ken MacDonald, a deputy with the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office.
"This is my opinion only," MacDonald explained. "But there is a disparity with regards to salaries and the level of responsibility and the number of people supervised. Why is our sheriff not being compensated properly? Then, when we go into negotiations on our salaries, we're told: `If we give you a raise, you'll make more money than the sheriff, and we can't have that.' So they're capping us by capping him."
Although there were several more questions in a stack to be asked of the candidates for County Commissioner, the moderator cut the event short due to the lateness of the evening.
The following candidates, all of whom will be on election ballots in Klickitat County on Sept. 17, appeared at last week's Lyle forum: Assessor: H.J. "Van" Vandenberg, R, and Steven Johnston, D; Auditor: Diana Housden, D, and Lawrence E. "Larry" Gourley, R; Clerk: Saundra L. Olson, R (unopposed this year); Prosecuting Attorney: Tim O'Neill, R, Gwendolyn Grundei, D; Sheriff: Chris Mace, R (unopposed); Treasurer: Dani Burton, D (unopposed); County Commissioner, District 2: Joan Frey, R, and Chris Connolly, D; PUD Commissioner: Dan Gunkel (non-partisan race).
Also on hand was State Sen. Jim Honeyford, a District 15 Republican from Sunnyside who is running unopposed for re-election this year; and all five candidates for two State Representative races on the ballot this fall. In Position 1, incumbent State Rep. Bruce Chandler, R, of Zillah, and challenger Erwin J. Salvatori, D, of Washougal were there; while for State Representative, Position 2 (currently held by Barb Lisk, who is retiring after her term expires) included candidates Dan Newhouse, a Sunnyside Republican; Don Vlieger, also a Sunnyside Republican; and Michael H. Kepcha, a Democrat from Washougal.
Gordon Allen Pross, a Republican candidate who is challenging incumbent Doc Hastings for U.S. Congress in Washington's Fourth District, drove from Ellensburg to attend the forum. Pross was the only one of four candidates for the office (two Republicans, two Democrats) who was present.
Citizens who missed the unique event can take solace in knowing that there will be at least one more candidates' forum in Lyle, and another in White Salmon, before the general election on Nov. 5.
The White Salmon candidates' night event is scheduled for Oct. 24 at the White Salmon Valley Community Library.