Blackburn v. Johnson: The HR Mayoral Race

Mayoral candidates Paul Blackburn, center, and Susan Johnson, right, sit side-by-side at a recent joint meeting of City Council and Planning Commission on the Westside Concept Plan. At left are Planning Commission members Bill Irving and Arthur Babitz, former mayor.

The Oct. 24 Hood River News presented questionnaires from local and state candidates, in preparation for the Nov. 6 General Election.

They included responses from Hood River mayoral candidates: Paul Blackburn, the incumbent, and Susan Johnson.

Given that this is the first time in years that a sitting mayor faces a challenge from a sitting City Council Member, we take a closer look at the Blackburn-Johnson race, with these interviews done on the phone on Oct. 17:

Paul Blackburn: ‘Hood River is a place with a high level of patriotism for Hood River’

What does Susan Johnson’s challenge say about your leadership?

I am pleased folks are interested in running for positions. Volunteer leadership is at the core of our democracy and our city leadership. It’s an unpaid position, or virtually, so it’s great.

She and I have not agreed on every issue, certainly haven’t voted the same on every issue. I am glad she’s willing to take up the challenge and she obviously feels she would be the better candidate.

Where do you feel the city stands fiscally?

I am proud of this council’s work. We have for the last four years pinched pennies and made sure city services were able to be affordable. We were able to make hard choices to not do everything the city could do. You have to operate within the limited resources available. Even in spite of very challenging things, including PERS. We set aside a half a million in a war chest against projected increases, we know next biennia those increases are coming, and many other municipalities in Oregon are in a much worse spot. I hope that state government, the only group able to make choices on this issue, will be able to come up with solutions; but in terms of our city’s exposure, we have prepared.

Comment on the growing downtown-waterfront tension.

The waterfront has been growing very rapidly. It’s important for our city that all areas of our city are represented fairly and thrive. An important job of the mayor and council is to figure out how be a good steward and ally to all those areas. We wouldn’t want any area to suffer at the expense of another. And the Waterfront Refinement Plan specifically addresses the rules of the game for the development of the waterfront.

Anytime things are changing rapidly, it’s important to pay close attention to how things are going. The rapid growth at the waterfront is a cause for some concern. We want to be sure everyone has fair rules to play by and is able to thrive.

Affordable housing has been top priority for at least four years; What do you think of the city’s progress on this?

I’m very pleased we made progress on STR regulation. We have been diligently working on getting affordable housing. We haven’t yet succeeded in getting any built; Oregon land use involvement requires broad involvement, and a small group of opponents at Morrison Park won the last round (at Court of Appeals in September) and I’m hoping we will be able to get some affordable housing built in spite of that.

What are your thoughts on current and future intergovernmental relations?

In our small community, it’s essential us elected work together collaboratively. I’m quite pleased with how that’s going. We are fortunate to have collaborative relations.

How do you see Heights planning proceeding?

We have our newest Urban Renewal area. I’m excited about the progress being made. Our next opportunity to use tax increase financing to improve streetscapes and utilities and walkability. It hasn’t taken off. Heights Urban Renewal work hasn’t taken off but it’s going to be coming in the next couple of years.

Do you support or oppose Urban Growth Area expansion, and why?

I do not support expansion of our UGA any time soon. UGA is the way we keep our cities from sprawling into forest and farms. It’s essential and wise land use planning.

How do we preserve “community” as we have come to know it?

One of the great challenges to preserving community is housing affordability. The priority of housing affordability reflects the importance of that. Continuing to provide a variety of housing at a variety of prices is critical to preserving the community that we love. Hood River is a place with a high level of patriotism for Hood River. This community loves Hood River and I would be so disappointed to find our community pricing itself out of being the kind of community we want it to be.

Susan Johnson: ‘We need to make sure all voices are heard’

Why are you, as a member of council, running against an incumbent mayor?

After four years, my first term, community members asked me to continue, many community members approached me. Many feel like they are not being heard, so it came down to giving people a choice.

I feel everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard on important issues, and people have said they are not being included in the process.

In my background as a nurse, I have great skills in listening. We have phenomenal people in the community and we need to include them. We need to restore confidence in city government.

Many feel that processes have gone way too fast and are feeling left out, and feel like their testimony is not being heard.

(Asked to cite an example:)

Morrison Park. That’s the biggest one I am hearing about; and affordable housing, local builders and developers feel the process is so slow.

I think we have an amazing group of residents with ideas, willing to volunteer, help make decisions, if we will include them in the process and get their feedback.

(Asked to describe how that would work:)

We should form committees, help us make these decisions. If people are that dissatisfied; for example, the building committee, (Hood River Builders Coalition) they formed themselves.

If they are coming to council and they have complaints, we need to make sure all voices are heard. Right now there is not a fair representation of voices. People come to me with ideas of things they can do to get more involved.

(Asked to cite an example:)

Engineers coming to the city volunteering their time to help out.

We are elected officials for all the residents we represent, not one specific group we represent.

Where do you feel the city stands fiscally?

I think we’re in an okay position now, but there are ways we can get funding and continue with projects and keep our city safe. We’re not catching up with infrastructure projects; it’s important when we start building on west side, because everything funnels downtown.

(Asked to cite an example:)

A big one is transportation; streets need to be safe, with bicyclists, more and more visitors; a second one is sidewalks, especially downtown.

We need to change. What it comes down to is safety, and that’s the responsibility of the city.

But it is the private property owner’s responsibility to maintain sidewalks.

Whether we share the cost or not, something needs to be done.

Comment on the growing downtown-waterfront tension.

I feel I should refrain from comment, because there’s a lot of contention right now.

Affordable housing has been top priority for at least four years; What do you think of the city’s progress on this?

When I got on council four years ago, I thought housing extremely important, it’s all about affordable housing, but how do we have affordable (housing) when we don’t have things in place for builders to make it affordable? That goes to the building department, and we are moving that way, to work with the county, that would help with efficiency, and updating some code.

What are your thoughts on current and future intergovernmental relations?

When we make decisions, it will affect everybody regionally and we need to definitely start including other agencies, be it the county or the port.

How do you see Heights planning proceeding?

It was a fantastic job with Streets Alive, they did a great job, it was great example of things that can be done, and ultimately it might be up to ODOT because these are state highways, and we need to ask them what we can and can’t do.

Do you support or oppose UGA expansion, and why?

I do, because our town is so small. I think you have to involve other agencies. This is huge. It would be nice to be able to spread it out a little more. If we need places for housing, land is less expensive up the valley, at least start communicating. Open communication is important, and they can help guide this as well. But you have to work together.

How do we preserve “community” as we have come to know it?

You plan wisely. You need to be extremely responsible with your planning in the future.

You have missed more meetings than other council members. How will that change if you are elected mayor?

As a single female and working full time as a nurse, I often didn’t have a choice (about attending Council meetings.) But I have resigned my job and am working per diem shifts, so I will have more control over my schedule. (This corrects an earlier version.)

Correction: Johnson clarified a recent letter citing her votes on Short Term Rental regulations. Johnson said she voted to put a cap on the number of STRs, and voted against STRs for investors.

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