The hearing in which the Clark County Council adopted this year’s budget was contentious through the final vote.
Councilors would finally approve the $545 million budget by a 3-2 margin at the Nov. 26 hearing. Before the final vote, councilors engaged in several debates on matters such as last-minute amendments and tax adjustments.
One of the nays came from Council Chair Eileen Quiring.
After calling for the vote, Quiring stated “no” while glancing away from her microphone. She then quickly leaned into the microphone, repeating her “no” vote.
“Can you say ‘no’ one more time?” Councilor Julie Olson, who voted to approve the budget, asked facetiously.
“Is there an opportunity? Maybe I will,” Quiring said.
An outside set of eyes might quickly assume that the exchange was an example of partisan bickering. But both Quiring and Olson are Republicans.
The trio that narrowly passed the budget consisted of Councilors Temple Lentz, a Democrat; John Blom, then a Republican who recently dropped his party affiliation; and Olson.
Blom is running for re-election to the council’s District 3 seat in the Aug. 4 primary. With two challengers to his left and right on the political spectrum, voters in his district could point the council’s budget priorities in one of three distinct directions.
Blom is running against Jesse James, a progressive who voted for Bernie Sanders in this year’s Washington Democratic Primary, and Karen Bowerman, a Republican who said she hopes to bring a “conservative bent” to the council.
They’re vying to represent a district that falls between the county line to the south, Interstate 205 to the west, the edge of Camas to the east and as far north as Northeast 99th Street.
Should Blom be re-elected, the budget process could be familiar in terms of the dollar figures and votes on the council.
“I think that three of us have the same mentality to address problems,” Blom said of his alignment with Lentz and Olson on the budget. “I think the difference is, ‘Who is there to put in the work and find solutions, and who’s just there to vote along party lines?’”
His two challengers had divergent answers about how they would have voted.
Unprompted, they each mentioned their view of the roughly $65 million allocated this year to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, accounting for 12 percent of the county’s overall budget. Law enforcement budgets have become a national issue in recent weeks as “defund the police” movements have emerged.
James said that he likely would have voted to approve last year’s budget. But he also suggested some tweaks, including a reduction to the sheriff’s budget, saying some of the funds could be used to pay for other community services.
“The budget doesn’t come down to party politics. It comes down to what’s reasonable, what seems right. I’d like to be conservative with our budget to a certain degree,” James said. “I’m not just going to vote to give something away to businesses over people.”
Bowerman confirmed that she would have joined Quiring and Councilor Gary Medvigy — who is running for re-election in District 4 against Matt Little, an independent — in rejecting last year’s budget. She added that she would, at least, not want to reduce the public safety portion of the budget.
Bowerman said that her election “would tip the balance in a very good way for the people of this county.”
Regardless of the election results, Republicans, who enjoyed a 4-1 majority before Blom dropped his party affiliation, will remain the majority on the five-member council. But the debate among Republican councilors over this year’s budget wasn’t uniform.
The budget included 1 percent increases in property tax collections, the largest allowed under state law, for the county’s general fund and road fund.
In five of the eight previous years, and with different members, county leaders decided against taking the property tax increase. The leaders also rejected the road fund tax increase in eight of the previous 10 years.
Blom said he decided to drop his Republican affiliation this year because, during his time on the council, he has found that the position should be nonpartisan. He said many of his conservative viewpoints, including on social issues, are not relevant on the council and that the county has little taxation authority relative to other governments.
“I really think this is more, just, reflecting what the position should be,” Blom said. “I think that requires voters to really look at the issues and not just fall back on the letter next to the name.”
Blom, whose background includes working as a real estate agent, also has a charged history with the local chapter of the Republican Party.
During Blom’s first race for the seat in 2016, the local GOP formally opposed his candidacy, also snubbing the re-election bids of U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, and state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. In the primary election that year, Blom unseated Republican incumbent David Madore.
“The local party represents a very extreme faction of Republicans in Clark County,” Blom said. “They’ve had a few successes here and there when there wasn’t a strong candidate on the moderate side, but I think overall their influence is pretty limited.”
Bowerman is a consultant, author and speaker whose husband, Earl Bowerman, is currently the chair of the local party. She dismissed the idea that the party’s dynamics have anything to do with the council elections or the policy priorities that come from them. She said the divisions are no different than ones seen in the Democratic Party.
“It’s pretty much irrelevant,” she said. “It’s a totally and completely different issue.”
Quiring and Medvigy, both Republicans, mainly cited the increased tax collections in their votes to reject the annual budget. Bowerman, aligning with the two councilors on the issue, said that she has seen a lack of emphasis on taxation limits since Blom’s election in 2016.
Blom filed for re-election hours before the May 15 filing deadline. Within 90 minutes, Bowerman and James followed suit.
“When I saw that there was not one (Republican), I signed up,” Bowerman said.”I would not float from one party to no party to another party. That’s not who I am.”
Blom’s tight 2016 win came against Tanisha Harris, a Democrat currently running for a 17th Legislative District seat.
Blom won his county council seat by 2 percentage points, 51 percent to 49 percent. Fundraising levels were close, as well, with Blom outspending Harris $67,341.47 to $61,470.67.
Bowerman pointed to some of Blom’s expenditures during the 2016 race as a potential reason for his alignment with Lentz on the county budget.
In that race, Blom spent more than $14,500 in payments to High Five Media, a local campaign marketing agency. Lentz has worked for the agency since 2014, currently as a partner and the director of content and communications.
“It’s not surprising then, to me, to consider how that relationship has evolved over the years,” Bowerman said.
Blom noted that High Five Media has worked with candidates from different parties. He said that he has developed relationships with other county leaders “unlike either of my opponents.”
“Those relationships are critical to the sort of collaborative problem solving the council should be doing more of,” Blom said. “Anyone who is actually paying attention to our meetings would know that while three of us may often agree on good governance, we do have differing opinions on most issues.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Blom had raised $13,599 in cash contributions for this year’s race, while Bowerman reported receiving $2,605.
Blom has received $2,000 each, his largest donations so far, from local philanthropists David and Patricia Nierenberg. Bowerman’s largest donation, $1,000, came from Eric Temple, the president of Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad who is currently involved with several lawsuits with the county over the future of the railroad.
James, meanwhile, has selected the state’s mini reporting option, meaning he has agreed to raise and spend no more than $5,000 and only accept up to $500 from any single contributor.
The former copywriter said he decided to run after what he viewed as a bias on the council toward operators of the Yacolt Mountain Quarry in an ongoing feud with neighbors. He also said he opposed the county’s plan for a rural industrial land bank in Brush Prairie, which was scrapped last year after an appeals court found that it violated state law.
“The money interests seem to get what they want. The people of the county? Not so much,” James said. “I just feel that money influences decisions, and I want my campaign money to come from the people.”
Blom maintained that the race is less about party dynamics than nonpartisan county issues.
“Do we focus on addressing those problems or does the council sway to a more partisan type of body?” Blom said.
Bowerman said that determining voter priorities is not as simple as looking at the outcomes of previous races. Instead, she said that the COVID-19 outbreak and economic ramifications have refocused the district electorate on Republican priorities such as taxes and job creation.
“2020 is a really, really different year,” Bowerman said.