Political forum highlights candidates for commissioner, county judge slot

Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce, an incumbent, answers a question during Monday night’s candidate forum at Four Rivers Cultural Center. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL).

ONTARIO – Candidates for Malheur County Court tackled a range of issues Monday night during a candidate forum sponsored by the Malheur Enterprise at Four Rivers Cultural Center.

More than 75 people attended to listen to three candidates running for positions on the panel that is the county commission. Hundreds more watched a live online broadcast of the event.

Taking turns at the mic were the two candidates for Malheur County judge, incumbent Dan Joyce and challenger Tom Vialpando, and Jim Mendiola, running for Malheur County commissioner.

The trio addressed questions on an array of issues presented by moderator Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Enterprise, and from audience members. 

Topics ran the gamut from the county’s response to the pandemic to housing and the economy.

Malheur County Clerk Gayle Trotter and Malheur County Circuit Court Judge Landis – both who are running unopposed for re-election – also spoke briefly at the session. Ballots for the May 17 election will be mailed April 27 to Malheur County voters.

Vale Mayor Tom Vialpando is running against Dan Joyce for the county judge position. He spoke at the candidates forum Monday night. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

One of the first questions centered on what the county could have done better to meet the Covid pandemic crisis.

“There is no way the county could have been prepared. We did an OK job. All you can do is play the hand you are dealt,” said Mendiola, a Vale contractor. He is running against incumbent Don Hodge, who didn’t participate because of a schedule conflict.

Joyce said he felt the county staff did “a good job” during the pandemic but Vialpando said the pandemic showed a “one-size-fits-all” approach from Salem doesn’t work.

The state, said Vialpando, “fell on its face” in its response to the pandemic. Local control, he said, would have made a major difference.

“We would have handled this better,” he said.

Vialpando said if he is elected, he would reach out to the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board for help to increase housing for local families and workers.

“We need to offer incentives to builders and buyers,” said Vialpando.

Jim Mendiola, a Vale contractor, was on hand for the political forum Monday night. He faces incumbent Malheur County Commissioner Don Hodge in the May 17 election. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

Joyce agreed there is a lack of housing locally.

“But there is also a shortage of land available because of regulations handed down by the state,” Joyce said.

Mendiola said he’d like to “see some regulation changes to get something going locally.”

“We are having to deal with regulations from the west side. I’d do some research with planning and zoning, make it more efficient to get permits,” said Mendiola.

Joyce said housing is an important topic.

“If people have jobs, they have to have a place to live. It’s an ongoing issue that it seems we’ve worked on forever,” he said.

Asked what they would do to bring down Malheur County’s child poverty rate – one of the highest in the state – each candidate offered a different view.

“Poverty issues, drugs, alcohol, jobs – the solution is probably getting everyone together to work it out,” said Joyce.

Mendiola said he saw a direct connection between the housing shortage, low wages and child poverty.

“I don’t know how to fix it but we need to start somewhere. We have a lot of things we can try and I don’t have a problem trying them,” said Mendiola.

Vialpando said only through partnerships between cities and agencies can a problem as big as poverty be solved.

“We have resources, but we have to create the will and that comes from partnerships,” said Vialpando.

The candidates addressed whether they supported an effort to make Malheur County part of Idaho.

Joyce said the root of the effort can be traced back to a perception the west side of Oregon isn’t in tune with its eastern neighbor.

“It is a never-ending challenge, and the challenge is can we get anything out of Salem we want and need?” said Joyce.

Mendiola said he could “see the debate from both sides.”

“I’m a lifelong Oregonian, I don’t want to be an Idahoan. We are part of Oregon that Oregon doesn’t want. I think we should fight harder for what we want,” said Mendiola.

Vialpando said he agreed with Mendiola and Joyce but also felt it was important for elected leaders to follow the wishes of voters.

“The voters voted to have this on the ballot and we need to honor that,” he said.

Mendiola said more transparency is needed to build voter trust in county government while Vialpando said communication was key to improving the public’s view.

Joyce indicated the county is already transparent and pointed to the weekly county court sessions that are streamed live.

During the public question session, the candidates fielded queries regarding blight, the prospects for lithium mining in southern Malheur County, how they would represent Ontario if voters selected them for office and how to support behavioral health.

A final question from the audience focused on the Treasure Valley Reload Center in Nyssa and whether Malheur County Economic Development Director Greg Smith’s contract should be renewed.

Mendiola expressed skepticism of the project.

“I think that train wreck has already left the track. The transparency is what I have a problem with,” said Mendiola.

However, he said the county can’t change its direction now because it’s too far into the project.

“It’s a tough one. We are so far into it, what do we do?” said Vialpando.

Joyce agreed.

“We are right in the middle of the stream but I think it will work out. I think there is more transparency than people think,” said Joyce.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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