WALLA WALLA — Leadership, library issues and money issues were among the topics fielded by three candidates for Walla Walla County commission Monday.
The candidates, Chris Blackman, Perry Dozier and Jim Johnson, were in the spotlight for a candidate forum at Walla Walla Community College sponsored by the American Association of University Women.
Blackman and Dozier and running against each other for the commission’s District 2 seat and Johnson is running against Mark Spinks for the District 1 seat. Spinks did not attend Monday’s forum.
This is the first run for county office for Blackman, Spinks and Johnson. Dozier, who was elected in 2008, is seeking a second term. Johnson is running to retain the District 1 seat after being appointed to the post earlier this year to replace former Commissioner Gregg Loney, who resigned in the last year of his term due to health reasons.
One of the first questions posed by audience members for all three candidates was what they would do as commissioners to resolve a split between the Walla Walla County Rural Library District and the city of Walla Walla.
Dozier said the split has created more discussion in his four years on the board than almost any other topic and has divided people. However, he said, commissioners cannot step in and recall the library board without clear-cut evidence of wrongdoing.
“Basically, we can’t do anything unless there is proof of malfeasance or misfeasance,” he said.
Blackman said she wasn’t sure if an amicable resolution could be reached at this point, “but if we had to do it all over again” she would have had the county commissioners be present in the discussion earlier.
Johnson agreed it would have been good if commissioners had gotten involved earlier in trying to mediate the dispute, but their ability to influence the board is limited. The only authority they have is to appoint members to the library board and at this point “I’m not sure there’s an answer (to the dispute) that anyone’s going to like.”
Another audience member asked if any of the candidates favored using road funds to supplement other county expenses. All three said they did not favor the idea.
A former county commissioner, Pam Ray, asked all three to provide details on their personal financial expertise with budgets and whether any of them had any financial judgements against them.
In regard to the latter issue, Blackman, Dozier and Johnson said they had never had any financial judgements levied against them. In regard to experience, Johnson pointed to his 27 years in the public accounting field and said “I think I have a fairly deep background on that issue.”
Blackman and Dozier said their financial experience stemmed from a number of sources. In his case, Dozier cited his degree in economics from Whitman College followed by first managing a small farm, then taking over management of a much larger farm operation when his father-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Dozier said and his wife were able to keep the operation solvent and successful by taking a frugal approach to finances, which is why he was a strong believer in keeping reserves in store for tough economic times.
Blackman said she also has financial and budgetary experience, both from managing her personal finances and the experience she’s had as a teacher helping other people live within their budgets. She said she also has had budgetary experience serving as a department chair with the Walla Walla School District, serving as treasurer for the American Association of University Women and working as a self-employed small business owner.
A final question regarded recent conflicts between commissioners and the county Sheriff’s Office over budget issues.
Blackman, who is the wife of Sheriff’s Capt. Barry Blackman, said she did not believe she was the “sheriff’s candidate.” She said she believes public safety is very important and that the relationship between the commissioners and sheriff “is not as trusting and open as it should be.”
Dozier said the changes in economy and its effect on county finances have put a strain on all departments and offices. When he came into office, the economy was doing well, but since then the cost of doing business has been rising steeply while revenues have been sinking.
Probably the biggest problem is there are not enough financial resources to meet the sheriff’s vision of what he wants the department to be, Dozier said. Hopefully, at some point the economy will turn around so that one day commissioners will be able to accommodate that vision, but that isn’t possible now, he said.
“At the end of the day we hope the elected officials will do the right thing and live within their means with what they have,” he said.
Johnson said that when he put his name in as a candidate to replace Loney, he was asked “if he would be a commissioners’ candidate or a sheriff’s candidate.” He said his goal is to be a “citizens’ commissioner” and make the decisions that are right based on what is best for the county as a whole.
He said he felt he had a good rapport with Sheriff John Turner, “but two of my heroes are commissioners Dozier and Tompkins” for their stands on managing the county’s finances.
“We can’t mortgage assets to pay bills … we have to live within our means and provide the best services we can as a cost we can afford,” he said.