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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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4 vie for Clark County Council seat for District 5

Councilor Rylander faces Torres, Benton, Marshall

By , Columbian staff writer
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Rick Torres
Rick Torres Photo Gallery

Among the four candidates vying for the Clark County Council District 5 position, perhaps the most well known is former state Sen. Don Benton. Benton is running against current District 5 Councilor Richard Rylander Jr., Ridgefield farm owner Sue Marshall and former law enforcement officer Rick Torres.

Although originally from California, Benton has lived in Clark County since 1988. After being elected in 1994, he served in the state House of Representatives as the 17th District representative for two years before being elected to the state Senate, a position he held until 2017.

Benton is now semi-retired and works for McKeon Group, a consulting and lobbying firm based in Alexandria, Va.

While still serving in the state Senate, Benton was appointed as the county’s director of environmental services. His lack of previous experience in the field and bypass of the county’s civil service hiring process led to sharp criticism by many of both Benton and the county council. Benton was let go in 2016 following a departmental restructuring.

Benton and former county employees Christopher Clifford and Susan Rice later filed suit against the county claiming they had been wrongfully terminated. The trio won their suit, and the county eventually agreed to a $1.4 million settlement in September 2021, although the county noted “there was no admission of wrongdoing.”

When asked whether he thought his history with the county would make voters more or less likely to vote for him, Benton said he was sure voters would remember his work in the Legislature more than anything else and that his years of experience in both government and the private business sector make him the right candidate for county council.

Benton said he chose to run because, “the council appears to be in need of some leadership skills. I believe I can provide that.”

Rylander was appointed as the District 5 councilor in May by Gov. Jay Inslee to fill Councilor Eileen Quiring O’Brien’s seat left open by her retirement. It’s his first position in office.

Rylander’s previous campaigns include county charter review commissioner in 2013, Battle Ground Public Schools board in 2015 and charter review commissioner in 2020.

Although he’s only been on the council for a few months, he said he’s ready to serve a full, four-year term. He said he wants to serve on the council to ensure his children and grandchildren living in Clark County can stay here. To do that, he said it will take good jobs, transportation, safety and affordability.

“It’s just renewed my commitment, my reason for running,” Rylander said. “If I can have a positive impact on making Clark County the kind of place that my family and other families can live, work and play, then I will have done something useful.”

Rylander holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing and finance, as well as a Master of Business Administration, and has served as a mentor at Washington State Univeristy, was an executive in residence at Oregon Health & Science University and adjunct professor at the University of Portland’s business school. Prior to retiring, he worked in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries.

Farming is in Marshall’s blood. She and her husband live on their family farm in rural Ridgefield, which has been in her family for four generations. A relative political newcomer, Marshall said watching the county complete the last comprehensive plan update motivated her to run for the office.

“I got involved in that process, and it was not good for agriculture,” Marshall said.

Torres, who also lives in Ridgefield, has lived in Clark County since 1998. Although he’s now the owner of RMS Consulting Solutions, he was previously a sergeant with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and police officer with the Vancouver Police Department, and is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He holds a Bachelor of Science from San Jose State University and MBA from Marylhurst University.

Torres said the combination of business and law enforcement gives him “a whole new perspective” that isn’t currently represented on the council.

“I think my skill set is unique and different from just about everybody else,” Torres said. “It feels like the perfect fit for me.”

Public safety

The four candidates had mixed opinions about Proposition 11, the 0.1 percent public safety sales tax measure placed on the ballot by the council in April.

Benton said the county’s rising crime rate underscores the need for new faces and new ideas on the county council. He said the county needs a council that will fund crime reduction, whether that comes from the sheriff’s office, the prosecutor’s office or a combination of efforts.

“The county has lots of options. Most of them involve the voters, as well they should. You’re asking people to pay more, spend more and you need to go to the citizens and ask them if they’re willing to do that. The issue is what’s more important, body cameras for the few officers we have left or funding more officers so that we can respond to calls more quickly? Those are priorities within the sheriff’s office budget. They should be determined by the sheriff,” Benton said.

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Benton noted the council has already had discussions about the need to eventually replace the jail, and funding for a new jail would also have to go to voters.

“How many ballot measures are you willing to put out to the people, and how many do you think they will pass? … I think we need a more comprehensive approach with a more detailed audit/analysis where the money has been spent,” he said.

Marshall said public safety is the one issue she hears about most often from voters.

“I’m not for boosting a lot of taxes, but I think we have to be realistic in where the money is coming from in order to fund things,” Marshall said.

She said having body cameras will mean better protection and accountability for both law enforcement and citizens. Marshall said she understands why some people won’t support a tax increase of any kind and thinks some of that reticence stems from a lack of trust in government.

“If people feel like (the government is) out of control, it’s hard to solve any problem,” she said.

Coming at the top of Torres’ list of priorities is public safety.

“Bodycams are definitely a good tool, and for both sides — the person being arrested and the deputy,” Torres said.

However, Torres said he’s not convinced voters will support another tax increase of any kind. He said he’s not opposed to all taxes and supports those that provide something meaningful for the community.

“If there had been collaboration with the council, with the sheriff’s office 12 months ago and they said, ‘We’re going to figure out how to fund this. How can we manage your budget better so you can have a chunk of this, you can use your money more efficiently?’ If you have that collaboration, you can find other ways to financially support things like this,” Torres said.

Rylander was among the council members who voted to place the measure on the ballot. He said he still supports the effort.

“If we don’t have safety, we have nothing. People have to know they can get help and support when they need it or else we devolve into anarchy,” he said.

Rylander said he understands the public has no appetite for a tax increase, but existing budget limitations mean the sales tax increase will be the only way to fund a body camera program, jail improvements or pay increases.

Housing and land use

Although much of the county’s valuable agricultural land has been paved over or turned into homes, the county still has a surprising number of working farms. Marshall said protecting the county’s agricultural lands from encroachment will become even more important as more housing and commercial development is built.

“Understanding there is a regulatory framework from which we are making our decisions, the current council has, I think, been pretty cavalier about whether the decisions they’re making fall within the law,” Marshall said.

Marshall said her experience with land-use issues will be especially relevant as the county begins its work to update the comprehensive plan by 2025.

“I have a commitment to public engagement and respect for the public as they engage,” she said. “People are very vulnerable right now, and it doesn’t take much to tip you out of your housing.”

Rylander said like many county residents, he’s seen how rising property values and property taxes are affecting homeowners, especially when those increases come on top of two consecutive years of inflation.

“We just got our new property tax assessment … and our payment went up $72 a month, but our assessed value went up $192,000,” he said.

Rylander said he also recognizes people expect the county to deliver the services they pay for with their tax dollars, but it is getting harder to balance those needs against budget constraints.

“How are we going to provide the range of services the public either wants or needs, and how are we going to do that without increasing taxes?” he wondered.

He said he wants to look for ways to increase efficiency in departments, make better use of technology and look for other savings and revenue sources to boost the budget.

To address the county’s lack of affordable housing, Torres said the council should look at targeted investments, zoning and development adjustments, as well as specific incentives.

Torres said the county cannot build its ways out of the homelessness crisis.

“There are a lot of different reasons for homelessness, so we have to have a variety of solutions. The mental support aspect is huge,” he said.

Clark County will need more mental health and drug treatment options, but developing those facilities should be done through collaboration between the county and the cities, Torres said. The county should identify its successes and failures, build on those lessons learned and look for innovative solutions, he added.

Torres also said the county needs to be more proactive in reaching out to those living near proposed developments, something he said it hasn’t done well in the past.

“Talking to people in north county, every time they see the dirt move they’re like, ‘Holy cow, we didn’t know about it. We didn’t have anything to say about it.’ I’ve heard that a lot, almost as much as the public safety issue,” Torres said.

He said the county needs to bring economic development with jobs at a living wage, as well. But the issues of homelessness, crime and even permitting delays are driving those much-needed jobs away.

“It all needs to be addressed collaboratively,” he said.

For Benton, raising taxes should be the last choice.

“We need to look for ways to reduce the burden on the citizens of the county, because that burden has been increased dramatically over the last five years,” Benton said. “The council is in need of someone who feels we’re paying too much already in taxes and will look for ways to reduce the burden on the citizens of the county.”

When it comes to county lands, Benton isn’t only concerned about taxes. He said he’s also focused on property rights and how property owners are able to use their land, most especially property owners in the north end of the county.

Rylander said the council has done a good job of forestalling budget increases for the last four to five years, but rising costs and inflation are going to catch up and create bigger problems in the future.

“I continue to be concerned and nervous about the budget. We’re running a deficit in the general fund. We have a deficit in the structural side of things because we put maintenance off for so many things for so long,” Rylander said.