SEASIDE — Candidates for the Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District met at a forum Thursday night to discuss their thoughts on transparency, the controversial purchase of the former Broadway Middle School building and other pressing issues facing the board.
The forum, hosted by the Seaside Signal and the American Association of University Women Seaside Chapter at the Bob Chisholm Community Center, featured the park district’s five directors and their five challengers.
While those vying to unseat the board have frequently appeared together in campaign materials and echo many of the same concerns about the park district, they maintain that they’re not necessarily running as a coalition, but as individuals with distinct ideas and skill sets.
“I would not say there’s one philosophy that we all agree with completely,” said John Huismann, who is running against board member Celeste Bodner. “We all have different things we’re interested in pursuing.”
Based on Huismann’s comments during the forum, the main issue for him is the state of the Sunset Pool, which he claims has gone downhill since 2016.
“It used to be a crown jewel in this town and it’s not anymore,” he said. “The stewardship on the part of this board of directors toward that pool is simply lacking.”
Jackie Evans, who is running against board member Erika Marshall-Hamer, agreed she was displeased with the state of the pool, adding the board should “always make sure there is pride in the staff, pride of ownership and pride within the membership.”
For the other three challengers — Patrick Duhachek, Stephen Morrison and Al Hernandez — a perceived lack of transparency and financial mismanagement are the sticking points.
Hernandez, who is running against board member Su Coddington, claims there are too often mistakes or omissions in financial documents, going so far as to suggest board members are “hiding” something. He also brought up concerns about the board adding line items during meetings and not following parliamentary procedure.
“My goal is to get transparency,” he said. “Too many of my questions have gone unanswered by the board and staff.”
In response, Bodner explained the park district works with the highly respected accounting firm, Kern Thompson, for its audit, and the board members review financials monthly and adhere to applicable laws.
“For you to make a claim that we’re trying to hide something is unacceptable, in my opinion,” she said.
During the forum, the incumbents provided historical context relevant to the board, which over the past few years has experienced high turnover, sexual harassment complaints against former board members, allegations of mismanagement, personal interests taking precedence over district goals and a lack of decorum.
“I feel like a survivor,” said Michael Hinton, the longest sitting board member, who is being challenged by Duhachek.
When two board members resigned last year and Bodner and Marshall-Hamer were appointed, the new group “committed ourselves to better self-governance,” Bodner said. They adopted four main values: teamwork, diverse programming, a bold vision and fiscal responsibility.
Part of that vision included purchasing the old middle school building from the Seaside School District this year for $2.15 million.
Evans said she believes the purchase was “well-intentioned,” but during her campaign, she said she has heard from residents who are upset by the decision. The building, which is being used for some of the district’s youth programs, will need extensive work.
“I would like to see that building be something that is useful for our community, but I have some great concerns about how you’re going to recoup those costs and offset them,” Evans said.
Morrison, who is challenging board member Katharine Parker, also expressed concern about the cost to taxpayers and a lack of information surrounding the acquisition.
“There should be a huge amount of openness,” he said. “There shouldn’t any rumors out there about what’s going to happen with this new building. That should all be addressed now.”
Huismann doesn’t believe the building should be occupied at all without certification from an engineering firm because of issues with asbestos, lead and black mold.
According to the incumbents, children are only in the part of the building constructed in the 1990s, after asbestos and lead paint were banned in Oregon, and they acquired the proper permits from the city and Clatsop County to occupy the space. In areas where there is asbestos, they said, it is contained.
Additionally, they said the park district won’t raise taxes to cover the purchase or cost of repairs, inspections and consultation, as they secured a type of financing available to special districts that was previously used for construction of the warm-water pool.
“We felt we could very easily justify using that type of financing again to support the middle school,” Parker said.
Marshall-Hamer added that it’s “important right now to stay positive, to come together and to actually have a solution rather than continuing to talk about all the problems without doing something about it.
“Let’s be bold as a community, let’s go to the next level,” she said.
In Duhachek’s opinion, park district decisions should not be made in a vacuum but with consideration for the community as a whole. For example, he said taxpayers are already paying “a hefty price” for the new school campus. He claims the park district doesn’t manage funds properly, referring to the district having a surplus that has significantly declined.
“Even when they have a surplus of funds, they continue to whittle them away,” he said.
He also took issue with some staff members seeing a substantial salary increase over four years.
Marshall-Hamer responded that stating numbers without providing context was misleading and shortsighted. The salary increase, for example, is a reflection of making adjustments according to the market and what is equitable.
“The public needs to not just take those numbers at face value, but to ask us questions,” she said.