Candidates for city posts in Astoria and Warrenton rarely differed on key issues from homelessness to housing at an election forum in Astoria on Wednesday night.
But they diverged when it came to supporting the Clatsop County Jail bond.
The nine candidates were asked which bonds on the November ballot most benefit the communities they represent: a $70 million bond to modernize and improve the Astoria School District’s buildings; a $38.5 million bond to purchase land and build a new middle school out of the tsunami inundation zone in Warrenton; or the $20 million bond to relocate the jail from Astoria to the former North Coast Youth Correctional Facility in Warrenton.
“The best way to help keep children out of going to jail in the future is to educate them,” said Joan Herman, a planning commissioner running for the downtown Ward 3 seat on the Astoria City Council against state forester Ron Zilli.
Herman was silent on the jail bond but added that if the community doesn’t begin to address school infrastructure now, “it’s going to cost us a lot more in the long run to try to fix them and it may be a situation where children are at risk more than they already are.”
Roger Rocka, a former chamber of commerce director running for the west side Ward 1 seat on the council against hairdresser David Drafall, prioritized the school bond in Astoria. He wondered about the costs of the new jail and how inmates would be transported for court dates from the new facility.
Zilli said jail improvements are needed, but he also prioritized the school bond.
Michael “Sasha” Miller, a community activist running for Astoria mayor against City Councilor Bruce Jones and downtown business owner Dulcye Taylor, was the only candidate to state plainly that he did not support the jail bond.
John Washington, a Hammond resident who is challenging Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer, was the only candidate who said voters should support the jail bond, since overcrowding at the jail means lower-level offenders are often released early. Washington also supports the Warrenton school bond, but believes the school district and city are going about it in the wrong way.
The school bond was the top priority for Balensifer. The mayor said a school built outside of hazard areas will provide citizens with a place to gather during emergencies. Also, he added, the school just needs more space. In September, the Warrenton Grade School welcomed over 700 students, far more than the building was designed to serve.
Lack of housing emerged as central concern for Astoria candidates.
With several hotel proposals in the works, candidates like Herman, Rocka and Drafall want to see zoning changes that open some areas for higher-density housing instead.
Jones, who is also deputy director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, pushed for multiuse development at Heritage Square near Astoria City Hall. Taylor, president of the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association and owner of Old Town Framing Co., said she wants to investigate the city’s inventory of buildable lands and see what could be developed.
Drafall is against more hotels but said the city has other problems to address besides where and how to develop. As Astoria continues to be a popular tourist destination, “we don’t have the roads, we don’t have the sewer systems,” he said.
In his time with the Navy Reserve, Zilli has seen how many different communities around the world approach development. Comprehensive planning underway in Astoria now is an important step, he said, but eventually the city will need to look beyond the areas that are already heavily developed.
Tied into the housing discussion was a debate about vacation rentals. Such operations can take entire houses off the market and change the character of neighborhoods. Warrenton is beginning to discuss its policies around these types of rentals, while Astoria struggles to enforce the rules it has already. Enforcement is necessary, Astoria candidates said.
Many of the candidates linked homelessness with a lack of affordable housing, though Balensifer, who leads a task force that is looking into Clatsop County’s housing needs, said the lack of “starter homes” for young families appear to be part of the problem in Warrenton.
People who want to buy a home can’t find one in their price range and continue to live in apartments, creating scarcity for people who can only afford apartments, he said.
No candidate had a concrete suggestion for how they would address homelessness if elected, but suggested there are ways they could support efforts to help the homeless and develop affordable housing.
Miller, Jones and Taylor said city leaders need to work with people and groups already involved in helping the homeless. Taylor advocated for alternative types of housing, while Jones pointed to a decline in federal and state funding for programs that address mental health and social services.