October 12, 2004 11:00 pm
Race for union county commission: Challenger Jack Johnson, left, and incumbent Colleen MacLeod answer questions during a candidates forum at La Grande Middle School Tuesday night. (Observer photos/PHIL BULLOCK).
Race for union county commission: Challenger Jack Johnson, left, and incumbent Colleen MacLeod answer questions during a candidates forum at La Grande Middle School Tuesday night. (Observer photos/PHIL BULLOCK).

By Bill Rautenstrauch

Staff Writer

Fireworks didn't exactly light the sky Tuesday night as candidates running for office in Union County and the City of La Grande met with the public in a forum at La Grande Middle School.

For the most part, discussion was low-keyed and friendly, though on the county side, things got prickly from time-to-time.

"My opponent has been called a cheerleader for the timber industry," said Jack Johnson, who is running against incumbent county commissioner Colleen MacLeod. "Well, cheerleaders don't score very many touchdowns."

MacLeod responded, "In my universe, cheerleaders carry the ball a lot.''

Johnson has never held public office before. MacLeod is nearing the end of her second term as county commissioner.

Hot-button issues between the two included Buffalo Peak, the publicly owned golf course in Union, the Wallowa-Union railroad, management of timber resources, and jobs.

MacLeod said she has played a part in a number of important local projects, including the new science building at Eastern Oregon University, establishment of a telecommunications point of presence, the construction of the new ODS service center and dental hygiene school, and the Elgin Industrial Park.

"Of course nobody can do it all themselves, but I exist in a sleeves-rolled-up mode all the time," she said.

MacLeod also noted that the bond measure for the airport industrial park is "coming to fruition.

"With the RV industry, there are 400 jobs out there," she said.

Johnson painted a less than pretty picture of the county situation, noting that 350 jobs have been lost in the past year, accompanied by drops in population and average wage.

He said the local health care system is struggling, and tourism is hampered by a lack of local commuter air service.

Johnson said the golf course and railroad are dangerously in debt. He said the two programs are running at a loss that will be compounded when bond payments come due.

"We have got to resolve that issue," he said.

MacLeod countered that federal money is forthcoming for the railroad, and that the golf course is performing as predicted and will turn a corner.

"With the golf course, we're right where we said we'd be at this point in time," she said. "I'd vote for both projects again."

In another county race, Sheriff candidates Dana Wright and Boyd Rasmussen did some sparring over jail space, the war on drugs, and the issue of endorsements.

Both pledged that the county would continue to operate a jail, both conceded more beds were needed, and both admitted there is a problem with criminals being released because currently there isn't enough jail space.

On drug enforcement, Rasmussen sent a barb Wright's way by repeating a Wright statement that the sheriff's office is losing the war on drugs.

Wright admitted saying that, but added that he has no intention of throwing in the towel.

"I didn't mean that we would stop fighting the war," he said.

More than once, Rasmussen pointed out that he has endorsements from the labor unions that represent local law enforcement, and from many law enforcement agencies and individuals throughout the county.

Wright said that popularity isn't always a measure of the best candidate. And he added that he has plenty of support from his peers.

"I assure you I have the support of the most creative and productive people in the sheriff's office," he said.

Also appearing on the dais were three of the four candidates running for La Grande City Council.

They included Todd Richmond and Justin Rock, competitors for Position 3, and Dan Pokorney, who is running against incumbent Bill Hays for Position 4.

The city candidates were decidedly non-confrontational, with none offering criticism of the current city council.

Richmond, born and raised in Union County, said he hopes for a community environment that

doesn't place obstacles in the path of people trying to develop businesses.

He added that he wants to help create and sustain excitement over the city's future.

"Too long have people believed that nothing in La Grande changes," he said. "People should want to locate and do business here."

Richmond, who works at the university as a computer network technician, said he thinks an emphasis should be placed on development of La Grande's core area.

"A healthy economy goes hand in hand with a healthy downtown," he said.

Rock, whose family has owned Wendell's Corner and Rock and Sons Tire and Auto Repair in La Grande for more 37 years, agreed that the local economy is of prime concern.

"I think we need to attract new businesses and provide people with the proper income," he said.

Rock also said he is committed to area youth.

"I have concerns about the younger generation. There's not enough for them to do. We need to be more involved with them," he said.

Pokorney, a long-time Boise Cascade employee, said he is running because of a desire to serve his community.

"I believe I have the ability to work with others and build consensus, and I'm not afraid to speak my mind." he said.

Pokorney said he thinks the city council needs to work with its existing resources. He added he would like to see development of a strong downtown core area. Development of the technology park on Gekeler Lane should also be a priority, he said.

Hays was not present at the forum, which was co-sponsored by the Union County Chamber of Commerce and Blue Mountain Forum.