Jefferson County commission candidates discuss transparency, COVID-19

Heidi Eisenhour

Heidi Eisenhour

PORT TOWNSEND — The three Democrats vying for the Jefferson County Commissioner District 2 position discussed a range of issues during a candidate forum, with transparency being a key component of many.

Heidi Eisenhour, Amanda Funaro and Lorna Smith participated in a virtual forum hosted by the Jefferson County Democrats on Friday night.

Asked how they would manage potential conflicts from streamlining the county’s permitting processes, all agreed in their own way that the process needs to be more efficient and transparent.

“The permitting process is largely mysterious to most people, including builders who have been in this community for 20 to 30 years,” said Funaro, who has served as vice president of the Jefferson County Home Builders Association and currently works as the operations officer at Good Man Sanitation.

“I think that that needs to be de-mystified. The fact that I don’t know who those constituent groups are that influence the particular pieces of how the permitting process takes place is…why is that? I think that should be pretty transparent.”

Smith believes that the problem lies not with the regulations but with how they are applied, tying the problem to a need for more staff at the county Department of Community Development.

“The problem is not with the regulation per se or the red tape per se, it’s how it’s administered. It has to do with the administration of the program,” said Smith, who has served for the past seven years on the Jefferson County Conservation Futures Committee.

“In Jefferson County, we have been short-staffed in the Community Development Department for a long time and when we are short-staffed it created backlogs on permit applications and that creates a lot of tensions,” she added.

Amanda Funaro

Amanda Funaro

Eisenhour suggested getting the concerned parties involved in conversations to find the issues and determine how to improve the process.

“I think one thing we can do is build efficiencies under this permitting system,” said Eisenhour, the chief operating officer of the Northwest Maritime Center.

“I know through this COVID time it’s been frustrating in some ways, but also we’ve learned efficiencies. I think it’s important that we emphasize customer services, and a few people have said to me that they wish that the county had something similar to what the city has, customer service assistance meetings.”

Candidates also were asked how they encourage more transparency in the budgeting process.

Eisenhour said she does not support defunding law enforcement as some communities have, but that she does support creating programs that would complement police.

“I’m not supportive of defunding the sheriff’s department,” she said. “I am interested in looking into some alternative programs that maybe the sheriff’s department is not expert in, like mental health response.”

Funaro said she supports the reallocation of funds and the creation of a task force to help bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community.

“What I don’t see a lot of is that flow of information between law enforcement and our community members and I think some of that is really based on systemic criminalization around race that is felt on both sides, and it’s so subconscious and under the surface that we don’t talk about it,” Funaro said.

“I think as a commissioner we could potentially put together a task force to start uniting people so that their voices can be heard and so that the sheriff can hear what the concerns are within the community.”

Lorna Smith

Lorna Smith

Smith said that the county’s budget and processes should always be available to the public.

“The county’s budget should always be available for public scrutiny. It should be a totally public process. It’s public dollars that we’re spending and even though the county commissioners don’t develop the sheriff’s department budget, we don’t have a lot of oversight over it, we do pass it,” Smith said.

“I think there’s some room for discussions about should we move some of the dollars out of the sheriff’s budget and into some of the mental health and crisis intervention programs,” she added.

One of the other questions regarding transparency was if each candidate would recuse themselves if faced with making a vote that had to do with their past positions or actions prior to being elected.

Said Smith: “Fortunately the bar is very clear on this issue under the law so I am not overly concerned about it becoming a real issue. However, if I was involved in say a lawsuit against the county in any capacity, and I became a commissioner, I would probably recuse myself. I know very well how to tread the line and I think as long as we are transparent and people know where we are coming from and we stand behind the decisions we have made before we are good to go.”

Said Eisenhour: “I think the most important thing is to maintain integrity and I would be guided by that, I feel like I have a pretty clear sense of myself and would lead with that. But, if I had participated in a decision-making process, that I knew someone would have questions about, I would investigate to ask what questions they have. I would seek the legal counsel of the county’s attorneys because it is not just about me it’s about the entire county at that point and if it seems like there was a potential conflict I would recuse myself,” Eisenhower said.

Funaro said that Eisenhour and Smith made great points.

“I think that really open and transparent government is absolutely necessary, especially right now,” Funaro said. “I would recuse myself from situations that would put us at risk.”

Outside of transparency, the candidates were also asked questions about COVID-19, specifically how they would have voted in June on moving the county from Phase 2 to Phase 3.

Each would have voted to stay in Phase 2, but for different reasons.

“I had concerns as businesses started opening and the numbers (of cases) started to increase across the state as we moved into the holiday weekend,” Funero said. “I would want to have been certain that those numbers would stabilize before moving into Phase 3.”

Said Smith: “Fifty percent of our community, I think, are over that age that puts them into that high-risk category for COVID. I just think we have to do everything we can to protect our community, we need first and foremost to keep us safe.”

Eisenhour expressed similar safety concerns, noting that moving into Phase 3 could open the county up to more visitors and could expose the county to more cases.

“I think what I am hearing is that people are nervous about the public coming to Jefferson County and public exposure,” Eisenhour said.

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Reporter Ken Park can be reached at [email protected]news.com.

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