Two seats on the Thurston County Board of Commissioners are on the Nov. 8 ballot, and voters must decide whether to keep our communities moving forward, or to take steps backward.
Sandra Romero and Cathy Wolfe, Democrats who served multiple terms on the commission, are retiring in January. That leaves Commissioner Bud Blake, the conservative Independent who helped get the controversial new jail opened, as the lone holdover.
We favor forward-looking candidates who can smarten up the county’s response to the pocket-gopher issue, find resources to fix roads and hire more sheriff’s deputies, and mend relationships with residents in the south county rural zones. A careful revamping of the permitting system could help enormously.
That is why we think Kelsey Hulse, a Democrat from the north county, is a better choice to replace Romero in the District 2 seat. Hulse runs the nonprofit fund-raising foundation for The Evergreen State College, and she strikes us as thoughtful, eager to base decisions on data, and willing to listen and learn from those who hold opinions different than her own.
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Her rival is longtime former Republican Sheriff Gary Edwards. He is running with a “no party preference” label in a year that his former party was hijacked by Donald Trump. Edwards says he’s long championed a non-partisan courthouse and wants to bring that mindset and common sense to the job.
Unfortunately, the former lawman is basing his campaign on old resentments over land use regulations and the jail, as well as longstanding complaints about staffing in the Sheriff’s Office, poor decisions championed by people who are no longer on the commission, and an economic platform built on wishful thinking.
Edwards says economic growth is the ticket to boosting county revenues. But the sum of Edwards’ economic revitalization vision is to drop the county’s Habitat Conservation Plan for the Mazama pocket gopher, which is listed as threatened, and go to court against the federal government.
Edwards has experience running an agency, but the job of a commissioner is to delegate, set priorities and answer the public’s concerns. Unfortunately, Edwards is too set in his ways at a time our county needs to be innovating and looking forward.
Hulse supports the county’s effort to get in compliance with endangered species rules and to revamp the county’s planning and permitting system. Her goal: “You should be able to find out how long it’s going to take and what it costs” in a quicker fashion. She wants to rely on data to determine the best deputy-staffing levels and says the county won’t solve other problems if the public doesn’t think feel safe or think the government is responsive.
On other issues — ranging from the question of where and how to build a new courthouse, how to support the criminal justice system trying to divert people with mental illnesses into treatment instead of jail, how to raise revenues for roads, and how to maintain public safety, public health and environmental protections — Hulse is broader-minded and more likely to bring creative solutions. We think she has a lot to learn, but Edwards says no a lot.
In the other race, Olympia City Councilman Jim Cooper, who leads a United Way regional organization, is the better of the two candidates. Also running is John “Hutch” Hutchings, a former Olympia police officer and former interim Tenino police chief, who is campaigning as an Independent.
Cooper is a former county Democratic Party chairman who played a role shaping the city’s successful parks levy campaign last year. In the past year, he stirred the pot with a $15 minimum wage proposal and talk of drafting a city income tax proposal that could have competed with the one on the ballot.
A major appeal of Hutchings is his connection to rural areas and the south county. He has familiarity with the mental health challenges that police officers encounter in the field and has a background in understanding and improving community and mental health issues.
Hutchings opposes a car-tab fee for roads, but might consider a small sales tax increase, which Cooper favors.
But in hopping onto the anti-gopher parade, Hutchings is more likely to pick fights than solve thorny land-use issues. He questions whether the gopher issue is real or created by the government.
On balance, Cooper appears better informed, more constructive and, if he can rein in his impulse to launch too many initiatives, is the better choice.