Two candidates for an open seat on the Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners agree that incumbent port commissioners don’t ask enough tough questions.
Dan Barnes said the port’s decision to provide $50,000 to treat Eurasian milfoil, an invasive aquatic weed in Vancouver Lake, “put a burr under my saddle,” and he is disappointed that commissioners “gave away this money so quickly.”
“The commissioners need to ask harder questions,” Barnes said Thursday during a meeting with The Columbian’s Editorial Board. “They don’t work for the port. They work for the taxpayers, and I think they forgot that.”
Jack Burkman, the other candidate to succeed Jerry Oliver on the three-person port commission, said he agrees commissioners need to dig deeper during their meetings on the second and fourth Tuesdays.
“I share the same belief; they’re not asking enough hard questions,” he said. “I think (outgoing commissioner) Jerry Oliver tended to ask some of the harder questions. But I also think that comes from experience and being in the seat.”
The commission’s other two members haven’t been in office for that long, Burkman said. Eric LaBrant was elected in 2015, followed by Don Orange in 2017.
“You have two commissioners … who are learning the job,” he said. “Eric is further along; he’s four years. Don Orange has been vocal. It’s a tough learning curve.”
Burkman, a retired research and development manager at Hewlett-Packard, was elected to and served three terms on the Vancouver City Council, from 1998 through 2001 and from 2010 through 2017.
Barnes, a semi-retired certified public accountant, has not previously run for office, except for Republican precinct committee officer.
A question about controlling milfoil in Vancouver Lake sparked a broader discussion about the port commission.
Barnes said he would have asked more questions of Friends of Vancouver Lake — the nonprofit group coordinating the milfoil effort — including who turned the group down for financial support, why they said “no” and whether the group will ask the port for even more money.
“Probably the biggest question they (port commissioners) should have asked is: ‘Is this in the budget?’ and ‘Do the taxpayers really want to do this?’” he said.
Barnes erroneously said the Port of Vancouver was the only government to contribute. On July 16, the Clark County Council agreed to provide $25,000 this year and $25,000 in 2020 to combat a weed that threatens to make Vancouver Lake unusable for rowing and other recreation.
Burkman made his own error when he said Vancouver Lake Regional Park is in the county. The county-owned park actually is inside the Vancouver city limits.
Vancouver Lake needs help, Barnes said, but it’s a massive problem for others, not the port.
“It’s my position that it belongs to the feds, the state, the city, the county,” he said. “It’s not on port property.”
“I fear the Vancouver Lake people are looking to the port to be the lead dog in the problems they have. And the problems they have are huge problems.”
Milfoil is the latest issue at Vancouver Lake, which has been repeatedly closed to swimming and other water recreation because of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, and elevated levels of E. coli bacteria.
Burkman agreed port commissioners should have asked more questions before contributing $50,000, but he argued the port must participate in the lake’s long-term management, in part because it owns the flushing channel.
In 1983, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the flushing channel, with two 7-foot culverts under Lower River Road that allow Columbia River water to enter Vancouver Lake.
“When that happened and the port took ownership for that, the port became an integral player in Vancouver Lake,” Burkman said.
What’s needed is an effort similar to the now-disbanded Vancouver Lake Watershed Partnership, he said.
“Longer term, something has to be done,” Burkman said. “It comes down to a simple choice. Do we let that natural resource for our community die or do we do something? I am not ready to let it die.”