The two candidates for Cowlitz County Commissioner District 3 couldn’t be much different.
The incumbent, independent Joe Gardner, is wrapping up his first four-year term in office. He wants the Headquarters Landfill to remain under county control. He supports county assistance for the homeless, and he wants to make sure the county replaces its cramped 911 dispatch center. He considers himself a listener first and a talker second.
The challenger, Republican Jerry Cooper, is new to local politics. He says contracting out landfill operations would boost county revenues. He’d like to see private charities take over homeless programs. He has served jail time, and he wants a more robust facilities maintenance plan.
If Cooper wins the seat, Cowlitz County would have three Republican commissioners for the first time since at least 1969. Cooper and Commissioner Arne Mortensen, who has endorsed him and donated $400 (including $200 from his wife) to Cooper’s campaign, would move the three-member commission to the right.
“(Mortensen) and I share a lot of principled outlook,” Cooper said. “I am pleased that he would support me.”
In keeping with his right-leaning political outlook, Cooper has received campaign contributions from Longview’s conservative Sutinen family (about $850), the Republican Liberty Caucus ($225 from the grassroots group, that espouses limited government, free enterprise and personal liberty and responsibility) and the Kalama Tea Party ($210). He has loaned nearly $6,000 to his own campaign, which has raised a total of $9,700 in donations and $6,700 in in-kind contributions, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. The Cowlitz County Republican party has given him $2,000.
Gardner’s campaign has received about $5,300 in cash and $300 in in-kind contributions, amounts that include $1,000 each from the Washington Association of Realtors and Sam Gardner Logging, owned by his cousin. The Lower Columbia Contractors Association gave him $500, and local businessmen Brian Magnuson and Donald Lemmons gave him $500 and $450, respectively.
Mortensen said he considers both Cooper and Gardner “really good friends” and that he likes and respects them both. He said these friendships made it difficult to endorse the challenger, but he ultimately viewed Cooper as the better choice.
“(Gardner) is an administrator. (Cooper) is a leader,” Mortensen said.
Cooper said he’d rather see citizens focused on the best solutions for county’s problems rather than the political leanings of those deciding the solutions.
“There’s a diversity of opinions, even among Republicans,” Cooper said. “I like the idea of people gravitating toward principles and the application of the Constitution in our daily operation of government.”
Cooper’s past caused a stir among local Republicans when he announced his candidacy. He has served four months in jail in 2008 for four felony charges of knowingly filing a false lien. (Details of the case were not available from authorities in Utah, who reduced the charges to misdemeanors after Cooper served the jail time.)
In 1994, Cooper filed Citizenship Papers and Affidavit with the Cowlitz County Auditor’s Office stating, “That I am not a ‘resident or (and) citizen of the United States,’ nor a ‘resident of Washington,’ nor have I ever knowing elected to be treated as such. I am a non-naturalized native natural born judicial Power Citizen of Washington ... “
Cooper said he filed the document after his move to Cowlitz County to clarify that he is a natural citizen and didn’t acquire his rights through a law or amendment. He said the document would have protected him from legal action, though he can’t recall any specific action he was worried about.
Gardner, though he is listed as an independent, counts himself a conservative, and he thinks he brings diversity to the three-member commission.
“I put myself in the role of someone on the outside looking in and, for me, I think balance is good, I think variation is healthy,” Gardner said. “I feel like, as an independent … (diversity) is a healthy thing.”
Gardner said voters generally want to keep the Headquarters Landfill under county management instead of contracting out operations to a private waste management company. (Whoever is elected could be the decisive vote on the matter, because Mortensen favors it and Commissioner Dennis Weber is, publicly at least, undecided.)
“I think … we put ourselves in a better position if we maintain control of the management and operations,” Gardner said. “Plus, the overwhelming input and feedback I’ve gotten from the citizens is that they are adamantly opposed to any sort of privatization of the landfill.”
Cooper said he would support contracting out the landfill management if the chosen company guarantees revenues that the financially strapped county can use to fund operations.
“We as a county need to safeguard our interests and then make sure the landfill serves us,” Cooper said.
Cooper said programs for the homeless should be a smaller priority for the county. Without a way to measure if they’re working, such programs could fall short of their goals. He also said the task of helping the homeless could fall to area charities. He defends Mortensen’s objection to funding the Meals on Wheels assistance program for shut-in seniors, suggesting it is “theft” to use someone’s tax dollars to assist others.
“Regardless of the nobleness of the cause, government reaching into my neighbor’s pocket or into mine to assist our fellowman in need hardly qualifies as charity. Charity is me reaching into my own pocket,” Cooper’s says on his campaign website. “An open hand and generous heart, rather than legalized plunder, should drive a charitable program like Meals on Wheels.”
Both candidates say they want to attend to the county’s building needs. Gardner said the county is working with an architect to build a new morgue but needs to find a way to build a new 911 center to replace the crowded space in the Hall of Justice basement.
Cooper said he would look into creating a “more robust” facilities maintenance plan for the county.
“In all, it’s not so much lopping out things or redirecting funding but rather scrutinizing, cleaning up funding and putting together more of a plan of how funding would be sustained over time,” Cooper said.
Gardner, who voted against adoption of the 2017 and 2018 county budgets, said the county has to budget more carefully.
“There may have been funds available at the time to add certain things, and I would have liked to see more project-based funding,” Gardner said. “It wasn’t necessarily about the money being spent but, when you’re adding staff, that’s perpetuity. Once you fall on hard times, then you have to let people off.”
Cooper said the commissioners also need to take steps toward “making county government more purposeful” by cutting back on regulations, citing housing regulations as an example.
“The point is not cutting government spending, eliminating programs and laying people off,” Cooper said. “The point is getting it under control and putting together a direction.”
Gardner said he feels his strength is his willingness to listen. With a degree in communications, he said he is always open to hearing ideas and doesn’t come to county issues with preconceived notions. He said people tell him they appreciate that he listens.
“That doesn’t mean I’ll always agree with them, but I will always hear everybody out,” Gardner said. “I think I am, in all situations, always thinking about the best way to make an informed decision. Sometimes that takes a little longer than people like.”