Challengers in the four-way race for a seat on the Kalama City Council have similar concerns that the council has shut out the public, but incumbent Putka said the council has learned it needs to listen better.
Candidates Tanaja Gravina and Matthew Merz were both active in the opposition to building the new police station in Maruhn Park.
David Thomas may have dropped out of the race, as he was the only candidate not to attend a recent meet and greet event and he did not submit a candidate profile to the county elections office. The Daily News was unable to reach Thomas after multiple phone calls and emails.
The Aug. 6 primary will narrow the race to two finalists, who will face off in the November general election.
Putka, who has lived in Kalama for 28 years, is seeking her third four-year term on the council. She said her work on the library board and with Envision Kalama prepared her for the position.
“I believe you can’t really represent a community until you’ve worked in it for awhile,” she said. “You can’t suddenly change it. It’s a process.”
Gravina moved to Kalama in 2002 as a teenager, then returned in 2007 after an Army tour in Iraq. She said her experience in combat changed how she views the world.
“I’ve always believed in kindness, transparency and that being cruel doesn’t work. Shutting people out doesn’t work,” she said. “Everybody has the right to have involvement in their government. When people try to be involved (in Kalama), they’re shut out.”
Merz’s family has lived in Kalama for 85 years, he said. After about seven years of moving between Kalama, Longview and Vancouver, Merz has been settled in Kalama for the last two years.
He said his involvement in the efforts to stop the police station helped him get to know people in Kalama.
“The citizens of Kalama do not have representation that listens to their voices,” he said. “The will of the people has been cast aside in favor of personal ambitions. … I will be conduit for the voice of the people and focus on their interests, not my own.”
The city pushed forward plans to build a new police station after the department’s temporary location was heavily damaged by the 2015 flood.
The council initially planned to finance the station with a bond, but voters overwhelmingly shot down the proposal in November 2017. In early 2018, the council adopted a series of tax measures and adjustments to pay for the project and build a $2.7 million station at Maruhn Park, which supporters said is less vulnerable to flooding than downtown and has room for expansion. Opponents objected to the cost and the location.
Putka said it was a misconception that the bond would decide if the station would be built and its location. The bond was only about financing the project, she said.
The council looked at every piece of property it could, she said. In response to claims the station could have been located in City Hall, Putka said the location does not have enough parking, the building is unsafe for that use and it has poor access to Interstate 5.
“The big complaint is that we didn’t listen, but we did,” Putka said. “I feel we looked at every option and tried our best. No one got involved until it came down to where it was going to be.”
But Putka said the council should have created a committee to help spread the word about the project from the start.
“Myself, and feel like I speak for council, we’ve learned we need to listen harder,” Putka said.
Merz and Gravina were both members of the group petitioning to prevent the station from being built at the park.
During a council meeting in April 2018, Merz called the 911 Center and asked for law enforcement officers to be sent to arrest council members for violating the law after the meeting agenda did not include the citizen ordinance that would bar construction of municipal buildings in city parks. Wednesday, Merz said he worked to make sure the people’s voice is heard and obeyed.
“We need a return to lawfulness by the city government. Their job is to make the lives of people easier. We need to get back to that,” he said.
Gravina said if the police station decision process was more open, it would not have created as much controversy. Even if the council picked a different plan, at least they would understand why, she said.“People need to be heard, share ideas and feel like they matter,” Gravina said.
Putka said she is now working to form a tourism advisory committee that includes groups that use the money. The city’s tourism funds have increased since the McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge opened last year, but the state limits how he city can spend the money.
Putka said she hopes the committee can help the council learn what events people want to have in Kalama. She also hopes to create a committee for downtown revitalization that will represent all parts of the city.
Merz and Gravina voiced concerns that Kalama’s cost of living and taxes are too high, especially for residents on a fixed income.
Putka said low-income residents can apply for a discount on their utility bills.
Merz suggested reducing the budget, capital funds tax and making tax-saving changes to the downtown development plan. He said the city should also create a tourism plan.
“I think fiscal responsibility for Kalama is vital to Kalama’s future,” he said. “I’m all for growth but not at the cost of taxpayers.”
Gravina said lack of affordable housing is one of Kalama’s biggest issues. She pointed to the Spencer Creek Business Park, which is owned by the Port of Kalama, as a potential spot for an affordable apartment complex.
The city has some work to be done regarding growth, “but we have to do it in a way that helps the community, not hurts (it),” she said.
Gravina said she would like to start a local effort to raise awareness about the dangers of drinking, self medicating and driving under the influence. The topic is important to Gravina, who was arrested for a DUI about 10 years ago, she said.
After returning from Iraq and giving birth to her daughter, Gravina said she grappled with post traumatic stress disorder and postpartum depression and didn’t know how to “think or feel.”
“I fully have always operated on transparency,” she said. “Bringing that discussion to the forefront is the best way to make changes and help people.”