Johnson faces challenge from Spinks to retain commission seat

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Mark Spinks offers ideas to help county with economic development.

WALLA WALLA — As a candidate for Walla Walla County commission, Mark Spinks does not lack ideas.

Spinks, who is running against Jim Johnson for the commission’s District 1 seat, said he sees using the position to jump-start the county’s economy as one of the top issues. Another is being a “full-time commissioner” with no other distractions.

“It’s a full-time job. It’s Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at a minimum,” he said. “My opponent has stated he already has a full-time job. We are asking for the voters to elect a guy who already has a full-time job ... To me, you should be in the office every day. I know there are people in the county (government) who say they need to have a commissioner in the office full-time.”

Spinks points to the economy as the most pressing issue facing the county.

“This is a flat-line economy,” he said. “Housing is flat and no new companies are coming into town.”

Spinks said economic development would be something he would take on as a commissioner and “I have a lot of ideas of how to jump-start things.”

One of these ideas involves transforming the former Blue Mountain Mall property.

“I want to see the county and city confiscate the Blue Mountain Mall property and designate it as an Indian reservation and then have them build a high-end hotel-casino on that land,” Spinks said.

The project would create construction jobs as the facility was built and then permanent jobs to staff and run it afterwards, he said.

Spinks conceded that “getting there would take a lot of work, but I think it’s worth a look.”

Another idea would be to “work a deal with Olympia to move all the prisons here,” instead of having facilities scattered throughout the state.

Still another would be to transform surplus property at the county fairgrounds into a multi-sports complex for softball, baseball and soccer. Such a facility could draw families from around the region here for tournaments and other events.

Yet another idea is to establish Bennington Lake or create an artificial lake as a camping and fishing focal point. “For a city that’s known as ‘many waters’ we have no water features,” he said.

“It all comes back to money, but that’s where it all comes back to planning,” he said.

Still another idea is to create music and film festivals similar to what other cities have and perhaps team up with those cities to link the events.

“This would be something similar to ‘South by Southwest’ in Austin (Texas),” Spinks said. “I don’t see where we can’t have a ‘lite’ version of this. You have many different venues for these events: the fairgrounds, Walla Walla Community College and other locations. Make this as a stop on the way to Austin.”

Spinks said in his view the Port of Walla Walla has not been doing everything it can to promote economic development.

“Sometimes I think you need a change in leadership. They certainly would be the first entity to go to ... but I think there’s too many (other) entities ... We really don’t have ‘one-stop shopping’ (for economic development).”

Spinks charged that there is little planning being done at the county level on how to drive the economy ahead.

“I think there’s a stale environment here when it comes to thinking out of the box. Who is it that is stepping up and trying to keep the vitality alive? A lot of people are being paid a lot of money and they’re not doing anything. I just think it takes someone from the outside to take a fresh look at things,” he said.

In other matters, Spinks said he would like to enact changes in how the county does its budget. As a full-time commissioner, he said, he would work with each department to find out what each needed and as he gained information he would be able to determine what they actually need.

He said he would also like to increase the size of the county budget committee from three members — the auditor, treasurer and one county commissioner — to seven members. Work on the budget would also begin much earlier.

“People are just going to have to get it in their heads that the process needs to start early in the year,” he said.

“This ties back into the theme of being a full-time commissioner. You can’t have something distract you from that, and all three (current) commissioners have other jobs.”


Jim Johnson was appointed to finish Gregg Loney's term which expires this year.

WALLA WALLA — Jim Johnson hopes voters will let him stay at the task he started in May.

That was when Johnson was appointed to finish former Commissioner Gregg Loney’s term of office, which expires this year. Since then, he decided to seek election to the District 1 seat and is running against Mark Spinks, who also sought appointment to Loney’s seat last spring.

“I enjoy it, I find it exhilarating,” Johnson said about the job. “I’m finding at my age, it’s a life changer.”

As the owner of a local accounting and tax service firm, Johnson said he has been able to balance the demands of being a commissioner with his business. But, he said, the assertion that he and his fellow commissioners do not work full time as elected officials is not true.

“It would be difficult if not impossible to do this job (of commissioner) if I wasn’t self-employed,” he said. “As I think I’ve said before, there’s only three kinds of people who can hold down the job of a county commissioner. The retired, the self-employed or the unemployed.”

Because he and the other commissioners are self-employed, they can trade hours between their public and private jobs, something a person with a fixed scheduled could not do, Johnson said. This is important because along with regular and special commission meetings, each commissioner is also assigned to attend other board and committee meetings, many of which take place during the evening. They also have to field calls, emails and visits from constituents that can occur throughout the working day as well as on holidays and weekends.

“Having said that, I am looking at some opportunity in the future to free up more time. But I can run my (accounting) office and be an effective county commissioner,” Johnson said.

In regards to what he sees as the largest issue facing the county, Johnson said, “It’s no secret, it’s obviously the budget situation. We’re in the second or third year of a major economic downturn. There’s not enough money to go around. You can trim the fat, but when there’s no more fat, the decisions become much more difficult.”

In the public sector, rising costs can be passed along by raising taxes, but Johnson opposes that option. “We can’t raise taxes, we can’t keep going back to that well.”

In regards to maintaining reserves, Johnson said the urge to spend dollars that aren’t immediately needed should be resisted.

“The problem with excess funds is you never know when the unexpected will occur,” he said.

Examples this year include a fast-moving storm in July that caused major damage to roads and other structures, a generator and aging boiler at the county jail that needed to be replaced and a grant project that required matching funds to upgrade heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems at the Juvenile Justice Center.

On economic development, Johnson said there are already many organizations devoted to that task, including the Port of Walla Walla, the Downtown Foundation and the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce. The primary duty of the county commission, he said, is running Walla Walla County from an executive and legislative standpoint.

If commissioners can help increase economic development, they should do so, but they must balance that with the wishes of the community, Johnson said. An example would be some type of industrial or other development that residents felt would degrade their quality of life.

“People come to Walla Walla County and stay here because of the quality of life and that’s something we just don’t want to jeopardize,” he said.

Johnson said his time on the commission has been an eye-opening experience.

“I’ve found there is a tremendous learning curve,” he said. “And the scope of the issues the commissioners are involved in demand a great deal of study.”

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