Gopher Search

Jon Hutchings (left) and Gary Edwards (right) look over pocket gopher information in October 2016.

Come January, Thurston County residents will be represented by a trio of independent elected officials unaffiliated with major parties.

That will become official in January when Gary Edwards and John Hutchings take their seats as Thurston County commissioners alongside incumbent Bud Blake, who is also an independent.

The commissioners recently took part in the following question and answer series:

Commissioner John (Hutch) Hutchings, District 1

Q: What are your top three priorities over the next year?

A: Establish and reestablish relationships throughout the county with elected officials, meet and chat with local constituents in my district, do what I can to assist with homelessness, mental health and chemical dependency issues and those working in those arenas.

Q: The current commission passed the on-site septic system plan update; none of the fees described in the plan have gone into effect and the rates are not yet set. You have spoken against the plan but have agreed the county should do something to protect the groundwater and monitor septic systems. How will you change the plan once in office?

A: If the OSS plan is passed in December, I plan on voting to repeal it. I want policy to be based on sound evidence and not be punitive in nature. If a plan is needed, then we can pass one, based on evidence and best practices.

Q: With all three commissioners being elected as independents, what does that mean for the county and the direction the county will be heading in the next few years?

A: This means “balance.” Governance will be based on what is best for the people of the entire county and not based on partisan politics and personal agenda. It will not be one-sided. It will not be the north county versus the south county. It will be what is best for the entire county.

Q: One of the biggest issues of the election was how to deal with the Mazama pocket gopher. What will you change about the current plan and how long do expect it will take?

A: Like untying a bowl of twisted spaghetti, this will take time to sort out. Process will be examined and streamlined to allow permitting and reasonable growth. Limiting gopher inspectors, one instead of three inspections, four or five months for inspections rather than three, and one inspector rather than three would be a huge step in the right direction. The remainder of the HCP will take considerable time to sort out so it is in the favor of county residents, not heavy handed and punitive in nature.

Q: The temporary cannabis production regulations have been extended for six months to allow county staff more time to work out the final ordinance. One of the biggest proposed changes is to allow production in rural residential areas and not just in commercial zones. What is your position on this issue and what is your position on marijuana in general?

A: I support the law of the land. It matters not what my personal belief is. I have seen, firsthand, the benefits of medical marijuana in several cases. I truly need to fully comprehend the issue of business-vs.-residential locations but at first blush I do not like the idea of production in neighborhood areas. This will receive an in-depth analysis.

Q: What are your goals for the budget? Where does funding need to be expanded and where should it be cut? Do you see a need to increase revenue, if so how?

A: My goals for the budget is to first and foremost maintain a reserve fund that grows exponentially to stave off another recession job loss we suffered in 2008/09. Another goal is to trim redundancies and streamline processes to ease budget constraint. The Sheriff’s Office needs some funding to restore deputy/citizen ratio to adequate levels. To fund that, greater efficiencies will be established to prevent certain folks from being booked into jail. Other alternatives will be engaged and expanded to save money, protect the community and save revenue. Revenues will increase through reasonable development and not on the backs of taxpayers.

Q: Some people have said you are really Republicans masquerading as Independents to attract centrist voters and to distance yourselves from the national party. Also a lot of your talking points, like “common sense governing” and your calls to limit government are traditionally rhetoric used by Republicans. Are you a Republican?

A: The “some people have said you are really Republicans” comes from one party — Democrats. Republicans and Independents are not saying this. I understand the Democrat’s need to demonize, label and attempt to negate legitimizing the will of the people. However, that is not a winning strategy. They lost these seats for a reason. I have Republicans saying I’m too far left, Democrats suggesting I’m too right. And I also have both parties saying I’m middle-of-the-road. I find it very interesting that terms, as you suggest, like “common sense government” are Republican rhetoric. It seems from the national election on down to local politics, the people are fed up with partisanship. Common sense government and maintaining a balance between government, business, nonprofits and people is a good idea for everyone concerned. To make it sound as if it’s a bad thing or something untrustworthy is dubious and an attempt to regain control of a position, for political gain. I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat.

Commissioner Bud Blake, District 3

Q: What are your top three priorities over the next year?

A: My top three priorities are economic development, enhancing social service impacts, and environmental stewardship. Economic development in the south county regions and encouraging the growth and development of small and medium businesses are a huge priority for me.

We need to be laying the foundation for economic growth and vitality if we want to support the projected increase in population and services. The urban core has historically been the focus for business opportunities and growth, but south county is prime for innovative businesses that support the rural landscape. Thurston County has so much to offer, and we need to be attracting those businesses. Thurston County has set out to make improvements in how we systematically approach the health of the community. My goal this next year to take those initiatives and crank it up a notch so to speak. The Thurston-Mason Behavioral Health Organization, Thurston Thrives, and Innovative Justice are all structurally in place, and now we need to see them fully integrated to make the changes and have the impacts in the county that we know are possible. The goal is to have healthy individuals, families and communities. Environmental stewardship: The health of the limited natural resources in Thurston County is something I deeply care about. I do have concerns regarding the Habitat Conservation Plan due to the overwhelming financial burden it has the potential to place on individual property owners, but I know that without the HCP the county is at further risk. This is not something that I take lightly, because the impacts of the decisions we make today will be felt for generations to come. I also want to continue building on the progress we’ve made to improve salmon passages by improving many of our culverts blocking the spawning areas.

Q: The current commission passed the on-site septic system plan update; none of the fees described in the plan have gone into effect and the rates are not yet set. You have spoken against the plan but have agreed the county should do something to protect the groundwater and monitor septic systems. How will you change the plan once in office?

A: I personally believe that we spent a great deal of time to build a relationship with the community to understand the impacts of what the OSS changes would entail, but then we undermine ourselves by rushing to approve a fee structure without taking the careful consideration and due diligence we owed to everyone involved in the process. I would like to take a step back and ensure that the funds match the problem. My goal would be to not collect any fees until we can review and reconcile these concerns.

Q: With all three commissioners being elected as independents, what does that mean for the county and the direction the county will be heading in the next few years?

A: People’s expectations of county government are not Red or Blue, Republican or Independent. The citizens want what is best for them as people, not as a party. The roads we drive on, the environment we live in, the health of the community is not R or D. The incoming board is looking for what is best for everyone. You’ll see more people involved in a balanced decision making process and it’s something I am very excited to be a part of.

Q: One of the biggest issues of the election was how to deal with the Mazama pocket gopher. What will you change about the current plan and how long do expect it will take?

A: The Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) draft is not ready, primarily due to the enormous financial obligation it puts on the county and residents. Much more discussion needs to take place before the draft is ready, and unfortunately this is delaying the process. In the meantime we are dealing with the Interim Permitting Process, which is a time consuming, financially burdensome and overall horribly frustrating process that has got to be addressed.

Q: The temporary cannabis production regulations have been extended for six months to allow county staff more time to work out the final ordinance. One of the biggest proposed changes is to allow production in rural residential areas and not just in commercial zones. What is your position on this issue and what is your position on marijuana in general?

A: My position on marijuana is that it was voted on by the people, and I am the people’s representative. Marijuana has a role in Thurston County from an economic perspective. But that doesn’t mean it should not have any rules attached. I also have an obligation to review marijuana from a community health viewpoint, both medicinally and on the impact to our youth and our role in providing healthy educational tools.

Q: What are your goals for the budget? Where does funding need to be expanded and where should it be cut? Do you see a need to increase revenue, if so how?

A: What I wanted to see happen was a priority based, biennium budget, and I’m happy to say we got that in the 2017-2018 budget process. For that I am thrilled. We still have kinks to work out since this was our first time implementing the changes. One area that still needs more work is the law and justice group. Law and justice utilizes about 75 percent of the budget, and as the population grows, so will those costs. We have to strategically think about system changes, from the time of arrest, through the entire court system. We are making improvements though. The Triage Center, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) and Mobile Crisis Teams (MCTs) are all programs and policies born out of innovative justice reforms. Next we need to address the adherence to a speedy trial and what that means to our public defenders, prosecuting attorney, and the courts as a whole. As far as revenue, we are always under pressure to deliver on unfunded mandates from the state. Counties in general have a wide range of responsibilities and limited funds to pull from. Next year I will be working hard during the legislative session to bring more funds back to Thurston County.

Q: Some people have said you are really Republicans masquerading as Independents to attract centrist voters and to distance yourselves from the national party. Also a lot of your talking points, like “common sense governing” and your calls to limit government are traditionally rhetoric used by Republicans. Are you a Republican?

A: I am both conservative and liberal, and allow myself to fill whichever role is needed most to meet the needs of the people. I govern at the local level, not at the state or national level. Our problems aren’t dictated by party affiliation, but rather by the needs of the community. Getting to know the individual person is what makes the difference in Thurston County and it’s those people that I care about and that I am responsible to, not a party.

Commissioner Gary Edwards, District 2

Q: What are your top three priorities over the next year?

A: I would start off with solving the gopher problem, addressing the new taxation of individual septic systems and getting the economic engine running again. That means basically getting government out of the way when they have overzealous regulations.

Q: The current commission passed the on-site septic system plan update; none of the fees described in the plan have gone into effect and the rates are not yet set. You have spoken against the plan but have agreed the county should do something to protect the groundwater and monitor septic systems. How will you change the plan once in office?

A: I think we are always obligated to protect our water, and I don’t think this plan had anything to do with protecting the water and had everything to do with raising revenue and whether we need revenue or not it is a tax being forced on the public with no valid science behind it. The main thing we need to get to the bottom of is what science brought this about because it has been alleged that 14 percent of septic systems failing each year — that is pure malarkey. That means at the end of a seven-year period we would have had 98 percent of septic system fail, that is pure ludicrous.

Q: With all three commissioners being elected as independents, what does that mean for the county and the direction the county will be heading in the next few years?

A: We are strictly beholden to the electorate we are not beholden to any political party or agenda.

Q: On of the biggest issues of the election was how to deal with the Mazama pocket gopher. What will you change about the current plan and how long do expect it will take?

A: I expect we will be able to do some things relatively soon. We have a new president and his feeling is that government is very much over zealous in regulatory issues that dampen business and communities to function properly. Because we’ve got a new president we’ll have a new attorney general; we’re going to have new directors at levels like the federal folks who put this gopher process in place. Were going to have new people in the United States Attorney Office here in Western Washington that are more in tune with the president than the current administration. I think that is all going to help us alleviate the serious problems that have been heaped on the public through this over zealous regulation.

Q: The temporary cannabis production regulations have been extended for six months to allow county staff more time to work out the final ordinance. One of the biggest proposed changes is to allow production in rural residential areas and not just in commercial zones. What is your position on this issue and what is your position on marijuana in general?

A: I was opposed to the legalization of marijuana. I’ve always been in favor of medical marijuana being utilized to help people who need that particular help. I don’t feel there was ever enough science in the studying the benefits of medical marijuana but I am sure there must be some. As far as the regulatory process involving production and sales, I agree we need to study that closer so we don’t end up having an adverse impact on people choosing to live in rural America and are expecting their close proximity to remain rural. I am not locked in any one thing but I am very concerned on how we proceed.

Q: What are your goals for the budget? Where does funding need to be expanded and where should it be cut? Do you see a need to increase revenue, if so, how?

A: I think by taking the load off business, and by that I mean a lot of the regulatory overhead. By getting rid of that unnecessary regulatory process I think the economic engine will get percolating and hence revenue will increase substantially as we encourage business rather than discourage business and that in itself will bring about a better revenue pull. I think we have excessive gopher oversight, that is one thing we can cut back on but first we have to deal with all the legality. I think we need to have a better handle on public safety and the resources that go to public safety mainly because Thurston County is the absolute lowest funded toward law and justice of any of the counties in the state of Washington. We are right at the bottom and we need to fix that.

Q: Some people have said you are really Republicans masquerading as Independents to attract centrist voters and to distance yourselves from the national party. Also a lot of your talking points, like “common sense governing” and your calls to limit government are traditionally rhetoric used by Republicans. Are you a Republican?

A: I ran as a Republican five times and was elected five times as a Republican as the county sheriff, so I’m not trying to hide anything. I just never felt that at the local government level that partisan politics should come into play. Every year for that 20-year period that I was the elected sheriff I tried to get the Legislature to change the positions here, not only sheriff’s position but other positions at the courthouse, to a nonpartisan position so we can get partisan politics out of the mix. Unfortunately, I was never successful in that endeavor. So I thought at this point I would put my money where my mouth is and run as a non-affiliated candidate, which is neither Independent, Republican or Democrat. I wanted no affiliation with any party activity. I only want to represent the citizens of Thurston County.

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