Alyssa Sutton

In a forum held Thursday evening, candidates running for Union County Commissioner and Union County District Attorney answered questions regarding their stances on local issues.

Members of local media and the audience were able to ask questions during the forum, which was held at the Blue Mountain Conference Center.

Laura Eckstein, current Elgin Municipal Court Judge, is running against incumbent Union County District Attorney Kelsie McDaniel.

Eckstein has been an attorney for 19 years and has worked as a prosecuting attorney, defense attorney and judge. McDaniel has served in Union County since 2008, first as a deputy district attorney and then as the county’s district attorney since 2014.

McDaniel said in her opening remarks that serving as a prosecuting attorney is her life’s passion.

“You will find that I am the only candidate who is endorsed by law enforcement officers currently serving in all three local agencies,” said McDaniel, who lives in North Powder. “I am the only candidate who has ever tried a jury trial in Union County or appeared in Union County Circuit Court. I am the only candidate who has the honesty, integrity and hard work that has developed a long-standing relationship with our community partners to get things done.”

Eckstein, who relocated to Union County in 2013, believes there are fundamental differences between her and McDaniel.

“For a very long time the voters of Union County have not had a choice in who represents them as the district attorney,” the current Elgin judge said in her opening remarks. “Now not only do you have a choice, I’m offering you a clear alternative.”

With the floor open to questions from the audience, one member asked the DA candidates their stances on plea bargains.

“Plea bargains are a necessary evil in the criminal justice system,” McDaniel said. “We use them a lot, partially for judicial economy and partially because it is the appropriate and right thing to do. The philosophy that I (follow) is to seek justice, not simply convict. We hold offenders accountable to the highest level when they need to be, but we also take into consideration people’s history, the facts and the background of the situation. There’s so much complexity and ripple effects from every case that comes through our office. It’s important that you have compassion. Having said that, when people need to be held accountable to the highest level, we do that.”

While Eckstein agreed that plea bargaining is a necessary evil, she countered that it shouldn’t be used often.

“I am a firm believer that there are far too many plea bargains in this county,” Eckstein said. “When it is overused, it is an abuse of prosecutorial discretion. Under my watch, I plan on being much more aggressive in taking those cases submitted from the police through to charging. Whether it ends in a plea bargain or a trial, there will be a whole lot more of (seeing cases through).”

Both candidates expressed their support for the Second Amendment when asked about their opinions regarding banning guns.

“I am a huge Second Amendment supporter. I am personally a competitive pistol shooter and I am a member of the NRA,” Eckstein said, adding that she understands that her job is to uphold the law as it is written.

“Where I come from philosophically, I am strongly pro-Second Amendment,” she said.

McDaniel said she would be impacted by some proposed legislation.

“I don’t think people realize the definition for assault weapon (in the Oregon bill proposing to ban guns) actually includes semiautomatic pistols, of which I own several,” she said. “When Salem does dictate something that we in Eastern Oregon (don’t agree with), we sit down with the judges, law enforcement, the DA’s office and together we decide a policy of how we’re going to uphold the Constitution and uphold the laws of Oregon.”

Following the DA candidates, Union County Commissioner Position Two candidates Matt Scarfo and John Lackey and Position One candidates Paul Anderes and Colleen MacLeod answered questions regarding water, wolves, forest fires, transportation, economic development and technology.

The candidates were asked if, as commissioner, they would be willing to take into consideration all of their constituents’ thoughts and ideas, even those who did not originally vote for them.

The general consensus among the candidates was affirmative.

“When I first started (running) I was wondering how do I represent these people I don’t know,” Anderes said. “I started to go to as many places as I could in Union County. I’ve been to a lot of city council and school meetings. My hearings not great, but I listen well,” joked the candidate, who has been an agricultural, forestry, woodshop and animal and plant science teacher. “I try to weigh all of the sides, and make decisions from there.”

Scarfo, owner of Benchwarmers Pub & Grill and The Long Branch Bar & Eats in La Grande, said he is well accustomed to impartiality.

“This is what I do every day,” Scarfo said. “I’ve never brought politics into my businesses, ever. You have to take care of everybody. You cannot look left, you cannot look right. I will listen to everybody.”

MacLeod, who served as county commissioner from 1997 to 2009 and is the co-owner of Joe Beans Coffee, said she has taken some advice from former commissioners.

“The issues that I focus on are not conservative or liberal things,” she said. “They’re things that are affecting everyone in rural Oregon. If you are honest with people, they know what you are going to do. I want politics not to be people beating around the bush. I’m proud of being outspoken and saying what I believe because I think people take you for your word then.”

Lackey, who served on the La Grande City Council from 2013 to 2016, is the owner of Source Once Consulting LLC of La Grande. He said the most important thing in government is to be a representative of the people.

“What I think doesn’t really matter,” Lackey said. “What you (the residents of the county) think collectively is what drives us. It allows us to get input from very diverse sources. The important thing is bringing experience and bringing value as a person, and trying to work within the confines of our budgets, our ordinances and laws.”

The Union County Chamber of Commerce and The Observer were among the sponsors for the event.