Candidates for Jackson County commissioner staked out their positions Thursday and gave audience members food for thought about who to vote for in the May 17 election.
Incumbent Doug Breidenthal and his Republican rivals, Bob Strosser and Gordon Challstrom, appeared with Democrat Jeff Thomas at a League of Women Voters of the Rogue Valley forum, which was televised on Rogue Valley Community Television. Geoffrey Riley of Jefferson Public Radio was the moderator.
After Bill Walsh, a 69-year-old Eagle Point resident, heard the candidates speak, he said, “It helped cut the field. Challstrom and the incumbent are out.”
Walsh, who was one of about 60 audience members, said he was impressed with Strosser and Thomas because they offered a new way of approaching the issues.
Joan Rogers, 82, of Medford said she was particularly impressed with Challstrom and Strosser, but not the other two candidates.
“Doug has problems,” she said, citing the ongoing criminal investigation into Breidenthal by the Oregon Department of Justice. “I don’t think he stole anything, though.”
Breidenthal, who is seeking his second term, said he will let his record speak for itself, but said the county is in much better shape financially than it was four years ago. He also cited a number of county building projects that will help improve services to local citizens.
Challstrom, a local businessman, said, “My primary focus is family-wage job creation.” He said he’s also a National Rifle Association member and is an advocate for property rights.
Bob Strosser, a retired police officer and former Medford councilor, said the county has a lot of new buildings but he thought the county could do more to create additional services for local residents. Overall, he said, “This county is already a great place to live."
Thomas said this is the time for Jackson County to capitalize on the assets it has and expand on them, including better branding of the county as a GMO-free zone, referring to the ban on growing genetically modified crops locally. He said the county has too long talked about the timber industry and said the focus needs to shift to attract more high-tech and health-care businesses to the valley.
One developing issue is requests from the Southern Oregon Historical Society for additional county financial support and for a measure on the November ballot that would create a special district to provide ongoing funding.
Strosser said he would support looking at a special district and would want to analyze the county’s budget to determine whether it could provide money to the historical society.
Thomas said he would support the historical society “any way we can.” He said the organization is an economic asset for the county and he thought a special taxing district would be a good long-range solution.
Breidenthal said he’s a strong supporter of the historical society and thought there might be a way the county could contribute $400,000 to keep the organization afloat financially. “We’re going to find a solution for them,” he said.
Challstrom said many organizations have their hands out for county dollars, and he suggested the county should do more to “grow the economy.” He said he would prefer to leave the funding of the historical society up to the voters.
The Jackson County Jail is routinely overcrowded and suspects arrested for felonies are often turned loose because there are no free jail beds. A question was posed about the high incarceration rate.
Challstrom said the county actually has a shrinking incarceration rate that books suspects and then releases them immediately. He said he would push for a long-term goal of expanding jail capacity to keep more people behind bars.
Strosser said he wanted to find a solution to stop the catch-and-release cycle but said he would need to review the county’s budget and staffing levels to see how best to accomplish that goal.
Thomas said a bigger issue is the crisis of mental health problems and homelessness in the valley that are contributing factors to the high arrest rates locally. He said a broader solution is needed to cut down on the number of people placed behind bars.
Breidenthal said that even if there were a 1,000-bed jail, it wouldn't solve the problems the county faces today. He said he wanted to explore other solutions and to expand the inmate work program that he said generates $700,000 annually.
Ashland resident Barbara Klein said she didn’t want to reveal which candidate she supported but said the forum gave her a better idea where the candidates stand.
“It helped me make my choice,” she said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.