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County commissioner candidates participate in forum

GRANDVIEW - Former Sunnyside City Councilman Chad Werkhoven served as moderator for a political forum Thursday night in Grandview, which featured candidates running for Yakima County commissioner positions.

Three candidates featured at the forum, sponsored by the Grandview Kiwanis Club, were Mike Leita, Republican, Erv Wandler, Constitution Party of Yakima, and Earl S. Lee, Democrat. All three candidates are vying for the open position being left by current Yakima County Commissioner Jim Lewis in district one.

The other candidates last night were current district two Yakima County Commissioner Ron Gamache, Republican, and Independent candidate Sandra Swanson. Yakima Mayor Paul George, Democrat, was unable to be in attendance last night.

Each of the candidates were given a couple of minutes to introduce themselves.

Leita said he was raised in Yakima and is a graduate of Washington State University with a business degree.

"I am fully committed to this process," said Leita, referring to his commitment to becoming a county commissioner. "We do need new leadership."

Leita concentrated for a minute on the problems facing Yakima County, especially from the fiscal end. Leita said to help with the fiscal issues he would promote a business attitude within the county.

Wandler was direct in his comments to the audience last night.

"If you elect me, I will never let you down," Wandler smiled.

Wandler said the problem with county government is officials say they hear the problems of the people, but they never address the issues.

Lee, one of 13 children raised in Yakima by his parents, cited his extensive education background as one of the reasons why he should be elected to office.

"I have dealt with every issue," said Lee.

Lee said he has dealt with issues from agriculture to education to business in Yakima County for years. One of the areas Lee would focus on if elected county commissioner would be to do more grant writing. Lee believes the county hasn't utilized grants enough.

"I know how to get you money," said Lee.

Lee said he also wanted to stress the importance of the county working together with residents.

"The key to a community and success is we all work together," said Lee.

Swanson is a native of Wapato. She has a varied background, which includes working in the agriculture field and running a small business. Swanson was at the forefront fighting several measures government officials in Yakima tried to implement, including a tax issue that would have cost residents millions of dollars and the formation of a port district. Swanson spoke proudly of how she is not affiliated with any of the parties.

"That is what I bring to the table, an independent voice," Swanson said.

Gamache, a Toppenish resident, spoke about his knowledge of issues facing people in the county, including matters facing farmers, citing his 34 years in the industry.

"I care about what happens to the people of Yakima County," said Gamache. "I am committed to my job."

Gamache cited the successes of the county commissioners in recent years, including their work in helping bringing in the Wal-Mart distribution center to Grandview.

The forum then switched to each of the candidates answering questions from the audience.

One of the first questions focused on the 3/10's of 1 percent sales tax Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin is proposing to fund law and justice services and whether the candidates were in favor of the issue.

Gamache said commissioners decided to leave the issue of the sales tax to the people, who will vote on the matter in the upcoming election. Gamache said the sales tax idea is a viable solution to help with funding law and justice matters. Gamache said law and justice eats up 82 percent of the county's yearly budget.

"This is something I could never vote for," said Swanson.

Swanson said the sales tax issue will take millions of dollars out of the county's economy yearly. Swanson suggested the county look at bombarding the state legislature to get back the 42ยข of every law and justice dollar spent that goes to the state.

Lee said he is not in favor of the tax either. He felt a more productive way to save money would be to eliminate the overtime the county has a problem controlling. Lee said officers should be rewarded with comp time. Lee also felt privatization could be utilized with the sheriff's department to save taxpayers millions of dollars.

Wandler said addressing law enforcement would be a priority of his. Wandler said where the county ran into problems with law and justice was it spent money it didn't have for various programs.

Leita said he would support whatever the people decided on the tax. But he wasn't necessarily in favor of the tax, feeling the county was looking at a short-term solution to addressing money problems.

Another question had to do with the county possibly shutting down the parks department.

Swanson felt there is no reason the county should close the parks when it is such a small part of their budget. She felt that parks would be another ideal area for privatization services.

"I am convinced we can keep our parks open," said Swanson.

"There are many ways to keep the parks open," said Lee.

Lee felt the county could work with different training agencies to utilize people to take care of the parks.

Wandler didn't offer much of a suggestion on how to keep the parks open.

Leita also suggested privatizing to keep the parks system going.

Leita said he felt the commissioners should look else where to make budget cuts before cutting the parks department.

Gamache said the county is doing its best to keep the parks department open, but money is tight. Gamache said the county is looking at ways to make a profit from the parks.

"We are trying to do the best we can with what we have," said Gamache.

One of the hot topics addressed had to do with the jail debacle the county is currently going through.

Leita said if he was elected commissioner his first order of duty would be to finish construction on the 288-bed jail, the first phase of the project. He would then halt construction and form a committee to examine ways the county allegedly mishandled the jail construction project.

"It is a solution to a problem," said Gamache. "We are going to run out of jail space in the next 10 years and that is a fact."

Gamache said the jail project has no fiscal impact on the county's general budget, as it is being paid for with bonds commissioners approved. Gamache said the jail project will help the county fiscally.

Swanson said she would also finish construction on the first phase of the jail project, but halt matters after that. She said the county is going to have financial problems paying for the jail because of the competition for jail space.

"We need to stop and take a whole new look at this," said Swanson.

Lee cited the financial problems the county will have with the jail, which is expected to lose nearly $2 million in its first couple of years of operation. Lee said both the Tri-Cities and Ellensburg are working on jail facilities that will cut into the county financially.

Wandler said he was under the impression the current jail facility was more than adequate for Yakima County. He said he felt the county bit off more than it could chew with the jail project.

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