Large crowd seeks answers from OS candidates

  • Thu Oct 3rd, 2019 10:00am
  • News

By Scott D. Johnston

For the Grays Harbor News Group

For just under two hours last Wednesday evening, candidates for Ocean Shores Mayor and five City Council seats answered questions submitted by members of a crowd of more than 300 at the Ocean Shores Convention Center.

Each in their own way said they would listen to the people of Ocean Shores and work for things that will be good for all of its citizens. Beyond that, the candidates’ responses to three rounds of questions revealed a wide variety of priorities and possible paths forward, plus plenty of platitudes.

After opening statements from all the office seekers, each pair of candidates answered a different question in both of the first two rounds. Then all were asked to state what qualities they possess that makes them the best choice for the office they are seeking. The evening concluded with closing comments from the candidates. Local attorney Mike Valdez served as moderator.

One of the issues in the Mayoral race between two-term incumbent Crystal Dingler and challenger Susan Conniry, who lost the 2015 Mayor’s election to Dingler but was elected to Council two years later, was framed by their first question: “The City of Ocean Shores is a $30 million municipal corporation. What is your level of budget management experience and knowledge of day-to-day financial operations of the City or other entity of comparable size?”

Conniry noted that she has not been Mayor of Ocean Shores or in charge of the budget, so lacks that specific experience. “I was elected to the fire district in Lakeside (CA) and I worked there four years. Our budget was $13-14 million. We, as a governing board, oversaw that budget and we did very well because we had a very good staff. … We had issues at the time I was elected, as we did here in Ocean Shores, and we were able to work through those together.

“I see the same thing here … I am delighted to see the staff that we have, the work that’s been done up until this point. My feeling is being elected and moving in is not something that is starting from scratch ….

“Once again, coming from a Council position where we were setting policy, is very different from the executive branch. I look forward to that challenge I think I can do a very good job working with the staff that we have here now.”

Dingler noted that she has been mayor for eight years and the budget wasn’t always $30 million. “We had to work our way up to that; we started out with a very tight, very small budget and very few senior staff to help us implement that. I was really fortunate to have wonderful people who mentored me to start that process.

“But I came with a budgeting background. I worked for the University of Washington for many years and learned my budgeting there as a program manager.” She learned there are many similarities in how university and municipal finances work, and also learned more working for other entities in the private sector.

“I think it’s really important that we continue on the path that we have been on. I agree we have wonderful staff; we’ve been very fortunate to be able to recruit really top-notch people and they make a difference to how this city runs. But they’re not the only thing; they still need oversight and that’s the mayor’s job, to handle that oversight and make sure that we continue to emphasize the things that are important to the people of Ocean Shores.”

On the question of ideas for future economic development, Dingler said the city has recently established an economic development committee that is working on tourism initially and is using an economist, a facilitator and a student doing research. She noted that a big challenge is that “we have maybe 10 or 12 weeks a year when our businesses make their money. That’s difficult for them. What we’re trying to look at is how do we bring in more people in the shoulder seasons and in the winter. There’s just a lot of opportunity and we just need to work on these things consistently and get them done and move forward.”

Conniry said, “It’s exciting that we finally have this plan – people that Mayor Dingler has brought together … I would like to see any kind of economic development conversation include the citizens as well. We have an opportunity coming up — the oceanic fiber cable landing is likely to come into our area and if it does, it will upgrade technology. Once we have that step, I think we’re on our way into the future.”

She added that eco-tourism is a coming thing, that could be encouraged by having restrooms at beach and bay access points. She also would like to see “revitalization of our downtown … a lot more than just the sidewalks and crosswalks. That would include just a little bit of excitement and civic pride in our businesses, which would encourage people to come back.”

Council Pos. 4 challenger Lorraine Hardin and incumbent Jon Martin were asked another question that deals with a hot topic: “As the population of Ocean Shores increases, would you support an increase in the ambulance utility rate to ensure that EMS levels of personnel are available to serve the emergency medical needs of the public?”

Hardin said, “We have to have our emergency medical service, and it’s costly, but I think that there must be another way to fund without raising your rates. And I don’t know what that is. I think that there must be other avenues that we can look at …. I think we can do better.”

Martin recalled that he was “on the council when we increased the rates … it was a really hard decision, and we walked through several different solutions.

“The thing that we have to remember … is our EMS is our urgent care, they’re our first responders. … If we don’t have a good fire/EMS department in here, we’re in big trouble. We’ve talked about bringing in other medical services. The reality is that’s a bigger issue that we’re going to have to deal with and it’s going to take people on the outside.

“Now, there is a solution expanding our fire department to cover the entire North Beach. So have a regional fire department versus a city fire department. When you have that, you have the funding that would also help with Seabrook … it lessens the load for Ocean Shores.”

He said a problem that some people would have is that the City of Ocean Shores would give up control of its fire department. “That might not be a bad thing. We have a (regional fire department) model on the South Beach; Westport has done that. But I think it’s something we should look at and it would also probably help the taxpayers as we move forward, as the area grows.”

On the question of enforcement of lot clearing codes, Martin said he believes “part of it is staffing … we started having huge growth and with that we didn’t ramp up we didn’t anticipate how much growth that we were going to have.” He said a planning director is nearly hired and with the recent addition of a city administrator “we will get it fixed.”

Hardin said she has a strategic planning background and “I think that is where the problem started, the city didn’t have a strategic plan for growth. … The city’s on the right track with hiring because it is a staffing issue. … It really is up to the planning and permitting departments to enforce what they’re permitting. … There aren’t enough people in those offices to go out and check every lot. It points up the need that we’ve had, for years, to have a strategic plan. We have a comprehensive plan, but we don’t have a strategic plan that works on a day-by-day basis, and that’s what we need.”

The evening’s first question, to Council Pos. 2 challenger Michael Darling and incumbent Kathryn Sprigg, was prompted by the recent toxic algae bloom in parts of Ocean Shores’ extensive canals and lakes. It noted that fertilizer runoff is often associated with the problem and asked whether the city should ban fertilizer use on waterside lots.

Both candidates agreed it is a problem and efforts should be made to educate the public. Darling said, “I know glyphosate (in pesticide) is the hot topic but fertilizer is a much bigger contributor to problems in our canals. You can see it. Should we ban. Yes. Should we educate? Yes. But this all leads to questions of enforcement.” He said, “… given the right thing to do, most people will do the right thing, and I’m not sure everybody realizes how much fertilizer contributes to the growth in our canals. … Do we need to hire more people to go around and check your lawn and see if you’ve been fertilizing? Probably not.”

Sprigg noted that she is the Council liaison to the Fresh Waterways Advisory Board and said, “I don’t think we can ban it as a city … this is your property. But, I do think we can educate. … People are going to do it and there’s no way that, I don’t think, you can catch them. So, you have to educate the public. Make a brochure, put it everywhere …”

Their second question asked, “What is your position on food trucks in Ocean Shores.” Sprigg said, “I think appropriately placed and appropriately licensed, I think we, as a city, could benefit in a number of different ways,” but local restaurants “should have first crack at it.”

Darling was skeptical, asking, “How do we know that we’re going to make money? How do we regulate what they’re selling as they come and go, let’s say 3-4 months out of the year they’re here. We’ve seen this before, where people come into town, do concessions, leave town and we don’t know what they took in. I think we need to protect the business owners who are here a little more than that. It’s another regulation problem: How do we know what they’re making and then they’re gone. They’re not going to stay in thin times, like all our business owners have to.”

Both Council Pos. 3 candidates, Frank Elduen and Richard Wills, spoke against allowing overnight rentals in areas where they are not already permitted. Elduen said, “I know some of that goes on and the public is not happy with that and I agree with that. There’s a place and zoning for overnight rentals and I think they should stick with that.”

Wills said he researched the issue and found that “what the overnight rental industry would like us to believe is that it brings money into the community. In almost all communities that’s absolutely not true. What actually happens is, it simply moves heads from the hotel beds into the overnight rental beds and the end result is income to the city goes down.”

Their second question dealt with sidewalks and bike paths and asked, “What is your vision to make these happen?”

Wills said he had attended all of the public sessions where four different plans for doing sidewalks on Pt. Brown were discussed and that it was clear the public did not like any of the concepts. He suggested investigating putting a sidewalk in the median, with crosswalks from such a “central sidewalk” to businesses on either side of the street. He said that would eliminate the problem of reducing businesses parking spaces to make room for sidewalks on both sides of the street. He said another possibility was sidewalks essentially behind the businesses on both sides.

Elduen said his idea is “to have just a sidewalk only going down both sides of Pt. Brown. That way you don’t impact the parking and don’t have to deal with the drainage on Pt. Brown,” and that additional crosswalks are needed.

Chuck Anderson, running for Council Pos. 6 against incumbent Bob Peterson, was the only candidate who did not attend. He told The North Coast News that he and his wife, Gail, recently acquired the Beach Tyme Quilts shop on Pt. Brown Ave., have been very busy preparing to reopen the business in November, and simply overlooked the deadline to sign up for the Wednesday Q&A event. He assured readers that he will participate in the one-on-one debate with Peterson that is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8, at the North Beach Senior Center.

Peterson was asked whether there should be homeless shelters in Ocean Shores, and said that he is not against homeless shelters, “in the sense that people need a place to be — we see that all over the country.”

But, in Ocean Shores “we don’t have the services to support any type of homeless program; we just don’t have that ….” He added, “For someone to invest in a homeless shelter is going to take dollars and … the support of other entities to come in and be able to support them, to provide the services they need, to provide their children the services they need … it’s a many-headed problem.”

The other question to Peterson was, “Would you be willing to support a larger budget for our police and fire departments to hire more personnel?” He said, “I’m going to say absolutely to that. Public safety is our primary priority here in Ocean Shores.”

He added that the city already has been increasing staff, “but we’re doing it in a fiscally responsible manner (so) we don’t get overextended gain. But we do have our police and fire departments capable. He added that manning the south end fire station should be explored, “because there is growth going on down there.”

Council Pos. 7 candidate David Linn and incumbent Eric Noble both said the city should not enact further restrictions of the use on “camping lots.” They were also asked about attracting and retaining more workers to town, as many jobs here are seasonal.

Noble said quality schools are a big attraction for young people “and I think we’re on our way to getting those.” He added that an upgrade on IT infrastructure “to the point where people can work from home” could be a big factor in bringing in more year-round residents and families.

Linn said attracting year-round people may be a challenge, “but I think there are some opportunities,” and how to improve the infrastructure to support work-from-home situations is important. “I think it can be done but it takes some planning, some thinking further out in the future on how to move things in the right direction to achieve that.”

The candidate Q & A session was sponsored by The Daily World, The North Coast News, North Beach Community TV, Windermere Realty, North Beach Realty, John L. Scott, Coldwell Banker and KOSW radio, which broadcast the event live and has a link to a recording of it on its website, www.koswradio.com.