Centralia City Council Candidates Debate Ahead of August Primary Election

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Candidates seeking to win a four-year term on the Centralia City Council debated their primary opponents in front of members of the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce on Thursday at O’Blarney’s Irish Pub in Centralia. 

The debates took place a little more than three weeks before voters will cast their ballots in the Aug. 6 primary election. The top two vote-getters for each elected position will advance to the general election slated for Nov. 5.

Three of the seven council positions will be on the November ballot — all at-large spots open to any eligible person who resides within Centralia city limits. Races for two of the seats each feature four candidates. Incumbent councilor Peter Abbarno is running unopposed and thus is not subject to a primary. He served as timekeeper for the debates.

Joyce Barnes chose not to file for reelection, but sat in the audience to watch Elizabeth Cameron and Steven Hubbard make their cases for why they should be the one to replace her. Matt Evans and John Ver Valen are also registered candidates for that seat, but did not appear at the debate — organizers knew about a prior commitment that kept Evans from attending.

The second debate featured all four candidates for the at-large position held by Lee Coumbs, who currently serves as the council-appointed mayor and is seeking reelection. Coumbs was joined in the debate by former Centralia City Council member Ron Greenwood, Kurtis Engle and Kelly Smith Johnston.

Barnes said following the debate that she is choosing not to formally endorse a candidate until the general election cycle begins. She has been the city councilor most vocally in favor of reopening the Pearl Street Pool, a position both Cameron and Hubbard appeared to hold as well. Hubbard stated his desire to see a public recreation center built in Centralia.

The question of whether to raise property taxes in order to refurbish the pool, which has been closed since 2011, appeared headed for the November ballot, but members of the local nonprofit spearheading the issue asked the city council Tuesday to stop the process of placing it on the ballot. They took issue with an estimated cost of $2.6 million taken largely from the results of an investment-grade audit by an outside firm, Ameresco, which initially estimated a price tag of about $4 million.

“I think new construction costs need to be looked at,” Cameron said. “As for keeping maintenance costs low, that is an opportunity to be creative, to maybe have a booth with shirts with ‘Centralia’ written on it, or a hot dog stand. Things like that which would pay back into the maintenance of the pool.”

Both candidates stated their desire for the City of Centralia to take a more active role in promoting economic growth throughout the city and attacking the growing rate of homelessness in the area. Cameron said the city should explore partnerships with companies in the region and offer additional incentives for companies to relocate to Centralia. 

Hubbard wants to see what he believes to be excessive regulatory barriers such as zoning restrictions that limit where some businesses can legally operate. Asked after the debate whether that included recreational marijuana stores, which are currently limited to properties zoned for heavy industrial use, Hubbard said yes, because those are legal businesses just like any other.

“Businesses have gone through the state-sanctioned stuff they need to go through and have gone through all the red tape to get open, I don’t see that the city should be standing in the way of growth of new business by zoning them out and creating situations where they can’t open,” Hubbard said.

Participants in the second debate held more concerns regarding the Pearl Street Pool, with Smith Johnston saying she wouldn’t have voted to put it on the ballot, because she feels it would be an unnecessary duplication of public pools at Thorbeckes in Centralia and the aquatics center in Chehalis. Greenwood and Coumbs stated their desire to see the question put to the voting public.

Engle stated his desire to see more detailed plans for the final product, asking whether it would resemble the original facility built in the 1950s or a modernized version. “For example, if you had a plastic dome structure over the building, you would have solar heat, and it would be useable throughout much of the year and perhaps all of the year,” Engle said. “For $4 million bucks, you ought to have your choice.”

Engle used his two minutes for an opening statement to deliver an unsubstantiated, self-described “screed” about claims of house arrest and sabotage related to Twin Transit. He said he wasn’t running to win Coumbs’ seat, but to force him to take unspecified actions. An oversight by the panel of moderators — state Rep. Richard DeBolt, Chehalis City Councilor Chad Taylor and local businessman Todd Chaput — did not allow Cameron and Hubbard time for opening statements during their debate.

The second panel was also split when it came to whether Centralia should relax the zoning restrictions placed on recreational marijuana stores. Greenwood, who has advocated in favor of retail marijuana both prior to losing his council seat to Rebecca Staebler in 2018 and as a member of the public, said the city should embrace it as an additional revenue source, while Engle said “I have a lot of experience with marijuana,” adding that it is not the “demon drug” some make it out to be.

Smith Johnston said she wouldn’t be likely to vote for loosening marijuana-related rules unless a compelling argument could be made. Coumbs has voted against allowing marijuana stores in residential or commercial areas numerous times.

“The council has taken the stand that we are going to obey the state laws,” Coumbs said. “That seems logical. The state gives the companies a license to operate, and we have the option of being able to say where. We have found a spot we thought was the least objectionable to our population, zoned it to allow for it.”

To find out more information about each of the candidates running for seats on the Centralia City Council, visit elections.lewiscountywa.gov/online-voters/guide.

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