Voters and elected officials gathered at the Roxy Theater on Tuesday night for a show unlike most hosted by the classic Morton venue.
The East County Journal held a free, public candidate forum for two of the races pertaining to voters in Lewis County’s Commission District 3.
The races included candidates for sheriff and the district 3 county commissioner.
Currently, there are five candidates running for the commissioner seat. Two were unable to attend Tuesday due to one having prior engagements and another potentially having been exposed to COVID-19. Those were Jodery (Jody) Goble, of Toledo, and Pete Krabbe, of Randle, respectively.
Present at the forum were commissioner candidates Pat Saldaña, of Morton, Harry Bhagwandin, of Onalaska, and Scott Brummer, of Winlock.
In the race for sheriff, both candidates who have filed were present, which were Detective Sergeant Tracy Murphy, of the Centralia Police Department, and Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza, the incumbent who has been in the position since 2015.
The two-hour forum was kicked off by candidates’ opening statements lasting up to five minutes ahead of a question and answer period. The forum was then capped off by three-minute closing statements from each of the runners.
Each of the candidates present on Tuesday have filed as Republicans. Krabbe, who was absent, is the sole districtwide candidate who will appear on the Aug. 2 ballot not filed as such; he is filed under the “Stop the Steal” party.
Opening statements Tuesday, which were held in random order, ranged from descriptions of backgrounds and experience to listing off political beliefs and personal ideologies.
Before the candidates began, Ric Hallock, editor of the East County Journal and host of the forum, asked them to maintain civility and focus on their own platforms, rather than discussing what they felt the other candidate was or was not doing well. He asked for the same level of respect from the crowd, adding that questions should be kept to inquiries rather than statements.
Race for Sheriff
The ultimate vote for sheriff, a four-year term, will be a countywide decision made during the November election.
Murphy was the first to give an opening statement, where he detailed his decades of experience with the Centralia Police Department after being raised in Centralia. He spoke of his wife and children, who he said are very supportive of his candidacy. He detailed experience attending Bible school in Oregon for a year before returning to Centralia, where he enrolled at Centralia College and got a part-time job as a community service officer. He spoke about the importance of that program for the department and community.
“When I was 26, I got diagnosed with cancer. That changed everything. It changed my perspective on life and what’s important,” Murphy said toward the end of his opening statement. “My belief is that relationships are the most important thing and the most important relationship is my relationship with God. As long as I'm doing everything I can do to please and honor him, then I really don't have to worry about anything else.”
Snaza was the last candidate to give his opening statement, which he began by outlining his lifelong career aspirations of being a cop, alongside his twin brother, John, who is the sheriff of Thurston County. He began his policing career in Napavine.
“I thought, you know, ‘Who would want to work in a two-man agency?’ And I think, at that time, I’m a man of faith, and I felt that God was really talking to me, because that's where we learned about community policing, that's where we learned about how to talk to people,” Snaza said.
He detailed how in 1995, he was hired by the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, and that he has played a variety of roles in the office since, including in narcotics enforcement and in a street crimes unit. He closed by saying Lewis County is the largest county in Western Washington, making it a challenge to cover, and that he considers it an honor.
The questions fielded by both candidates varied greatly, with several questions to Murphy focusing on his stance on constitutional rights and how he would have handled enforcement of Gov. Jay Inslee’s mask mandates, which Snaza notably denied to do.
Snaza was asked to defend policy changes he made while in office and explain the types of training done by the sheriff’s office.
Few topics were discussed evenly by both candidates, but one discussed by both Murphy and Snaza where their opinions differed was related to the size and capacity of a proposed sheriff substation in East County.
Both the candidates agreed Lewis County needs a more significant law enforcement presence in East County, but Murphy discussed building a second law and justice center, with a holding cell and even potentially animal control services. Snaza, on the other hand, said the Lewis County Board of Commissioners “balked” at funding two new deputies and spoke about his current quest to push for an East County sheriff’s substation on county property on Kiona Road in Randle, which would likely have fewer services available than in Murphy’s concept, but is something the county is brainstorming currently.
In Snaza’s closing statement, he discussed accomplishments of the office while he’s been in the seat, including adding three deputies, increasing mental health counseling services at the jail and furthering a focus on creating pathways to success for those who enter facilities. He referenced Inslee’s COVID-19 related mandates and their effects on local businesses.
He also said in summary that he feels blessed to be in his role, calling Lewis County one of the greatest communities.
“The men and women at the Lewis County Sheriff's Office are working tirelessly for you each and every day. So with that being said, I want to thank you. I look forward to serving as the sheriff for the next four years,” Snaza said.
In Murphy’s closing statement, he said safety is his number one priority and through collaboration with all local law enforcement agencies, the sheriff’s office can increase training opportunities, thereby increasing safety.
He spoke about the Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team’s (JNET) efforts to hold drug dealers accountable and get illicit substances out of the local communities. The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office is not currently part of JNET. Murphy promised that if he were elected, the sheriff’s office would participate in that program. He talked about increasing efficiency in law enforcement services, adding more “manpower” on the roads and said, if elected, he would be fiscally responsible.
“I just ask that you consider what I've had to say. Thank you for being here. And I would like your vote for sheriff,” Murphy said.
Citizens of district 3 will vote in the Aug. 2 primary to narrow down the race of five. The district encompasses most of South and East Lewis County. In acreage, the district makes up well over half of the county. The top two finishers in the August primary election will move on to the general election in November.
Opening statements by the three commissioner candidates present on Tuesday were held in the order of Brummer, Saldaña and Bhagwandin.
Brummer, 51, of Winlock, talked about being a farmer, pastor and longtime Lewis County resident before he listed off his beliefs on the importance of small government, among a longer list of issues of importance to him.
Saldaña, 55, of Morton, noted her service as Morton School Board president and her concerns for mental health issues and mentioned founding Northwest Backpack Snack, a nonprofit focused on reducing food insecurity for children.
Bhagwandin, 63, of Onalaska, mentioned the crisis of lack of affordable housing in Packwood, maintaining rurality with growth and his experience in the past where he worked with the county on various community issues.
The Chronicle ran a more extensive writeup on each of the candidates in the commissioner race in the Tuesday, June 7 edition. To read that, visit https://www.chronline.com/stories/meet-the-candidates-in-the-primary-race-for-lewis-county-commissioner-district-3,295044.
Of the questions asked to all three runners on Tuesday, two points arose where the candidate responses most notably differed. One of those was about critical race theory, after someone previously asked Saldaña her opinion on the state-mandated curriculum, as a school board member. She said her opinion on the topic wasn’t what was important as a school board member, but that she had to move to adopt the curriculum in order to keep the district funded by the state.
Another attendee later asked her and the other candidates if they felt it was the role of a commissioner to be a buffer between the community and the state, supposing the community did not want such curriculums adopted.
Brummer said he felt the county commissioners should “stand up to Olympia” and “say no to these edicts.”
Saldaña said she honestly wasn’t sure how the county commissioners would play a role in that process, but that with the backing of a supportive community, the commissioners have the opportunity to lead important causes.
Bhagwandin said if elected, as a representative of the people, he would champion the issues his community expressed to him as important.
The other issue where the commissioner candidate responses differed was related to the Lewis County Planning Commission’s recent vote to recommend a rezone of land north of Mineral Lake owned by the YMCA of Greater Seattle. If approved by the county commissioners, the rezone will designate the land from forest resource land to a master planned resort, with the YMCA hoping to eventually build an overnight camp there.
All three candidates said they had spoken with representatives from the YMCA on the topic and with folks who live in Mineral.
Both Saldaña and Bhagwandin said the rezone itself was a property rights issue, and that they did not feel it was the responsibility of the government to tell property owners what to do with their land. However, both mentioned that on the project level — the actual creation and running of an overnight camp — the YMCA needed to address community concerns before rolling forward.
Saldaña expressed more outright support for the project itself, saying that even if only a handful of kids’ lives were improved by the camp, it would be worth building.
Bhagwandin said it was fortunate that the rezone would prevent the construction of a bunch of “McMansions” (a slang term for mass produced, generic mansion-style homes) on Mineral Lake, but that in general on the project level, it is his belief that the YMCA needs to do more work in the community to address concerns.
Brummer was the only one of the three candidates who took a stance adamantly opposing the rezone and the project overall, saying he had never met a Mineral resident who was in support of the camp being built.
He said it was not a property right’s issue, and that the camp would have “tremendous” impacts to groundwater, infrastructure and the community.
Brummer added the YMCA representatives stated they would address those concerns “in time. But I also know that once the wheels start moving — I've been in government for a long time — and it's very difficult to stop them.”
The Chronicle livestreamed Tuesday’s event on Facebook, but technical difficulties occurred during the final few minutes of the question and answer session. To read more about the candidates, their websites are as follows alphabetically.