The Yelm Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, Oct. 13, held a forum for the four county commissioner candidates who will be on the ballot this November.
Two seats are on the ballot this year. Independent incumbent Gary Edwards will defend his seat against Democratic challenger Michael Steadman, and C Davis and Carolina Mejia will duke it out over the seat currently occupied by John Hutchings, who was voted out in the August primary.
Candidates were asked a handful of questions from Yelm Community Schools Superintendent Brian Wharton, who acted as the moderator during the hour-long discussion during which participants were frequently muted after exceeding their time limits.
Topics included, but weren’t limited to, discussion on the county’s work toward building a courthouse, the issue of homelessness in the region, plans for economic recovery following the coronavirus recession and, possibly the most pertinent topic, how Yelm figures into their candidacies.
Edwards, a lifelong Yelmite and former Thurston County sheriff who’s looking for a second term on the Board of County Commissioners, billed himself as the hometown candidate with the experience to push the county through this difficult time.
Two-term Lacey City Council member Michael Steadman, who's looking to defeat Edwards, pushed his experience with the council, his work as a business leader and his eight years serving in the United States Marine Corps.
Davis and Mejia, whose race has been at the forefront of headlines with stories of contested addresses and birtherism claims, were in clear contrast with their answers on Tuesday — especially on the topic of the courthouse, which Davis said he strongly opposes while also taking a jab at Mejia.
Will you support a new ballot or tax measure to fund a new courthouse?
On the issue of the proposed courthouse initiative, which was pulled off the April ballot due to the coronavirus health crisis and has since been tabled, Steadman voiced support for building a new complex in downtown Olympia, while Edwards and Davis opposed such a plan.
Mejia, who’s currently an employee of the Thurston County Superior Court, has repeatedly declined to comment on the courthouse initiative, but noted that she doesn’t support putting a ballot measure forward that would burden property owners at this time.
“We really need to see where our economic standing is, and really see where our county is headed right now in terms of our financial burden and where we’re going to stand before we decide to do anything else,” she said.
Edwards originally opposed the decision by the county commissioners to move forward with the Olympia location that was chosen more than a year ago. During the forum, Edwards said it would be a disaster to build it downtown.
“I am very opposed to the location downtown. I am very interested in fixing the courthouse so it’s safe, and we can do that right where we’re located for pennies on the dollar in comparison,” he said.
Steadman disagreed with Edwards and Davis’s statements, saying that it’s incumbent upon the county to not push the issue down the road.
“Put the thing on the ballot, see where it stands and go from there,” Steadman said. “If not, you’ve wasted years and millions of dollars of resources, full-time employee hours, just to play it politically safe. If it fails, then we figure out what to do next.”
The work, Steadman said to contrast Edward’s statements, is more than just brushing on a little paint.
What are your strategies for reducing or eliminating homelessness in Thurston County? Where do you start?
Though candidates acknowledged the complexities driving homelessness, they largely diverged in both their view of the scope and their solution to it.
Davis said the county’s problem with homelessness is being driven primarily by drug abuse. He said he has a three-step program to address the issue: cold-turkey treatment, establishing a jobs program similar to a “labor camp,” and then implementing a general education program for addicts.
“I want to point out that leaving people in the bushes is not a form of compassion. What is a form of compassion is giving people a hand up,” he said. “So, if we take the tough love approach, we go in and break down the homeless camps, we can actually help the addicts and we can solve homelessness and drug addiction at the same time.”
Mejia said the crisis is much more complex than that. She said it’s important for the county to work with its county regional housing council, and work with local jurisdictions to find out what they need.
She added that it’s also important to work with organizations that “already have boots on the ground.”
“This is not a one-fix solution. It’s going to be a complex issue all around,” she said.
Steadman largely agreed with Mejia, though Edwards said that the whole problem has “been exacerbated because they’re being enabled to live what I call a deviant lifestyle.”
Agreeing with a “tough love” approach, Edwards also said that a majority of the homeless individuals are coming from areas outside the county.
That claim — backed up by narratives from local law enforcement, Edwards said — has gone against what’s been reported annually by the official HUD homeless census. For instance, during this year’s 2020 Point in Time Homeless Census, about 61 percent of homeless individuals interviewed said their last known permanent address was in Thurston County, with 24 percent saying another county in Washington state and 14 percent reporting an out of state address.
That data is similar to what was reported in Yelm — 16 of the 30 people censused said Yelm was their last known permanent address.
What aspects of the pandemic have been handled well in Thurston County, and what aspects have not been handled well in Thurston County?
Edwards said he believes the county has done about as well as it could under the guidelines of the state.
“I disagreed with some of the things that the governor initially did, but I’ll recognize that we all had to do things we didn’t really have a good understanding (of),” he said.
Edwards added that it was important for the county to get demographic information on the virus’s effects on the public.
Davis said he would have liked to see the county push back against the state’s “dictates.”
“I just want to point out that during this whole virus issue, only 20 people have died in the entire county of 296,000 people,” he said.