PORT ANGELES — Candidates for the Port Angeles City Council peppered a general election forum this week with sharply-worded exchanges.
Three elected incumbents and an appointed council member battling for four-year terms parried with four challengers, often defending each other and presenting two united fronts during the one-hour, 45-minute Zoom event, sponsored Wednesday by the Clallam County League of Women Voters.
The forum featured Position 1 appointed incumbent LaTrisha Suggs and challenger Adam Garcia, Position 2 incumbent Mike French and challenger John Madden, Position 3 incumbent Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin and challenger Jena Stamper, and Position 4 incumbent and Mayor Kate Dexter and challenger John Procter.
Questions were submitted to the League website at lwvcla.org, where there is a link to a YouTube recording of the forum by Sunday. The moderator was Bertha Cooper. Answers were limited to one minute.
Queries were separated into categories on climate change and the candidates’ vision of the future.
Candidates were asked what constituents were saying about public safety and how they would address any concerns.
Madden said the “drug culture” in the city is creating a “tremendous environmental disaster,” warning Port Angeles could become like Seattle; Procter urged a greater police presence and said women fear being downtown at nightfall; Stamper agreed with Procter about that fear and urged more frequent police stops in problem areas, and Garcia said more police officers may be needed but wanted to explore the impact on the budget and with Chief Brian Smith.
French, Madden’s opponent, praised the Rediscovery services-referral program for reducing 9-1-1 call volume; Suggs, Garcia’s opponent, said residents want faster response time on code enforcement; Dexter, Procter’s opponent, said more clarity is needed on new state police reform legislation.
“It’s really easy to make campaign promises to say [expand] public safety funding, but the question becomes, where do you fund it?” Schromen-Wawrin said, adding “our opponents” need to listen to a past council work session that included police participation.
“Some of us have been working on the reality of that and not just the empty campaign rhetoric that we’re hearing in this answer,” he said.
Asked if the candidates believed local governments should be able to enact ordinances to reduce gun violence that are more stringent than state law, Suggs said she was unfamiliar with the issue’s legality, French said it was “uncharted territory,” Dexter said she did not know the answer and Schromen-Wawrin, saying he was a constitutional lawyer who focuses on the relative power of federal, state and local governments, said generally state law pre-empts local governments.
“Well, first of all, I’d like to thank our local attorney for informing us about the three levels of government,” said Procter, Dexter’s opponent.
“I’m sure that’s news to everybody in this forum. That being taken care of, no, I’m against any gun laws locally. I think the person who asked that question probably is not very knowledgeable in the gun laws that have been passed and exist. Our Second Amendment covers that pretty well.”
Garcia, Suggs’ opponent, said he agreed with Suggs and said it’s a bad idea; Madden, French’s opponent, said he “is big” on the Second Amendment; and Stamper said she would not support the city taking such action.
Asked about homelessness, Procter said he favored a plan employed in other Washington cities to have a large building divided into day and night centers combined with an ordinance restricting camping on public property.
“It’s a double-edged sword in that people are going there from other cities for treatment, and other cities are sending them there for treatment,” Procter maintained.
Dexter, his opponent, said more housing should be created; Stamper said perhaps a locker program should be set up where the homeless could store their belongings and that a recent Serenity House project should be able to provide plenty of beds for the homeless.
Schromen-Wawrin said there will still not be enough beds for the homeless population and criticized Procter’s proposal, saying it was inconsistent because, under Procter’s reasoning, it would draw more homeless to the area.
Garcia said it was “nonsense” to believe that “we’re going to house everybody,” favoring providing services to the homeless and getting them integrated into the county. He said Procter’s idea would make it easier to provide those services.
Suggs cited city partnerships with other entities and said funding should be increased for housing and mental health services.
On the city’s role in reconciling the protection of individual rights with the need to control the coronavirus, Schromen-Wawrin said the city should not be speaking in a manner contrary to scientifically supported positions of Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, “and we need to just do the math to understand the problems that my opponent is about to advocate for.”
Berry has mandated that patrons of restaurants need to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to dine or drink indoors.
Stamper said she recognized the authority of the county but would always be a strong advocate of “medical freedom” and an individual’s right to choose.
“It’s just like a religion or a tribe,” she said. “You respect the way that they want to live their lives and their bodies, and as a city, we need to really protect the individual and our businesses, and I don’t think that our restaurants really needed this extra burden.”
Dexter said City Attorney Bill Bloor had advised her that the city council should not take a stand on Berry’s health orders.
“She is making hard choices to protect our community,” Dexter said.
Procter, a veterinarian, said he is vaccinated but that it should be an individual choice, adding any direction on dealing with the virus should come from health officers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Garcia said it was “a little silly” that city council members were saying they don’t have a role for advocacy, saying he could “think of several topics city council has advocated for or against that were outside their lane,” not citing any in his response.
“It’s the city council’s role to support the county in making their decision, but it’s also our role to ask them the hard questions to justify what they’re doing with local data, not with statewide anything but with local information as they’re making local decisions that impact our people and our businesses.”
French said the city has a role in advocacy but that Idaho is rationing health care, “a far greater restriction on individual rights than any of the mandates.”
Madden, his opponent, said he believes in personal choice and added that he thought too many businesses have failed.
Asked if the city could do more to support businesses, Madden took a swing at Schromen-Wawrin.
“One of the main things that we have here is government pressing down on local businesses,” Madden said.
“We have people like this Schromen-Wawrin guy talking down to people all the time. I mean, it’s obviously clear to me that he puts himself above a lot of these problems and our focus is to bring back the focus on the individual, especially the local businesses that have been hammered during this last year.”
French, his opponent, pointing out that he is a small business owner, said Tuesday the council voted to give $500,000 in pandemic relief to the Black Ball Ferry Line as “a crucial business partner” of the business community.
The Port Angeles School Board portion of the debate, as well as council candidates’ stands on climate change, will be published in future editions of the PDN.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].