I just got back from a League of Woman Voters' debate between Jason Freilinger and Patti Milne, candidates for a Marion County Board of Commissioners position. In my utterly biased opinion, Freilinger won by a mile.
Maybe even a light year. Why?
Because he didn't shy away from tough questions like Milne did. Milne is a professional politician seeking a third term in office. Freilinger has a business degree and works in the private sector, where problems have to be tackled head-on or you don't succeed in the long run.
I said that I was utterly biased because I am. Before the debate I favored Freilinger, since our neighborhood in rural south Salem has reaped the nasty consequences of Milne's flawed land use decision-making. To know more, click here.
Nothing I saw at the debate altered my feeling that Freilinger is by far the better candidate. Here's some examples of how he out-debated Milne.
Cost-cutting. When asked what changes or cuts she would make to current county programs, Milne talked in vague generalities -- no specifics. Freilinger, on the other hand, made a detailed proposal: to cut the cost of the Board of Commissioners' office.
The current commissioners have raised their salaries by $21,000 in the past twelve years, much faster than private sector wages have risen. Plus, they've added three highly paid "personal policy advisors" to the payroll, a luxury other large Oregon counties have been able to do without.
When elected, Freilinger will propose a 20% pay cut for elected and senior officials. That's a bold statement which will resonate with cash-strapped taxpayers who are tired of seeing Marion County government waste property tax revenues.
Which brings us to...
Courthouse Square. Each candidate was asked how this debacle could have been prevented, and what steps they would take moving forward. Milne correctly said that in the late 1990's she opposed the $34 million Courthouse Square, where county offices and a Salem transit mall were located until construction defects were discovered that rendered the block unusable.
But she side-stepped the fact that she was a county commissioner both at the time Courthouse Square was being completed, and also during the eight years (2002-2010) defects in the building were becoming apparent. Again, Freilinger was much more direct and specific about how taxpayer dollars could have been saved.
He said there was no independent inspection of Courthouse Square as it was being built, because Milne and the other commissioners prevented this from happening. Then problems with the building were ignored until they became super-serious. Now Courthouse Square may be a complete $34 million loss.
Yet Milne voted to settle with architects and contractors for $1.8 million this past April, conveniently choosing to not tell voters about the comparatively small settlement until after the May primary election. When asked why citizens weren't immediately told about the settlement, Milne had... (take a guess) no answer.
She just said "there was no attempt to hide anything." She didn't disagree that facts were hidden. I guess Milne thinks that the "no attempt" is supposed to make voters feel better about not having facts about Courthouse Square revealed in a timely and transparent manner.
Land use. People in the audience got to submit written questions for the candidates. I was fortunate to have mine chosen by the League of Women Voters. It went something like this:
"Recently several land use decisions made by the Board of Commissioners have been overturned by courts (district court judge and the Land Use Board of Appeals). What can be done to help assure that decisions are made correctly by the Board the first time out?"
Freilinger had a short and sweet answer.
He said that he's proud of Oregon's land use laws, which protect irreplaceable farm and forest land from unneeded development. The Board of Commissioners needs to follow those laws and the facts, rather than personal opinions about what is legal. When they start doing this, courts will stop reversing the Board's decisions.
Milne, proving Freilinger's point, launched into an attack of Oregon's longstanding commitment to striking a balance between economic development and protecting the environment. She said that Oregon has the most stringent land use laws in the U.S. (as if that's a bad thing), lamenting that property owners have to "jump through hoops" (meaning, follow the law).
Another questioner asked when it is appropriate for the Board of Commissioners to sell off part of a public park to a private citizen, which was done recently. Freilinger simply said, "never." Milne wishy-washed her way through an answer, saying "But it was just a few feet..."
Liquid natural gas (LNG) pipeline. Each candidate got to ask a question of the other. Freilinger chose the LNG issue, which is a proposal to build a large pipeline south of Woodburn and thence across the Cascades.
He said that the only two uses of the pipeline are to move liquid natural gas to California, where it isn't needed, or to ship LNG to China. The Yamhill and Clackamas county commissioners have gone on record as opposing this threat to Willamette Valley farmland and private property. The Marion County Board of Commissioners has been silent. Freilinger asked Milne where she stands on the proposed pipeline.
But Milne wouldn't answer it directly, saying only "we need this gas." This shows why Freilinger has been endorsed by the Marion County Farm Bureau: he opposes the pipeline and is serious about protecting rural farmland, while Milne isn't.
Milne actually faulted Freilinger for supporting the efforts of 1000 Friends of Oregon to protect this state's beautiful and economically productive natural environment. 1000 Friends was founded in 1975 by a Republican Governor, Tom McCall. Yet preserving farm and forest land apparently is a radical idea to Patti Milne.
When Milne asked Freilinger about his ties to 1000 Friends of Oregon, Friends of Marion County, and Friends of French Prairie, wondering if he could make fair land use decisions as a commissioner, he responded in a fashion that got laughter from the audience. He said, sure I can be fair, just as you're able to be fair even though you've been a real estate agent and have strong ties with developers.
Which sums up the entire debate.
Milne did well, but Freilinger outshone her when it came time to give direct answers to questions. Milne kept responding with platitudes like the professional politician that she is, while Freilinger gave us straight talk like the businessman that he is.
My conclusion: vote for Jason Freilinger.