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Condit Dam, Immigration, Budget Concerns Are Hot Campaign Issues

Soroptimists host candidates night

Local political candidates, including those running in uncontested races, turned out in force at the Pioneer Center on Oct. 10 to discuss a variety of issues.

The event that drew them, along with a crowd of about 50 citizens, was a lively "candidates night" forum, sponsored by the Mount Adams Soroptimists.

One of the biggest issues of the night turned out to be the future of Condit Dam, and whether the Klickitat Public Utility District should take over the hydroelectric facility. The topic came up not only in the PUD Commission race, but also in the contest for the Klickitat County Commissioner seat.

Some of the hottest exchanges during the evening were between the two candidates for a seat on the Public Utility District Board of Commissioners. Bob Havig, challenging incumbent Randy Knowles for the right to serve on the three-member board, said the current members are taking too many chances with the PUD's financial resources and warned against efforts to take over Condit Dam.

"Risky strategies put ratepayers at risk for large rate increases," Havig said. "In 2001, the rates of the PUD were two percent above the average of their immediate neighbors. Today, they are 12 percent about the average of our neighbors. We need a new perspective on the board."

Knowles, who is running for a new six-year term, said whether a move is risky or wise depends on your perspective.

"We're poles apart on nearly every issue," said Knowles. "The choice in this election is simple and it's about direction. Those projects that were seen as risky in the past are making the PUD money today."

Havig pointed out he was not taking a stand on whether Condit Dam should be removed, but firmly believed that the PUD should not take over the hydroelectric facility.

"My position on this is strictly an economic issue. I think it would be a huge liability," Havig said.

Havig added that he believes the PUD needs to make a better effort to get public input before making major decisions.

Knowles responded that he believes the PUD does make its decisions in the public eye.

"It's always interesting that when we talk about projects in public forums, I often hear: `Well, just do it, that's the kind of decision we elected you to make.' We try to communicate the best way we can, but it's never enough," Knowles said.

Knowles explained that the PUD is only looking for more information about the dam, and has not made any decisions on how to proceed.

"If the cost would be $50 million, we'd probably not do this. If it's zero to $5 million, we may," Knowles said. "We don't have that information. It's way too early to make a rational decision. We need to take a little more reasoned approach."

Havig said the PUD already had enough information.

"We have all the information we need. The consultants have done two studies," Havig said. "CH2M Hill said it would cost $64 million. Westcorp said it would be $20 million less. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reserves the right to ask for more fish passage. That's a financial sinkhole that could definitely come back and bite the ratepayers."

Havig noted that PacifiCorp, the owner of Condit Dam, is a large corporation with a tremendous amount of resources and experience.

"They have a lot of expertise with dams and fish passage. They looked at Condit, and found it is not economical and backed away," Havig said. "It's hard to believe the Klickitat PUD is going to find a way to make it economical when PacifiCorp could not."

In the County Commission race, the two candidates for the open District 2 seat -- David Sauter, Republican, and Chris Connolly, Democrat -- were also asked where they stood regarding the possibility of the PUD taking over Condit Dam.

Connolly said she opposed any move for the county or the PUD to get involved in acquiring Condit Dam.

"I don't support the County Commissioners pressing the PUD to condemn Condit," Connolly explained. "The dam is too aged, and there is a lot of debt we would see if we took it over. The lake is a jewel, but the dam is 100 years old and silting up. I'd hate to lose the lake, but don't want to pay for it in my monthly electric bills. I don't think we need responsibility for this dam."

Sauter said he hadn't made a final decision on the project yet.

"I don't think I have enough information to support condemnation," he said. "But I support anything that gives us the information to make the decision. My biggest issue with the dam's removal is, we don't want to be responsible for its cleanup. The cap for what PacifiCorp would pay for cleanup has moved from $17 million to $22 million, and part of the reason for that is the pressure the county put on."

During the question and answer session, Connolly was asked whether she would support more logging in the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest. Connolly said she did not believe too much logging was wise.

"Wood products are very important, and we all use it. But we can't just log full steam ahead," Connolly responded. "Forests are not infinite. We need to find the best ways to continue logging."

Both commission candidates were asked whether they would support a budget increase for the Sheriff's Office.

Connolly said she did.

"I thought the Sheriff's Office was underfunded four years ago, and I think it still is now," she said. "We need to increase the number of deputies so they are not overworked. It's a big county, and it's very important to adequately support the Sheriff's Office."

"This is actually something we agree on," Sauter said. "The Sheriff's Office is definitely underfunded. My focus will be on the meth problem. I'm frightened to death we have only one drug officer for the entire county. As far as 24-7 coverage, I support the concept but staffing issues have to be worked out."

Another questioner asked Sauter if he thought it would be better for the county to have a new perspective on the County Commission, and not continue with three "like-thinking" Republicans.

"Someone said we'll all be in lockstep," Sauter replied. "I've got news for the other two commissioners. I'm going to bring my own perspective. I look forward to working with the other two commissioners, but that's working with them -- not just getting marching orders."

Connolly said she believed a fresh perspective would benefit the county's citizens.

"If my opponent wins, we'd have an all-Republican board yet again," Connolly said. "It's important to have diversity. It's very hazardous to have one-party rule."

Four 15th District candidates for the Washington Legislature were on hand for the event. Incumbent State Sen. Jim Honeyford said he believed the three Republican legislators representing the 15th Legislative District -- Honeyford, along with State Reps. Bruce Chandler and Dan Newhouse -- have worked well together.

"We're a good team," Honeyford said. "We work together and get results," Honeyford said.

Although Chandler and Newhouse are unopposed, Honeyford faces a challenge this year from Tomas Villanueva, a Democrat from Toppenish and an activist with the United Farm Workers labor organization.

Villanueva said if he is elected, he would make affordable health care his "number one priority."

The immigration issue came up when a questioner asked what Honeyford and Villanueva see as the solution to how to handle immigrant farm labor.

Villanueva said he supported a guest worker program.

"Workers need to have a way to work for citizenship, not just work and then get sent back," Villanueva said. "It's essential that they can come here, work, and go back."

Honeyford said it made sense to allow workers to come in to work and then be allowed to return.

"I think the current system has created a society that is underground and in the shadows. That does not foster a good environment," Honeyford said.

Honeyford also pledged to stay focused on the issues in his re-election campaign.

"I will make two promises: I won't run a negative campaign, and I will work to protect your rights," Honeyford said.

A number of unopposed candidates came to the event to introduce themselves and answer questions, including District Court Judge Bob Weisfield.

"This is my eighth time running unopposed," Weisfield said.

Rick McComas, Republican candidate for Klickitat County Sheriff who beat incumbent Sheriff Chris Mace in the Sept. 19 primary, said he appreciated the support of the voters.

"I'm here tonight to thank you for your support and reassure you I intend to keep my promises and give you the safety and security you deserve," McComas said.

Dani Burton, the Democratic candidate for Klickitat County Treasurer, said open and transparent government was essential to a healthy political system.

"Please hold us all accountable; we work for you and we shouldn't forget that, and neither should you," Burton said.

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