Blackburn and Johnson talk issues at Rotary

Hood River’s two mayoral candidates, Susan Johnson and Paul Blackburn, took part in a candidate forum at Hood River Rotary’s Nov. 1 meeting.

Hood River’s two mayoral candidates, incumbent Mayor Paul Blackburn and city council member Susan Johnson, took part in a candidate forum at Hood River Rotary Club’s Nov. 1 meeting to answer questions.

The candidates were asked a number of questions by the forum’s moderator, Greg Colt, and present Rotarians.

Among other topics, the candidates were asked for their stances on the City of Hood River’s status as a Sanctuary City.

Hood River officially added its name to the list of Sanctuary Cites in January 2017, though the resolution that Blackburn and council member Kate McBride wrote significantly de-emphasized the word “sanctuary,” instead favoring the term “inclusionary.”

This change was made to avoid the potential federal crackdowns, Blackburn said Thursday, referencing the Trump administration’s promises to cut federal funding to cities shielding illegal immigrants. At the time, he said, the council did not know how viable the administration’s threats were.

President Trump signed an executive order just after taking office that would have withheld federal funding from Sanctuary Cities. The order has since been deemed unconstitutional by several federal judges.

Blackburn said that he supports Hood River’s immigrant community but is glad that Hood River isn’t the “tip of the spear” for opposing the Trump administration’s crackdown on Sanctuary Cities, as larger cities such as San Francisco and Chicago are.

For those in the room who do believe the federal crackdown is just, Blackburn added, “I would imagine this (his stance) would irritate people.”

Johnson was one of two council members who opposed the 2017 resolution granting Hood River sanctuary status. In a 2017 Hood River News article, she is quoted as saying the city should instead assist with “grassroots” efforts to help illegal immigrants gain documentation.

At Thursday’s rotary meeting, she said that she prefers a problem-solving approach and said the city’s focus should instead be on helping immigrants attain legal status.

She referenced her long nursing career and related following immigration law to her following the law in her nursing positions.

“I support our community … but let’s follow the law,” she said.

The candidates were also asked about affordable housing and the city’s attempt to rezone Morrison Park and sell it to a developer for $1. The Oregon Court of Appeals recently reversed and remanded a decision from the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals that upheld the city’s rezoning of the park.

Johnson said that she follows the directive “don’t pave over parks” and supports looking at alternative land options, such as an ODOT yard or a public works yard, for affordable housing. When later asked by a Rotarian how she could justify holding onto Morrison Park when it’s scarcely used, she responded that she uses it regularly and often sees others playing disc golf there. “I know that it’s definitely used,” she said.

In regard to selling the park for $1, she reaffirmed her commitment not to pave over parks and said, “You don’t give things away.” She added that if the land was to be sold for some reason, it should be sold for its value, which is significant, she said.

Blackburn said that it’s a difficult decision to choose between open space and affordable housing, but given the situation, he said, he prioritizes affordable housing. Following the Court of Appeals’ decision in September, Blackburn told the Hood River News, “I’m disappointed with this ruling. It will now be a longer wait to build this important source of affordable housing, a longer wait for our lower income residents to have a quality, local place to call home.”

In response to a question asking if the city has plans to acquire an alternate piece of land for affordable housing, both Blackburn and Johnson said that the city does not.

Colt closed the forum by thanking the candidates and saying, “One of them will win and one of them will lose, but we appreciate both.”

Correction 11/2: A previous version of this story misidentified the forum moderator. The moderator was Greg Colt.

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