Mayoral candidates vary on vision

Leavitt and Turlay differ on most issues, most notably the CRC

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 

Mayorial candidates

Tim Leavitt

Age: 42

Occupation: Senior civil engineer at PBS Engineering + Environmental.

Notable endorsements: IAFF Local 452 (Vancouver firefighters), AFSCME Local 307VC (city employees), Clark County Association of Realtors, Building Industry Association of Clark County, Southwest Washington Central Labor Council.

Money raised: $75,240.

Website: leavitt4mayor.com

Bill Turlay

Age: 77.

Occupation: Owner of a home-based beverage distribution company.

Notable endorsements:

Clark County Republican Party.

Money raised: $21,652.

Website: billturlay4mayor.com

Did you know?

The mayor currently earns $26,624 a year, while city councilors earn $21,372 a year.

All members of the council are eligible to receive health benefits.

The mayor and council typically meet four times a month to make policy decisions. City Manager Eric Holmes is responsible for the day-to-day operations of city government.

The elected officials are assigned to help make policy for other agencies, such as C-Tran and Southwest Clean Air Agency.

In the past four years, the city of Vancouver has cut operational costs, improved its credit rating, landed major employers such as PeaceHealth, Integra and Farwest Steel Corp. and started a $40 million waterfront access project to transform the city's west end.

But no matter how many first-term accomplishments Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt cites, to some people he will forever be defined by his flip-flop on bridge tolls.

Those people include his challenger, City Councilor Bill Turlay, who called the Columbia River Crossing the defining issue of the mayoral race.

"This is going to be a referendum (on the CRC)," Turlay said of the Nov. 5 election.

Leavitt has picked up a range of endorsements in the nonpartisan race, while Turlay has one, from the Clark County Republican Party.

"The only endorsement I'm really looking for is from the majority of voters," Turlay said last week. "That's the only endorsement I want."

A group of CRC critics who routinely attend city council and C-Tran meetings, as well as online commenters and bloggers, consistently remind Leavitt of his 2009 campaign pledge to fight tolls on a replacement Interstate 5 bridge. They've nicknamed him "The Liar" and "One-Term Tim."

Yet for all the talk, nobody stepped up to challenge Leavitt until the last minute.

"If people were that angry, I would have had a slate of candidates running against me," Leavitt said during an interview last month.

Instead, he bypassed the August primary because he only had one opponent, and Turlay said he filed only because nobody else did.

Former Mayor Royce Pollard, who took office in 1996 and lost to Leavitt in 2009, said he tried to recruit people to run.

"They did not want to get involved in what they consider to be very, very nasty politics in our community," Pollard said.

One group that endorsed Leavitt made it clear the race should not be about a single issue.

The Clark County Association of Realtors endorsed Leavitt, Councilor Jack Burkman and candidates Alishia Topper and Anne McEnerny-Ogle over CRC opponents Turlay, Micheline Doan, incumbent Councilor Jeanne Stewart and Frank Decker, respectively.

The endorsed candidates "understand that building community is larger than one single issue and that Vancouver is facing some significant, but not insurmountable challenges," said Terry Eccles-Pettet, president of the 1,300-member organization. "Changing the conversation and focusing on what works while remaining open to new ideas is the best way to move Vancouver forward."

Bankruptcy influences policy

Turlay was elected in 2011 on his second run for council. He frequently shares his Tea Party opinions on the federal government and global issues, setting him apart from many local nonpartisan elected officials who -- at least publicly -- stay focused on their realm. For example, Vancouver is a nonvoting member of the Portland-based Metro Policy Advisory Committee, and as the city's representative, Turlay said that he doesn't believe in climate change during an April 2012 discussion on curbing per capita vehicle emissions.

As a former Navy pilot, he said he worked "where weather is made," and "weather, over a period of time, is climate, so I think I have a pretty good idea how climate works."

Turlay also believes the federal government should pay a greater share of a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge, and questions federal spending priorities.

"I have problems giving foreign aid to Muslim countries, when they are killing our young people," Turlay said during an interview last week.

What Congress does affects us, he said. If the federal government was willing to pay a greater share of a new bridge, it would not be necessary to toll users, Turlay said.

"I think the middle class is being forgotten," he said. He also objects to the CRC, a revised $2.7 billion effort with Oregon at the helm, because he sees it as a transit project with the express goal to extend TriMet's light rail to Clark County, which he believes will increase crime.

"I think a lot of criminals ride light rail," he said.

Turlay has always touted his experience as a business owner as his qualifications to serve on the council, which sets city spending priorities. He said his fiscal conservatism was reinforced in 1994, when he and his wife, Stephanie, filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy to settle debts for Contech Corporation, a company that made compass metal detectors. Turlay was president of the company, according to both the filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Oregon and the Oregon secretary of state's corporation records, which show Turlay as the registered agent, president and secretary. Turlay said a former business partner was at fault for the company's failure, but the partner had no assets and so Turlay was left, as he put it, holding the bag.

According to the court documents the company had $145,949 in assets and $648,516 in liabilities. The Turlays lost their home.

As a councilor, he championed the city's decision to take a pay-as-you-go approach for utility maintenance, instead of incurring debt by taking out loans or bonds, and the $1.26 million sale of a downtown parking garage that had been losing money for years.

"I think my experience on the way down will help (the city) on the way back up," Turlay said.

Turlay later started a beverage sales company, which he operates from his east Vancouver home. He said he plans to wind down its operations.

Since his term doesn't expire until 2015, if he loses to Leavitt, he'll remain on the council. He said he's committed to working with the Columbia River Economic Development Council to brainstorm ways to attract businesses.

While Turlay campaigned against "wasteful" government spending, he hasn't automatically opposed increasing taxes. He said his proudest moment on the council was supporting a 1 percent property tax levy increase in November 2012, when the 2013-14 biennial budget was approved. The $752.4 million budget included money for 18 fire and police grant-funded positions that had been set to expire, and Turlay was pleased to have helped save the jobs.

"We look at all options, and I think taxes should be the last option," he said.

Police and fire services are Turlay's top priority, followed by infrastructure and parks. Infrastructure, in particular, will be a headache. In August, the council was reminded that it is millions of dollars short of fulfilling its goals of reconstructing streets, including ones that were built to a rural standard (such as Southeast First Street) and can't handle today's urban traffic. Councilors are scheduled to set a policy later this year on how to best manage long-term transportation needs, including how those needs should be financed.

Since 2008, the city has cut staff positions by approximately 20 percent, and the 2013-14 biennial budget was down 12 percent from the 2009-10 budget of $857.3 million. Turlay said he believes the city can be run more efficiently, but couldn't offer specifics.

"I don't know," he said. "That's why we have (Chief Financial Officer) Lloyd Tyler and his staff."

Leavitt's learning curve

Turlay believes Leavitt gave up too easily on his pledge to fight tolling on a replacement bridge, but Leavitt said he just faced reality. CRC opponents, including Turlay, insist gas tax revenues should pay for a greater portion of a new bridge. But with increased fuel efficiency, hybrid and electric vehicle technology, gas tax revenues don't go as far as they did when the Interstate 205 bridge was built.

The feds paid for 90 percent of the $175 million Glenn Jackson Bridge, which opened in 1982.

Leavitt, an Ellsworth resident who was appointed to the council in 2003, said he learned from his 2009 campaign mistake that "you better be rock-solid before taking positions that draw a line in the sand."

During his State of the City address this year, he reiterated his support for the CRC.

"Some would have you believe that jobs will come to Southwest Washington without the CRC project," Leavitt told a crowd of about 160 people at the Water Resources Education Center. "Some would have you believe that roads and bridges and traffic congestion aren't important to businesses. Some would have you believe that citizens shouldn't have an opportunity to choose to take a bus or bus rapid transit or light rail. Some would have you believe that light rail is not the least costly option for mass transit. But, that is all fiction."

There's a reason why hundreds of small and large business owners have endorsed the project, Leavitt said.

"The cost not to get this project completed vastly outnumbers the short-term challenges with construction," he said during the March address.

Leavitt said when he talks to voters, they are more concerned about city services and what the city can do to attract jobs than they are about the CRC.

When he took office in January 2010, "we were in the worst economic recession this country has seen in decades," he said. "People were figuring out they needed to do more with less. The city was in the same boat."

Cost-cutting measures have included consolidating five city buildings into the new City Hall, which lowered the city's annual operational costs by $1.2 million. The city's credit rating was upgraded in November 2010, at a time when ratings for many state and local governments were being downgraded. In 2012, the city refinanced a portion of the city's bonds and saved nearly $3 million in debt payments.

The cuts in staffing and spending have turned the city into a "lean, mean machine, providing important and essential services," Leavitt said. Those services, such as wastewater treatment, roads and grounds maintenance, emergency response and planning, and building permitting all impact residents on a daily basis, he said.

"Although the recession mandated dramatic cuts four years ago, the city has been downsizing since 2000, when voter-approved initiatives cut into (motor vehicle excise taxes) and property taxes," he said.

Leavitt said his top priority will be making sure city services are in line with citizen expectations. The fire department and police department have done community outreach and explored ways to more efficiently deliver services, and the parks department will go through the same process. Later this year, the city will be asking for residents' input on what level of road construction and maintenance they expect, and how it should be funded.

Secondly, Leavitt wants to stimulate private investment and jobs growth in Southwest Washington. He cites a Small Business Resource website, recent designation by the state as an Innovation Partnership Zone for digital technology and active participation with Greater Portland, Inc., a regional economic development partnership, as methods by which to achieve the goal.

Leavitt also wants to enrich the city's cultural and historical points of pride by continuing to work with the Fort Vancouver National Trust and the National Park Service, and he hopes a performing/cultural arts center will be built either downtown or along the waterfront.

Another emphasis if given a second term, Leavitt said, will be finding the best solutions for societal challenges associated with homelessness, mental disorders and substance abuse. He said he has asked leaders from nonprofit organizations and public agencies to identify gaps and overlapping missions to try and improve services.

Unlike Turlay, Leavitt doesn't believe the Nov. 5 vote will be a referendum on the Columbia River Crossing.

"There's much to being mayor of a city of our size," Leavitt said.