Seven candidates whose campaigns each put big emphasis on the economy and employment in Crook County are running for one open commissioner’s seat on the three-person Crook County Court.
The seat — Position No. 1, a four-year term — is open because current County Commissioner Ken Fahlgren isn’t seeking re-election for commissioner but is running for Crook County judge, the county’s top administrative position. The commissioner race is the most hotly contested race in the county’s May 17 primary election. To win, a candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the vote. Otherwise, the top two finishers will face off in November’s general election.
Beyond the economy, which candidates say they intend to improve by drawing upon a wide variety of experience and ideas, management of public lands and natural resources is another hot button issue locally. The question of who should have jurisdiction over managing the public lands within the county’s borders is one that has inspired some candidates to run. The seven candidates spoke with The Bulletin this week about these issues and more.
Duncan, a 20-year-old political science student at COCC, is the youngest candidate in the commissioner race by more than a decade. Duncan sees room for improvement in the county’s job landscape.
“The unemployment rate is sitting at around 8 percent right now,” Duncan said on Friday. “It’s disheartening to see other counties that have lower rates; I want my county to have what’s best. Bringing in more jobs is something that’s very important.”
To do that, Duncan sees focusing on the tech industry as the way forward — and not just local data centers. The county should look to attract small tech companies to the area by doing a better job of communicating with them.
Duncan, who has participated in various student government roles but never on a municipal level, doesn’t view his age as a disadvantage. In fact, he said, he believes the county could use some new ideas from a young mind.
“I know I’m young, but I’ve got ideas,” he said. “I’m not really swayed by much right now in the political game. Maybe some of my opponents are more set in their ways; I’m open to more ideas. Me being younger, it gives more opportunity for broader change.”
Local employment is also Tom Jay’s priority, and his strategy to see improvement on that front is a flexible one. Jay, a self-employed photographer, described himself as a student of common sense.
“Jobs is number one for me,” he said, emphasizing that he mostly wants to market Crook County’s friendly nature to attract people to the area.
“But I don’t have an agenda. I’m not necessarily going in to change something. There’s not something I want to rush in and change that I can think of. It would be a learning process.”
Voters should choose him, Jay said, because he’s already been putting his scholarly outlook to work, meeting with different local officials like former Sheriff Jim Hensley about public safety and Prineville City Manager Steve Forrester about budgeting. He said he’d like to improve the county’s budget so he could help do something about the overcrowded county jail.
“They’re working on finding a way to get a new jail, but you have to have money for it,” he said. “We send criminals to the Madras facility right now and it costs a lot to do that, and a lot of time to drive them back and forth for medical and court proceedings. That’s eating up a lot of employee time is taking money out of the budget.”
Melanie Marlow’s emphasis on small business in Crook County comes from her personal experience, she said. As the owner of Shasta Leatherworks, Marlow said she’s experienced firsthand the rising rents that affect downtown Prineville businesses and keep other would-be job creators away.
“There was a new owner from out of town who bought the building (Shasta Leatherworks) was in and he raised the rent to $1,750 a month,” she said. “I took my business to my house, which is OK, but we’re not downtown. It’s happening to lots of people there and it’s just sad seeing the businesses leave.”
Marlow, who wants to bring money to the county with new ideas and new business, said she thought she might be able to do something about the issue as a commissioner, mostly through her experience and ability to communicate with business owners. In fact, she said a number of local business owners approached her and asked her to run.
“They say I’m good at listening to them,” she said, adding that even though she’s lived in Prineville for five years, she grew up in Malheur County. “I’m kind of local but not quite, and I’m not related to any of the old names in town. I have the community’s best interests at heart and I could give it a fresh voice.”
Born and raised in Crook County, Pete Sharp said the only thing his campaign puts before the county is God.
“With my platform, I put God first,” he said. And even if the county comes next, that doesn’t necessarily include government, he clarified.
“I want to get back to the Constitution, which means less government, less control, and the government working for the people of the county,” he said. “We keep adding more rules and regulations and running costs up every year.”
Sharp pointed to the cost of building and sewer permit fees as a couple examples of out-of-control costs, which he said make it tough to build locally. And, he said, the lack of living-wage jobs doesn’t encourage people to want to build homes in the county.
“Right now, we’re putting the county in a position to invoke coordination status, and once it’s administered, the commissioners have to stand up and be heard,” said Sharp, referring to the legal provision of coordination, which encourages government agencies to work together. “We’ve got to get living wage jobs in the county,” he said.
Sharp said he would be a commissioner who would be heard and would be willing to go toe-to-toe with the federal government.
“We need to open up more logging rather than cutting back,” he said. “That’s one of the things this natural resources plan we’re working on will allow us to do. It’s important to have a commissioner in there who believes in that and is willing to (implement the natural resources plan).”
Jodie Fleck is running for commissioner on a platform based on better planning and improved communication. She said the current commissioners aren’t forward-thinking enough and don’t keep the public well enough informed, which hurts the county’s ability to create a job-friendly environment.
“There’s a lot of things that citizens want to know about and want to be involved in and that isn’t happening,” she said. “And then we find out about these things at the 11th hour. There’s a lot of things that affect the citizens and they’re not being informed.”
Specifically, Fleck pointed to the U.S. Forest Service Off-Highway Vehicle plan, which she said people in the county were recently blindsided with even though it’s been under discussion for years. She said that this lack of foresight leads to things not getting done.
“One thing that still hasn’t been taken care of — and it’s not the government’s job to create jobs — but it is its job to create a job-friendly environment,” she said.
Commissioners apply irrelevant, blanket decisions to the County, Fleck said, and that chases jobs away.
“If you look back in the minutes of (County Court meetings), when it comes time to setting their fees for commercial use permits and work variances, they usually just do whatever Deschutes County does,” she said. “I’m sorry — we’re not Deschutes County, and we will never be.”
When asked why he’d make a good commissioner, Jason Carr refers to his resume.
As a Prineville City Council member, Carr is the only candidate who currently holds an elected position in local government. And it’s not just his City Council experience that has him well prepared for a stint on the Crook County Court, he said.
There’s also Carr’s experience leading the Crook County-focused sector of Economic Development of Central Oregon — a nonprofit that focuses on growing the area’s economy — his years as a journalist, and his time serving various other boards and committees.
“There’s a lot more that goes into operating a county than just pulling permits and building roads, and with my background there’s a lot of things I can do to help the county operate more efficiently,” he said.
For instance, he said that with his experience in economic development and as a KTVZ reporter, he’ll be able to clearly communicate what he’s learned working in economic development. Also, having grown up in Bend, Carr says that he has a local understanding of a county that’s going through many of the same changes that Deschutes County once did.
“It takes someone who’s been in the trenches and knows the issues,” he said.
When it comes to longtime familiarity with the way Crook County works, Jerry Brummer said he’s the man.
“I’ve been involved with (the city of Prineville) and the county for over 25 years in different capacities,” said Brummer, who used to be in charge of Prineville’s Public Works Department before he retired in 2012.
“Being a part of it all for so many years, I understand we have to have growth or we stagnate and we die,” he said.
And when Brummer sees growth, he comes at it from a public works perspective. For him, this means infrastructure, an issue in the county he said needs some attention. As new businesses and people move to the area, the county needs to plan accordingly.
“We need to have the infrastructure in place so we can be prepared to bring the right businesses here,” he said. “That means power, cable, water, sewer, roads — everything.”
No infrastructure, no jobs: That’s the way Brummer sees it, he said. But planning for the future doesn’t mean not acknowledging where Crook County came from.
Brummer, who was raised on a ranch and has farmed and raised cattle on the side, said he understands the area’s cultural past.
“I know the needs of the farmers and ranchers,” he said. “I know how important water rights are and the collaboration it takes to get work done. We have to maintain the heritage and culture that makes everyone love living here.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7829,