An Opinion: Vote YES on All Three Measures

Election ballots arrived in the mail this week and local voters are being asked to make a choice on three critical ballot measures.  I am encouraging voters to support all three.

The Vernonia Rural Fire Protection District has placed two Measures on the ballot.  Measure 5-245 is a ten year bond for the purchase of a badly needed, new fire engine and would cost taxpayers 26 cents per thousand of assessed property value.  Measure 5-246 is a five year levy to fund the salary of a Training Captain to assist in the administration of the Department, mainly to organize the training of volunteers, as well as respond to calls when on duty.  This would cost taxpayers 32 cents per thousand of assessed value.

The Vernonia Fire Department currently has one paid responder, Chief Dean Smith.  According to Smith, volunteerism at the District is at an all time low and call volume is as high as it’s ever been.  State requirements for volunteer training continue to increase.  On top of that the VRFPD remains the lowest funded of any District in Columbia County.

Smith and the Vernonia Fire District are facing a perfect storm-a community that is too busy to volunteer, a limited training schedule to get the small number of volunteers they do have to meet state requirements, limited resources to fund operations and equipment,  and not enough responders to answer the larger volume of calls they are receiving.

As Smith likes to point out, he and his small band of dedicated volunteers don’t just respond to fires.  They assist the local ambulance service on EMS calls and also serve as the local rescue unit.  They handle anything from extrications from motor vehicle accidents, to providing traffic control, to  getting cats out of trees, and they have to be trained for all of them.   Read More

An Opinion: Firefighters Need Us to Respond

Vernonia area first responders were busy last week.  In the early morning hours of Wednesday, March 25, local fire fighters from the Vernonia Rural Fire Protection District (VRFPD) fought a structure fire, a single story apartment building, with assistance from the Mist-Birkenfeld and Banks departments.  Late the next night law enforcement officers were called to the scene of a fatal shooting.  

Both these events were tragic, but thankfully are rare occurrences in this community.  They were a stark reminder of the importance of our local first responders, who are called to help us at our worst moments.

The VRFPD just announced two ballot measures for the May 19 election that would help address several critical issues currently facing their department.

Vernonia Fire Chief Dean Smith is a long time member of the department, a dedicated volunteer firefighter and officer that the VRFPD Board of Directors thought so highly of that they promoted him to Chief several years ago.  Smith is VRFPD’s only paid responder.

Smith has been expressing concerns about the need to address several issues for many years.  According to Smith, call volume is increasing annually and is at an all-time high.  Volunteers from the VRFPD don’t just respond to fires, they are also trained to be rescue and emergency medical responders as well, assisting with medical and other emergency assistance situations. Meanwhile community volunteerism is slowly declining, not just in fire departments across the country, but within our communities in general.  The VRFPD currently only has eleven volunteers. Smith says he often has a shortage of volunteers available to handle the calls they face.  State requirements for training also continue to increase and are becoming more difficult to reach and maintain.

In addition, the costs associated with the  purchase, operation and maintenance for firefighting apparatus continue to increase while current equipment ages and no longer meets recommended safety standards.

The VRFPD Board of Directors, working closely with Smith,  have crafted two measures they think will help address some of these concerns.

One measure would fund a paid Training Captain position.  The second, a tax levy, would pay for  the purchase of a brand new water tender/pumper.

Both these measures make sense for so many reasons. Read More

An Opinion: Council Needs to Pull Together

Vernonia has hired a new City Administrator, which is good news. The bad news is they also have a problem on their hands. 

The City has been without a permanent City Administrator for over eight months, since the City Council voted to fire previous Administrator Bill Haack in December of 2013.

Council always has a tough decision when they choose a new City Administrator.  This time the choice was complicated by who was among the candidates.

The new hire, Gian Paolo “Paul” Mammone will arrive on September 1st with an impressive resume and list of credentials.  He is upbeat about his new position and seems in tune and suited to dealing with the needs of the community.  He does come with some baggage as he has held four positions in four communities during the last six years.  Vernonia also does not have a good track record in bringing in “outsiders” to be our City Administrator.  Without going through the long list of recent Administrators who have come and gone, let’s just say this scenario has had mostly mixed results.  So the choice of Mammone does raise some eyebrows and opens the door for some questions.

Since Haack was fired, Mayor Josette Mitchell has unselfishly stepped in to act as Interim City Administrator.  Mitchell also filled in as Interim City Administrator when Haack was previously fired and then brought back to the position in 2011.  During her time filling the dual roles of Mayor and unpaid City Administrator Mitchell has accomplished a lot.  She has organized City Hall and dealt with the day-to-day operations of City business in a way that has not happened in many, many years.  She has managed several difficult projects with success and worked on repairing relationships with several city partners. She has been responsive to public issues as well as to the needs of city staff and the many City Committees which advise the City Council on policy.  She has been a positive force for the City and has been willing to learn when she has not had the background or training to deal with the specifics the position calls for.  Mitchell stepped up and did an excellent job and deserves praise and thanks for  her effort on behalf of the citizens of Vernonia. Read More

An Opinion: Why We Should Keep The Jail Open


Voters guides for the upcoming May 20 election have arrived and ballots should be showing up any day now.  Voters in Columbia County have a few candidates to decide between.  But they also have a big decision to make on whether to continue to operate the Columbia County Jail.

The Columbia County Board of Commissioners has said, in no uncertain terms, that the jail will close on June 30, 2014 if voters fail to pass Measure 5-238.

The Jail is managed by the Sheriff’s Department and currently can house 110 inmates; twenty-five of those beds are reserved for local inmates.  The rest are rented to the federal government which, according to the County Commissioners, helps subsidize the cost to incarcerate the locals.  The County faces a budget shortfall, due to decreasing O&C Forest Payments, which the County has relied on in the past to fund jail operations.  This past year the O&C funding was $600,000 (down from $2 million in 2008) and there is no O&C funding scheduled for 2015.

The levy calls for a $0.5797  per $1,000 of assessed value property tax for three years, which roughly equates to an increase of $58 on a property valued at $100,000 per year.

Columbia County voters have a history of rejecting tax levies to fund the Sheriff’s Department.  They failed to pass a levy to fund jail operations last year and have repeatedly spurned levies brought forward by Sheriff Jeff Dickerson to fund patrol deputies and other operations.  The Sheriff’s Department has continued to cut personnel; the closing of the jail would be another blow to Dickerson’s administration.

So, how will you vote when your ballot arrives in the mail this month?  Certainly asking voters to approve a measure to increase taxes is rarely popular for obvious reasons.  Like all elections, these  campaigns concerning public safety contain rhetoric from both sides of the issue, making it difficult for voters to understand the issue. Read More

From the Sheriff: The Cost of Incarceration

Jails serve both as the community’s last resort for solving public safety dilemmas and as a critical piece to the overall criminal justice program in every county.

Whether or not we are forced to close our jail by this summer, I think it is important for the community to understand the purposes for incarceration and  the reason why it costs as much as it does to run a local corrections facility.

First, the reasons for incarceration are several. Many people see the jail as a place where we send local citizens convicted of crimes that do not merit a prison sentence, and, while that is true, there are a number of other reasons that have just as great of an impact on the overall livability of a community. Jails perform the vital criminal justice function of booking those accused of crimes—from murder to drug dealing, from rape to burglary, and from child abuse to domestic violence and other assaults on vulnerable victims—and then holding those so charged either until they can get before a judge to be arraigned (and held until trial if the charge is severe enough) or released with a date to appear in court.

Jails, then, also become the resting spots for those who fail to appear in court when they are supposed to and where they can be held until the judge sees them. Read More

Voices From the Crowd: Reassessing What We Call Crime

The struggle to get adequate funding for the Columbia County jail has an eerily familiar ring to it.  For those who believe that history has a habit of repeating itself, consider the following.

The gulag prison system of Stalinist Russia was created to punish dangerous criminals, but expanded into an institution that punished just about everyone who was convicted of anything, including petty criminals and political dissidents.  Very soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviets abandoned the gulags, not because they ran out of dissidents, but because they ran out of money.

According to 2013 data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 50% of all federal prisoners are incarcerated on drug-related charges and 10.6% are in for immigration-related crimes.  Throw in all the white collar crooks and very quickly you will see that fully two thirds of the prison population is made up of non-violent criminals.  Although these numbers cover only federal prisons, it is important to remember that virtually every person arrested on suspicion of (take your pick) begins their incarceration in a county jail.

A buzz phrase like “Let’s Get Tough on Crime” fits neatly on a bumper sticker.  It may generate some heat, but it provides no light.  We’ve been locking up otherwise law-abiding citizens for drug crimes since the Nixon administration, yet the addiction rate is roughly the same today as it was then.  Same story for people entering the country illegally.  Albert Einstein was correct in saying that repeating the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome amounts to insanity.  Read More

An Opinion: A Tale of Two Counties

“It’s very difficult economic times, and people are very hesitant to have any tax. But they recognize that they’ve got to have this, and they recognize that there’s no alternative.” 

Those are the words of Lane County Sheriff, Tom Turner after his county finally passed their jail levy after nine failures (since 1998). In 2013 citizens had witnessed the crime situation deteriorate long enough. Taxpayers watched in horror each time the local news showed deputies opening jail doors allowing a parade of gleeful sex offenders, assault perpetrators, wife beaters and drug dealers scurry out into the sunlight, high-fiving each other with freshly lit cigarettes clenched between their smiling lips.

One Lane county single mom remarked, “How do I respond to my 8-year-old when he asks me, ‘Mom, how come those bad guys get to be released from jail?’”

But the more difficult question actually came from her 13-year-old girl who noticed that one of the released men had been arrested for sexual assault, “Why are they letting those gross men back out? Aren’t they still dangerous?” The only answer she gave her young daughter was the truth. “I told her that yes, they are still dangerous and that the voting-age adults just don’t want to pay their taxes to support a jail.”

Stories like these are met with suspicion along with sweeping accusations of being “scare tactics.” But the truth is, they are factual stories that are scary. Without the threat of jail time, what motivation does a criminal have to show up for court dates?

Consider this: deputies arrive at a domestic dispute to find a man who has assaulted his wife. Without a county jail, they can’t incarcerate him. In certain instances, keeping a man who has physically assaulted his wife behind bars for even just one night can be all that comes between a woman’s life and death, or being severely beaten. It’s usually enough time for her and her terrified children to grab a few things and take refuge somewhere safe before he returns. But without a jail, he’ll be given a ticket and the deputies drive away.  In some very severe situations like rape or murder, deputies and judges will have to decide — even by phone in the middle of the night — which of the current inmates occupying those ten rental beds in another county get to go free in order to make room for the new one.

But remember, with two of those beds being occupied by accused murderers — one being the man who killed Rainier Police Chief Ralph Painter — that leaves only eight remaining. It’s also important to note that all of those inmates being released are already inmates who have committed very serious crimes.

Times are difficult in Oregon, but Lane County stepped up and did the right thing for themselves. Josephine County however did not. In the year since they have rejected levy 1749, the situation has deteriorated even worse than in Lane County. Slightly larger than Columbia County, Josephine has already seen three murders, one being a horrific stabbing. It’s now common place to see vehicles barreling through town at speeds of over 85-miles per hour. Heroin and methamphetamine deals are done in broad daylight, just outside the cafe. Fights have become so common in local watering holes, that their business has plummeted.

Oddly enough, some of the worst of Josephine County’s problems now falls in the laps of the rest of us Oregonians. I testified in favor of making more funds available for OSP patrols just a few years ago in front of a legislative sub-committee down in Salem. OSP had lost so many troopers that 24-hour coverage no longer existed in many areas. Oregonians were so steaming mad, that ten new troopers were finally added to the roll last year.  Oregonians now have a new reason to be mad, this time not at the legislature. You see, once voters in Josephine County voted down the levy — essentially failing to pay their public safety taxes – the environment became far too dangerous for many families. Once ten state troopers were added, five of them were immediately sent down to manage Josephine County’s public safety problem, thus mooching off the rest of the state who were waiting patiently for those troopers earmarked for the rest of us who pay our public safety taxes, at least for now. I’m  looking at you Columbia County. They also tied up our state detectives. In the past year alone, OSP investigations in Josephine County climbed from five, to an unheard of 85 per month!

In May, Columbia County will have a choice as well: vote “Yes,” enabling us to keep our jail open and our community safe like Lane County did; or vote “No” and turn into the latest crime free-for-all like our neighbors, Josephine County.

It’s your choice.

An Opinion: How Do We Solve the Jail Issue?

Columbia County’s current jail problem is both controversial and profound. There are those who seemingly aren’t able to afford the tax needed to support the levy, I get that, these are tough times. But unless you are weak on crime and/or have a soft spot for criminals, then you too agree we absolutely need a functioning jail like any other legitimate community. If communities didn’t need to incarcerate their criminals, we would see prisoners being released, jails and prisons all over America shutting down daily to  save money.  

I tend to look at issues like these pragmatically and without emotion.

First, we must block out the name callers and screamers  who spend their days parading around from meeting to meeting aroused by the sound of their own voice. You know who I mean. They make no articulate points, they bring no solutions to the table. This is exactly what is making politics dysfunctional and folks sick of the whole process.

Secondly, let’s include all folks — for or against the levy — who are willing to come forward and help to solve the problem in a civil tone. Conservative, moderate or liberal folks are welcomed to have a seat at the table, as long as they understand the debate will remain respectful. In order to have your ideas considered, you must listen to others.

Thirdly, linking this issue to the past, is irrelevant and does not solve  this problem.  If we miss this one, it will drive up our home owners insurance, car insurance, endanger our children, allow drunk drivers to own the streets, and more. If you cast this warning off as a “scare tactic,” then you aren’t paying attention. I am a very open-minded person and I will certainly entertain all concepts that arrive at the solution; as long as we do create a solution.

Calling people names is the mark of a weak mind who cannot articulate themselves effectively. Once the frontal cortex begins to process information, it is quickly overloaded and like a garbage disposal that isn’t functioning properly, it spews out a continuous flow of putrid, lurid sewage.

Making articulate points and arriving at solutions takes skill, but that’s what this country was built on. Small, rural communities of the pioneer-past had many significant problems, but they put their minds together to find those pertinent solutions. Sure, they also had the to deal with those who had nothing constructive to contribute and festered on the excitement of seeing their names in print and hearing their opinions over others, but they were quickly cast aside and concentrated on those who were serious problem solvers. This is what we must do now.

Even if you are against the current form of funding, that’s fine, your opinion is respected. If you don’t  care for the levy, but  express your concerns respectfully, that  is good because that is where we start to negotiate. These other noise-makers and name-callers are of no help to the process.

ALL smart and responsible people certainly agree we need a jail — unless you are soft on crime and you want to reward criminals — so let’s only focus on the constructive thinkers.


Randy Sanders is a photographer and blogger.  He occasionally writes for Vernonia’s Voice and can be reached by email:  Randy.Sanders@Live.com.

An Opinion: Oregonian Article Not Fair to Vernonia Schools

A recent five-part series of articles in The Oregonian, written by Betsy Hammond, featured the Vernonia School District in Part 3.  That particular article  has caused quite a stir around our town.  Hammond’s series, titled “Empty Desks”  looked at attendance issues through out the state of Oregon and was especially critical of the Vernonia School District  administration, staff and parents.

Although the article was somewhat of a black eye for the community, it was also somewhat inaccurate in its portrayal of the Vernonia School District (VSD) and their concern about the issue.  The article ignored key factors that have led to poor attendance and brushed aside current efforts being made by the VSD to address the issue.

The article featuring Vernonia was a main topic of discussion at the February 13 Vernonia School Board meeting, as audience member Amy Ceiloha, who, she says was unfairly quoted in the article, asked if the School District would have a response to the article.  Superintendent Ken Cox said there would not be any official response, but was happy to discuss the issue, as was Elementary School Principal Aaron Miller, School Board Chair Bill Langmaid and other School Board members, most notably, Ernie Smith.  High School Principal Nate Underwood was not in attendance.

It is obvious that the VSD is aware they have an attendance problem, even though early in the Oregonian article it was inferred that the District was oblivious to the issue.  Superintendent Cox did refer to a previous Oregonian article from two years ago which identified the VSD as the second worst district in the state, behind Banks, for absenteeism.

In response to an observed problem, the VSD has instituted a new attendance policy this year which requires staff to contact parents when students  have missed 4 days, 8 days and 12 days.  Students are considered chronically absent when they miss more than 10% of school days, and the new “call policy” seems to be having a significant impact.  Elementary Principal Miller reported that attendance in kindergarten and first grade has increased from 84% last year to 92% in the first half of this year.  Chronic absenteeism has dropped from 49% to 27%.

School Board member Smith pointed out that analyzing statistics is a tricky business and that you can manipulate them in numerous ways to reach almost any conclusion you wish. Cox noted that the exact figures the Oregonian referenced were actually not available to the School District from the state, but were  in fact numbers the Oregonian created themselves based on data they collected and collated.  As Smith and Miller pointed out, with such a small base of students, (approximately 540) one student who is not attending but on the attendance roll,  can skew the data; several can skew it significantly.

The fact that two years ago The Oregonian  pointed out Vernonia’s poor absenteeism record does make a reader wonder why the Administration and School Board didn’t do something then about the issue.  But, as the Oregonian article  fails to acknowledge,  two years ago  the Vernonia School District was deep in the process of finishing construction of the new schools campus and preparing to move from their old campus to the new one.  And they were also dealing with some big fundraising, as well as yearly operation budget  shortfalls.  In other words, they had some fairly big issues already on their agenda.

One could also easily believe that, as the Oregonian article does acknowledge, attending classes in modular classrooms did have an impact on absenteeism rates.  The flip side is that school administrators probably believed that opening a brand new campus would automatically help increase attendance.

The VSD has tried to address the needs of students and boost engagement through creative programing.  The new Sustainability curriculum is innovative and progressive and the Forestry program offers training in a regionally significant employment field.  A recent grant the District received for $250,000 will help address the lack of a shop facility and expand technical training.  These are all factors that help keep students interested in attending class.

A lifestyle factor the Oregonian article mentioned as impacting attendance, hunting, should be taken with a grain of salt.  Oregon is an extremely rural state and hunting is part of the culture everywhere except Portland.  Kids take time off from school to hunt with their families all over this state.  This should  not be used as a reason that Vernonia is behind other school districts.

In reading the comments concerning the Oregonian article at their website, I was impressed with the thoughtful commentary that readers brought forward.  One concern was bullying; kids won’t go to school if they don’t feel comfortable and safe.  This is also an issue the VSD has attempted to address in a serious manner.  Students at Vernonia Schools have received numerous professional trainings and awareness programs over the last several years, thanks in part to the great work of, and funding from, the Vernonia Prevention Coalition.  Certainly we can’t say that bullying has been eliminated from our schools, but the issue is definitely on the radar and being addressed.

Another point raised in the comments is the role of parental responsibility. In the opinion of some readers, our society has embraced the passing off of raising our children, and some parents no longer take responsibility for student achievement.

This may be the biggest factor in school attendance.  As was noted at the recent Vernonia School Board meeting, school staff can only work with and teach students if they show up.  Parents need to see the value in, and encourage their children to be in class everyday, and make sure they arrive at school ready to learn.  It needs to be a priority for both the parents and the students.  How the School District can impact a parent’s values is somewhat limited.

Following the flood in 2007 and then the economic downturn, Vernonia saw a large increase in students who were, in fact, “homeless,” with parents who had moved away to find work.  Numerous students lived with friends and “couch surfed” without a strong parental influence in their life.  This factor also had an influence on attendance figures.

The Oregonian  gives the impression throughout most of the article that the VSD is unaware  they have a problem and concludes that they aren’t really all that interested in addressing it. They only briefly touch on the progress and improvements that has been made this year, and  ignore several important factors unique to Vernonia.

While the Vernonia School District needs to continue to improve their efforts in confronting absenteeism, they were attempting to address the issue, even before The Oregonian so harshly, and somewhat unfairly,  pointed it out.  Let’s hope it remains a priority and we continue to see additional improvements.

An Opinion: Council Needs to Finalize Lease With Health Board

The Vernonia City Council and the Vernonia Health Board have been working to negotiate a lease agreement for property the City controls, so the Health Board can begin construction of the new health clinic facility.  The Health Board had hoped to break ground on their new facility in early February, but after the last City Council meeting on February 18, there was still no agreement on the use of the property, and so, construction has been unable to proceed.

Both groups have been working hard over the last several months to find common ground and iron out the details of what will be a fifty year agreement.  The two sides have discussed potential uses, length of the lease, what happens if the lease ends suddenly and other, often sticky points.  One by one they have reached agreement on almost every point, although the discussions have often become somewhat contentious and personalities seem to be getting in the way.

One item the two sides haven’t agreed on yet is rent for the property, although the Health Board maintains they had an agreement for $1 per year.   This was a point of discussion by both the members of the Health Board during “Topics From the Floor” and by Council during the City Administrator Report at the February 18 meeting.   Read More