Port of Olympia commission candidates pose tough questions during forum

Port of Olympia commissioner candidates Jerry Farmer, left, and E.J. Zita during the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce candidate’s forum at the Red Lion Hotel in Olympia on Wednesday.
Port of Olympia commissioner candidates Jerry Farmer, left, and E.J. Zita during the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce candidate’s forum at the Red Lion Hotel in Olympia on Wednesday. Staff photographer

You can tell local candidates are getting close to the Nov. 3 general election because the campaign questions are starting to get tough.

That was the case during Wednesday’s Port of Olympia candidate forum for the District 3 and District 1 candidates, with each getting a chance to ask the other a challenging question. They brought up the port’s economic struggles, the transport of crude oil through the region and a port commissioner’s 12,000 unread emails.

The noon forum, organized by the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce, was held at the Red Lion Hotel Olympia.

The District 3 race is between E.J. Zita, a faculty member at The Evergreen State College, and Jerry Farmer, co-owner of Olympia radio station 94.5 FM KRXY. The current District 3 commissioner, Michelle Morris, was appointed to the seat after former commissioner Sue Gunn resigned earlier this year.

The District 1 race is between incumbent George Barner and challenger Joe Downing, a senior financial examiner for the state.

After about 45 minutes of opening remarks and fielding questions posed by Olympian editorial page editor Brad Shannon, the candidates got to ask their own questions.

Farmer, in his question to Zita, claimed that she has voiced support in previous candidate forums for closing the Port of Olympia’s marine terminal, so Farmer wondered: How do you plan to replace that revenue?

Zita quickly disputed that assertion, saying she has never said she wants to close the marine terminal. Zita stuck close to her campaign theme of wanting the port to do better instead of business as usual.

“Instead of shutting down the marine terminal, I have consistently said that we need to take a closer look at how decisions are made at the port and how planning is done,” she said. “The port has come under fire for not working closely with its citizens. By working with others in the community, we can make better plans and make more money.”

In her question to Farmer, Zita asked him how his pattern of touting the port’s economic development numbers — that the port, for example, is responsible for 7,200 direct, indirect and induced jobs in the area — squares with the port’s current economic reality?

Marine terminal revenue is down sharply this year because of fewer ship visits, affected by a stronger U.S. dollar and a drop in oil prices.

“Well, I don’t think the reality of what we’ve heard disputes my claims,” Farmer said, although he concedes that the port has had an economic setback this year.

“The port needs to get new revenue to be a better business, and I think they can do that,” he said.

Downing likely asked the bombshell question of the forum. He said that by filing a public records request, he discovered that Barner has 12,000 unread emails in his Port of Olympia email account, with only 26 sent emails. In light of that, Downing wanted to know how Barner communicates with his constituents.

Barner, who is in his early 70s, said he’s always available by phone.

“I’m taking lessons on how to do email and use a website,” he said, adding that he had no experience with either one before he came to the port. “I didn’t have the opportunity to get lessons. I’m in the process of learning and using them. I understand the importance of having those skills.”

Barner once again asked whether Downing supports the transport of volatile crude oil by rail through Thurston County. Barner does not.

“I do not strictly oppose oil shipments by rail, I just want them to be very, very safe,” Downing said.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403