Local government

Homelessness, public safety top issues for Ontario candidates at forum

ONTARIO – Candidates running for city council and mayor in Ontario shared their views of the city’s future at a forum that attracted more than 70 people Wednesday, Oct. 19, at Treasure Valley Community College.

The event, which was also live-streamed, showcased eight candidates and was sponsored by the Malheur Enterprise and the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce.

Les Zaitz, Enterprise publisher and editor, moderated the event and questioned the candidates.

Each candidate was asked a series of questions and then allowed time at the conclusion of the event to give final remarks.

Incumbent mayor Riley Hill was joined by opponents Debbi Folden and current city council member Eddie Melendrez.

Key issues for the mayoral candidates included homelessness, housing, a perception there is a rise in crime in Ontario, the role of a mayor and how best to serve minority populations in Ontario.

“The main duty (of the mayor) is to lead from behind – listen to the staff and citizens and then make the best decision,” Melendrez said.

Hill said a mayor plays a crucial role not only for the city but as a representative across the state.

“You are the voice of the city. People pay attention to you and you set the agenda for the council,” said Hill.

Folden said a mayor must be the trigger to “help find solutions.”

Lack of housing continues to stymie the city and Folden said she would roll up her sleeves and seek input.

“I will talk to the community and get involved,” said Folden.

Melendrez said he will attack the housing challenge through a “holistic approach.”
“I will support police and invest in the community,” he said.

Hill said the lack of housing is a multi-tiered problem.

“It not just about housing. People have to have jobs to afford housing,” he said.

Riley Hill, running for re-election as Ontario mayor, answers a question during a forum held Wednesday, Oct. 19, at Treasure Valley Community College. Other candidates, from left, are Eddie Melendrez and Debbie Folden. The moderator was Les Zaitz, publisher of the Malheur Enterprise. (ANGIE SILLONIS/Special to the Enterprise)

While police calls for service in the city have dropped, Zaitz pointed out there is a perception that crime in the city is on the rise. He asked each candidate what they thought was behind that perception.

Folden said the amount of crime in the city can be directly attributed to the passage of Oregon’s Measure 110, a law that decriminalized personal possession of certain narcotics.

Folden said she would work to get the law repealed.

Melendrez said he would address the crime perception by changing the narrative by and  working with the Enterprise and Ontario’s Argus Observer newspaper to highlight positive elements of the community.

Hill said the issue “depends on the how the public defines crime,” and the council is trying to address the challenge.

One question to the candidates touched on whether the city has failed to create bridges of communication with local minority populations.

Melendrez said one way the city has failed is obvious.

“Not printing our information into dual languages,” he said.

Folden said if she is elected “those who lack a voice will have a representative who cares about them.”

“We need to get more community involvement,” she said.

Hill said as mayor he receives the most complaints about homelessness but said there is no easy fix.

“Problems are easy to identify but really hard to come with a solution,” he said.

Hill said one step he is working on is a plan to bring an array of non-profits, residents and elected officials together to tackle the homeless situation.

Folden said she would work with the police department and “local ministries” to solve the homeless issue.

Melendrez said, he too, would work with local service agencies – such as Origins Faith Community to “solve these issues at the root cause.”
Folden and Melendrez agreed one way to attract people and families to Ontario is to get the Ontario pool open.

Hill said the best way to attract people to live in Ontario is through education.

“With an educated community we will have businesses that want to locate here,” he said.

In closing Hill said he is the candidate with the most experience while Melendrez said in his time on the city council he has shown “trusted and true leadership.”

Folden said she will be the best candidate because of her focus on a “brighter tomorrow with common sense solutions.

Rivals for three seats on Ontario’s City Council talked about housing, homelessness and other pressing issues.  
Michael Braden, running for a second term, said the question of what to do about homelessness is being asked at “every level of governance.” 
“(Homelessness) is a communitywide concern,” Braden said. “It affects every phase of our daily living, as these are our neighbors and members of our community.” 

Braden said he thinks that city should “leverage” referrals for the homeless population to outside agencies to support services. 

For her part, candidate Penny Bakefelt said that many of the homeless are coming from other areas because they are told that Oregon is more accommodating than other areas.

Nonetheless, Bakefelt said that the community needs to be compassionate, but she said that the city should not favor the homeless over taxpayers and business owners.
She said the city needs to take a well-coordinated approach to deal with the issue successfully. 

Candidate McShane Erlebach said that the city could continue to throw money and ordinances at the homelessness issue, but that would not get at the root of the problem. 

Ken Hart, an incumbent candidate, said getting more patrol officers and increasing their visibility in the downtown area will draw more people to the area and benefit businesses. 

“The No. 1 job of our police department is to help people feel safe,” Hart said. “If you feel safe downtown, you’ll see more people there.” 

Susann Mills, seeking another term on the council, brought up during the forum concerns about people speeding in residential areas and around the hospital. She said the town could use more patrol officers in the area.

Reporter Steven Mitchell contributed to this report.

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