A crowd of about 75 people filled the Gathering Place church Thursday night for an unprecedented town hall meeting hosted by District 2 County Councilor Michelle Belkot and Clark County Sheriff John Horch.
The town hall meeting, which was held at The Gathering Place church on Northeast 78th Street in Hazel Dell, was a first for Belkot, but it won’t be her last. In an interview Friday, Belkot said improving communications between the county council and residents has always been a top priority.
“That was something I talked about repeatedly (while campaigning), outreach to District 2. I’ve talked to a lot of business owners … that were frustrated with the previous county councilor,” Belkot said Friday.
Belkot said she intends to hold quarterly public meetings and will be hosting those meetings around the district. For the next town hall, she said she hopes to bring in Clark County Fire District 6 to talk about the work they are doing.
Belkot and Horch kicked off the meeting with a recap of the top issues each has been working on during the first quarter of the year. For Belkot, that includes the Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 tolling plans.
“I’m urging everyone to go to the (Oregon Department of Transportation) tolling website at Oregon.gov/ODOT and fill out the (environmental assessment) survey,” Belkot told the audience.
The county councilor said according to the detailed tolling plan she recently received, tolls along I-5 and I-205 will be “very aggressive.”
Other issues Belkot said the council is working on is updating the 20-year Comprehensive Growth Plan, Public Health’s community health assessment and the upcoming State of the County address to be presented by Council Chair Karen Bowerman on April 4.
Belkot said she wasn’t surprised that most of the questions asked during the town hall were directed to Horch.
“There’s a lot of things going on in our county and throughout the state, those are legitimate concerns by community members,” she said. “I think they were all really good questions.”
As a 33-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, Horch said he has weathered many changes during those years but especially in the past few years. Horch said the law enforcement and criminal justice system was hit hard by the pandemic and is only now beginning to recover.
“I can feel the turn with the deputies out there. I live in District 2, as well. It’s all throughout our county … I drive home every day up Lakeshore (Avenue) and I see some of the issues that people are facing. The one good thing that I can say about this … is staffing is up across the board, with law enforcement, with the jail, with records, behavioral health, you name it,” Horch said
The new sheriff in town said the lack of staffing hasn’t been limited to only deputies on the road. He said a lack of available staff at the jail has meant fewer inmates could be housed.
“We lost a lot of staff. And if the jail doesn’t have staff to look after the inmates then we can’t take people there,” he said.
Horch said his office is making progress on filling open positions, noting there is a now a group of recruits ready and waiting to go to the police academy in Burien.
“People want to get back into law enforcement,” he said.
Horch said a proposed law enforcement training center in the works for Southwest Washington will help fill those open positions more quickly.
“It’s exciting to me to see that they have all these new deputies, although they’re not fully qualified yet. But that’s exciting that they have all these people that are stepping up and interested in becoming deputies,” Belkot added.
Jail move questioned
When asked why the county council had made the decision to remove the jail from the sheriff’s office and create a new Jail Services department to oversee its operation, Belkot and Horch had few answers.
“I wasn’t on the council then, so I have no background information. I wasn’t anywhere near the council or with the county at that point,” Belkot said.
Horch said he and challenger Rey Reynolds spoke out against the move at a September council meeting. Horch said he suggested the council wait to make the decision until after new councilors were elected in November and sworn-in in January.
“I’m for the employee no matter who they work for. I’m for the inmates and for the public. I want safety for everybody,” Horch said, noting other counties in the state operate the same way. “I did not agree with the way the process went.”
Others in the audience questioned Horch about former Sheriff Chuck Atkins publicly announcing the department would not respond to minor crimes and whether that announcement led to an increase in property crimes.
“The communication could have been better,” Horch said.
Horch said the relationship between the sheriff and the county council had broken down by then, something he said he is working to change. He said he’s also made changes to the response policy.
“An email went out a few weeks ago about we will be responding. If there’s nothing going on, you will respond. And if you can’t respond, you have to contact the reporting party,” he said.
To be notified of Belkot’s upcoming town hall meetings, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the county council, including scheduled meetings and agendas, go to https://clark.wa.gov/councilors.