Port Angeles City Council candidates, from left, incumbent Lee Whetham and challengers Jacob Oppelt and Mike French, wait Tuesday for a primary election forum to begin. (Paul Gottlieb/Peninsula Daily News)

Port Angeles City Council candidates debate fluoridation, opioids, trees

PORT ANGELES — Three candidates for a Port Angeles City Council Position 2 seat staked out positions on water fluoridation, opioid use and Lincoln Park trees Tuesday at an Aug. 1 primary election forum.

One-term incumbent Lee Whetham, a plumber, and challengers Jacob Oppelt and Mike French — two downtown businessmen who have not run for or held public office — also tackled a slew of issues during an hour-long question-and-answer session before more than 40 Port Angeles Business Association breakfast meeting participants.

The candidates said that, to varying degrees, they would follow the will of voters on a City Council advisory measure on municipal water fluoridation, which will be on the Nov. 7 general election ballot.

The City Council decided 4-3 last August to discontinue fluoridation pending the outcome of the Nov. 7 vote.

French, owner of First Street Haven restaurant, said 70 years of scientific evidence supports the efficacy of fluoridation, which is used to promote dental health.

“If the vote is very close, my leaning would be to side with the scientists,” French said.

If the Nov. 7 vote clearly favors that move, a move the City Council made in August, “I would be happy to listen to the people,” French said.

Oppelt, owner or co-owner of five downtown businesses and Lefties Baseball, equated fluoridation with “medicating through the municipal water supply” and said fluoride use should be a personal choice but that he will support whatever voters decide.

Whetham, noting the topic of fluoridation “has torn our City Council apart,” voted with the 4-3 council majority in August to stop fluoridation.

“I am the guy who first promised I will support the will of the people,” he said.

As Whetham did throughout the forum, he touted his record, saying he pushed his council colleagues to support making fluoridation a “community decision.”

The candidates were twice asked about opioids and crime.

Whetham said he did not want to focus solely on the drug issue, pointing to homelessness and mental illness as problems often intertwined with crime.

Whetham said “we have an impound lot” for recreational vehicles (RVs) that are parked on city streets too long.

Police Chief Brian Smith said in a separate interview that junk vehicles that are removed are signed over to a towing company but that the city does not have its own lot.

“We have a place they can go,” Whetham said in a later interview about the RVs.

Oppelt said RVs are parked for days at a time in neighborhoods but there’s little the police department can do about the vehicles.

He said the opioid problem is related to the high incidence of property crime.

French said a recent town hall on drug use — a community meeting on heroin was May 17 — was a “cathartic night.”

The candidates also were asked by Port of Port Angeles Commissioner Connie Beauvais about their “vision” for Lincoln Park.

She queried them on how they would work with the port to support use of the port’s nearby William R. Fairchild International Airport runway, where landings are restricted due to the height of dozens of Lincoln Park trees, 38 of which were being removed as of Friday.

Whetham recalled an expensive improvement plan for the park from years ago that might work in “a perfect world.”

In 2012, the port paid for a $150,000 park master plan that said full-scale park improvements would cost $24 million.

French said he does not take his children to a Lincoln Park playground “because it’s not a fun place to play,” citing a “dream plan” for park improvements “that everyone thought everyone else was going to pay for” but said was not worth rehashing.

Oppelt said the park should no longer be “a dark park” that is uninviting to visitors and that “low hanging” trees should be planted with an eye toward focusing on runway access to improve air service, which is vital to recruiting new employers.

Toward the end of the meeting, Whetham offered himself as someone who has “the insight of not having any conflict of interest.”

When he sees a City Council proposal he believes serves only certain business owners, “I will vote no,” he pledged.

Oppelt said he has “experience and energy” to create more of a tax base in the city and urged the city to work more closely with the port.

Oppelt, asking out loud if he has conflicts of interest, said, “not at all.”

He said he “is fully vested in the community,” pointing to ongoing projects such as renovation of the Lincoln Theater.

“I bring as much of this sense of community as anyone here,” he said.

French said his biggest asset was his “temperament,” calling himself calm and “kind of a nerd” who does his own business accounting and who is “willing to engage people with an open mind and without condescension.”

He touted himself as a “dispassionate leader” who will communicate well with residents, adding that “bad communication” led to the second-class-city measure that is also on the Nov. 7 ballot and was inspired by fluoridation opponents.

The second-class-city measure is “really dangerous,” French said.

Neither of the other candidates commented on the measure.

Whetham said his goals are to protect taxpayers and see businesses succeed.

“I do have passion when it comes to politics,” he said.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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