Trio of Yakima County Commissioner Candidates Competing for New District 2 | Elections
With all three Yakima County Commission seats up for election this year, the Aug. 2 primary will only matter in the three-way race for District 2.
Former Yakima councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez, car salesman and community activist Tony Sandoval and business executive Kyle Curtis are the nominees. Curtis is a Republican; Gutierrez and Sandoval are Democrats.
The other two races – Districts 1 and 3 – are not as tightly contested and these candidates will automatically advance to the general election.
Yakima Republican and incumbent Amanda McKinney is unopposed in District 1. Sunnyside Republican LaDon Linde, also incumbent, faces only one challenger for District 3, Steve Saunders, a command sergeant major at the retreat of Wapato’s army. He is also a Republican.
The top two primary candidates, regardless of political affiliation, qualify for the November general election.
A settlement resulting from a lawsuit alleging that the county’s electoral system disenfranchises Latinos prompted the election of all three commission seats this year.
The county government is made up of several departments ranging from various legal and judicial departments to planning, code enforcement, public services and elections.
Commissioners are paid $113,580 per year. They oversee the day-to-day operations of county government and its overall annual operating budget of more than $318 million.
The county faces several issues, including violent crime and gangs, homelessness, and staff shortages.
The District 2 research candidates promise to make improvements in each of these areas.
So far this year, Yakima County has recorded 17 homicides. Last year the total number was 25, and in 2020 there were 35 murders, which tied the record year of 2018.
The violence, coupled with drugs and gangs, landed on the FBI’s radar. The FBI presence has been strengthened in the county and officers are working with local law enforcement to combat violent crime.
Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell says the homicide rate is too high for a rural community, and he’s pushing for a countywide emergency response radio system and a regional crime lab which would significantly improve investigations and move cases forward faster.
All three candidates support these efforts.
Gutierrez says the effort must go beyond improving crime enforcement and that she would lobby for funds to support crime prevention efforts.
“The county must seek out and secure resources for gang prevention and response services that create healthy options and recreational programs for children and youth,” she said. “Law enforcement and community opportunities for youth must be strong for Yakima County to see a dramatic decrease in gang violence and activity.”
Sandoval said seeing the regional crime lab and inter-agency radio system completed would be his No. 1 goal.
However, he also agrees that there needs to be greater community involvement. He said he would work to strengthen neighborhood watch programs that are somewhat in place in some areas.
“I don’t think we’re fully implementing it,” he said. “It’s going to take individuals stepping up and I think they’re on point now that they’re going to do that.”
He said he would set up a routine meeting with community members, school officials and law enforcement to network.
“My philosophy is that people have to take ownership, and if people don’t take ownership, we go back to the cops chasing people,” he said.
Curtis said he strongly supports finding more resources that would allow the sheriff’s office to approach crime control and investigations in a holistic approach.
“We need to make sure our sheriff’s office has the resources to tackle runaway crime and tackle the opioid and drug epidemic,” he said. “The county plays a central role in providing a coordinated response to the increase in gang-related crime in our cities. It is no longer just a city problem, but a county problem.
The county has a long history of chronic homelessness. For decades, the homeless lived in makeshift encampments along the Yakima and Naches rivers, where trash piled up and fires turned into wildfires.
In recent years, the county has proposed converting a jail on Pacific Avenue into a care campus that would provide shelter, medical and mental health services. Later, the proposal was deemed unworkable.
Last year’s annual homeless survey counted 633 homeless people across the county, with 138 living homeless. This is an increase from the 79 homeless people counted the previous year.
The county is responsible for disbursing homelessness funds from local and state funds to the various service providers here.
Curtis, who served two years with the Yakima County Homeless Coalition working to expand its five-year plan, said more support needs to be focused on addressing underlying causes such as mental health and addictions issues that “are the root cause of chronic homelessness for many.”
He said the county needs to better track the effectiveness of county-funded programs and make the results available to the public.
“Ultimately, ending homelessness will require a coordinated, community-wide approach to service and program delivery,” he said.
Gutierrez said the county has long funded service providers who provide case management and other forms of assistance to homeless people. What the county needs to do, she said, is focus on affordable housing construction projects.
“The county must act boldly on housing development and increase the inventory of housing units in our community to provide opportunities for all residents, including those who are homeless and those at risk of losing their housing status. “, she said.
Sandoval said the lack of support from homeless families is part of the problem.
“My question #1 is: where are the families of these homeless people? he said. “Maybe we need to go in that direction to locate the families of these homeless people.”
He said he realizes drug and mental health issues were also factors, and he would speak to area shelters such as Camp Hope and Union Gospel Mission to learn more about service gaps. .
“I would like to see what they have to say; include them in the discussion,” he said.
Sandoval also said he would like to see the county partner with area churches that provide services to those struggling. “They have a natural infrastructure in the community,” he said.
In May, the county approved a general salary increase of 5% in an effort to recruit and retain staff. At that time, the county had 41 vacancies.
On Friday, the number was 43.
Sandoval said the county should offer them another small pay raise.
“Not break the bank, but give them another little raise,” he said.
He also suggested offering staff incentives for the people they hire. “Because sometimes your workers are the best recruiters,” he said.
Gutierrez said county departments may need a cultural shift to attract and retain new workers.
“The county needs leadership that will be receptive to suggestions on improving the work culture within the various county departments,” she said.
Curtis said the private sector is facing similar staffing issues, and much of it has been triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said the county needs to do a better job of marketing as an employer in addition to paying good wages with solid benefits.
“We need to better emphasize the benefits of working in county government and highlight opportunities for growth and advancement,” he said. “The job market is very large right now and if we want to attract and fill these vacancies, we need to better understand who is looking for work and how to stand out.