Eisenhour, Smith field questions in forum

Commissioner candidates discuss issues ahead of Nov. 3 election

PORT TOWNSEND — For Heidi Eisenhour, it’s Food System Resiliency. For Lorna Smith, it would have to be Economy & Jobs.

Of the eight community groups formed earlier this year to help develop a Recovery and Resiliency Plan for Jefferson County in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the two candidates for county commissioner say these are the groups they would join – if they weren’t busy running for office.

“That’s the underlying most important one,” Smith said of her pick, “because if we have a bunch of people who are out of work, if we have a bunch of closed businesses because of the COVID emergency, that just spreads throughout the entire community.”

Eisenhour said she’d be best suited to assessing local food systems.

“I think we need processing and storage capacity in the county, because we don’t have that now,” she said. “It’s something I’ve worked a lot on professionally, and it’s something where I have a lot of relationships and could mobilize solutions.”

That’s how the two Democrats seeking to replace three-term District 2 Commissioner David Sullivan responded to one of 17 questions posed Thursday evening during the race’s only scheduled candidate forum ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

A video recording of the forum, which was held online via Zoom and broadcast by KPTZ 91.9 radio, will be posted to the YouTube channel of Dennis Daneau, former president of the Jefferson County League of Women Voters, which organized the forum along with the American Association of University Women-Port Townsend.

In a three-way primary election Aug. 4, District 2 voters favored Eisenhour, 49, of Port Hadlock and Smith, 69, of Port Townsend. On Nov. 3, voters countywide will weigh in.

During the forum, Eisenhour touted herself as a 40-year county resident who helped draft the first comprehensive plan in 1998.

Currently chief operations officer at the Northwest Maritime Center and the Wooden Boat Foundation, she spoke of running downtown Port Townsend’s Fountain Cafe with her mom in the 1990s as well as her “formative” nonprofit work with The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Northwest, Pacific Marine Conservation Council and Jefferson Land Trust.

“While my opponent says I have no experience, basically, the experience I’ve gained working in our community with nonprofit organizations has prepared me,” she said.

“Because of my deep roots and leadership experience in our county, I am the candidate who is best qualified to lead us through these times.”

Smith, who in order to focus on her campaign is currently on leave from her role as executive director of Port Townsend nonprofit Western Wildlife Outreach, spent 25 years as Snohomish County’s land use and environmental manager before moving to Cape George 10 years ago.

During the forum, she touted her work with nonprofits such as the Washington Environmental Council, Jefferson County Immigrant Rights Advocates and Jefferson Land Trust while also pointing to her service on the county’s planning commission and conservation futures committee.

She asked voters to she said, asking voters to think of her experience as a three-legged stool.

“The first leg of my stool — the business and nonprofit leg — is important, but for a county commissioner, that one leg cannot stand alone,” she said.

“When you add the other two legs — my volunteer community activism and 25 years of government experience — the stool is now in perfect balance.”

On expanding broadband infrastructure, both stressed the need to serve as advocates and work closely with the Jefferson County Public Utility District (PUD).

On protecting groundwater, both said local development regulations and good working relationships with the state Department of Ecology are key to conservation.

On homelessness, both said they would partner with local housing and health care providers to address what Eisenhour called “an incredibly complex issue.

“I would support finding more funding by going to the Legislature … to see if we can build some kind of homeless housing shelter,” said Smith, noting that she supports a five-year plan created by a joint city-county task force.

The candidates agreed that climate change is a clear and present crisis, with Smith saying the county must work the state’s congressional delegation and Eisenhour saying the county must continue to lead by example.

“I think we need to make it a bigger issue and talk about it more vocally as a community,” Eisenhour said.

Both agreed that significant grant funding will be needed before the county proceeds with plans to develop a sewer system to serve the Port Hadlock, Irondale and Chimacum areas.

“We don’t want to put the burden on our local businesses and households to have to pay an unreasonable amount of money,” Smith said of an estimated $24,000 hook-up cost per household.

Asked if they would support Peninsula Housing Authority’s plan to convert the mothballed Lincoln Building at Port Townsend High School into 40 units of affordable housing along with a sales tax increase to help pay for it, Eisenhour said she would support both so long as there was a clear plan for funding, access and management.

“I went to high school there and I always looked at that building and said, ‘One day that’s going to be something good for our community,’” she said.

Smith was more apprehensive, saying it likely wouldn’t be cost effective to retrofit such an old building.

“Often it’s cheaper to start with new construction from the ground up and build something economical that’s energy efficient,” she said.

“We do need more affordable housing, but I also don’t want to put more tax burden on our citizens.”

Asked if they would support expanding the board to five members and creating a referendum process by adopting a “home rule” charter form of government, as was attempted and rejected by voters in 2013, both said they could support a referendum process and Eisenhour said the board does not need to be expanded.

Smith, however, called the inability of two commissioners to discuss business outside of a meeting “an impediment.

“I feel like the commissioners don’t have enough time to spend together talking about important issues,” she said.

“But I’m not sure that increasing the number of county commissioners is the answer. It could be more costly, though it might be more representative.”

The candidates also were asked about marriage equality, reproductive rights and racial justice issues, among other things. They each expressed support for all three causes.

On racial justice, Smith said she supports Black Lives Matter and would like to see the county review its hiring practices, while Eisenhour said Commissioner Dean has done “a great job of engaging and creating space for those conversations.

“It’s about listening,” she said, “it’s about creating the space, it’s about being a strong ally and it’s about supporting positive, healthy community conversations.”

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Jefferson County senior reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by phone at 360-417-3509 or by email at njohnson@peninsuladailynews.com.

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