We put a call out to our community and asked what questions you had for these candidates. Questionnaires were sent out July 19 with responses expected by July 23. Candidates were either contacted by email, tagged via social media, called, or contacted using multiple methods whenever information was available. We also offered to extend the deadline or troubleshoot any problems if they had an interest in completing the questionnaire.
Candidates who elected not to respond:
- Jerome Delvin
- Donnie Landsman
- Michael Alvarez
What are the top 5 issues which you think are facing this position? How do you differ from others running on these issues?
Jeff J Smart:
The top 5 issues that the commissioners are currently facing are not necessarily specific things as much approach, research, ongoing communication, transparency, and follow-up. Whether the issue be the pandemic, the Safety Tax and its allocations, housing issues, systemic racism, inclusivity, the sharp increase in property taxes, mental health services, substance abuse services, land allocation, county budget, or any of a number of other present issues, the Commissioners need to determine a stronger, more comprehensive, transparent approach to hear, listen, gather solutions, and communicate so that constituents concerns are not lost in the shuffle of new cycles or the next critical moment.
- Make the role of Commissioners more transparent to the public. I will create more community engagement and help differentiate how county government services vary from those at the city, state, and federal levels. I will foster an environment where citizens feel welcome to participate in county government by providing public comment at meetings and communicating with Commissioners without fear of criticism or embarrassment from defensive replies.
- Budgeting amidst looming deficits from decreased sales tax revenues. I work in a creative, entrepreneurial spirited industry where I manage shoestring budgets and am not afraid to make difficult decisions about funding allocations. As a start, Commissioners should consider a payroll reduction to their $112,000/year salaries and not support their own pay raises in the next cycle.
- Healthy internal and external relationships. I plan to leverage my networking experience to keep Benton County connected to area jurisdictions, agencies, and businesses by fostering collaborative relationships of mutual trust and respect.
- Model the way by focusing on governance, not grandstanding. I represent a civil voice that is committed to civility and respect in our political discourse. We need to focus on issues and not the individuals who represent different sides of issues.
- Safeguarding the health and well being of the county's 200,000+ residents in the era of COVID-19. I trust science and will make make data driven, fact based decisions as part of a community-wide effort regarding our ongoing response to a global pandemic.
As a member of the Board of Health, what would you change in order to better meet the following challenges? 1.) The current pandemic; 2.) challenges in the area of Behavioral Health (Substance Use Disorders and Mental Health); and 3.) future epidemics?
Jeff J Smart:
One can say that hindsight is 20/20 as a defense for the initial lack of response to the Covid pandemic. However, the fact that the lack of communication, questioning science, blatant recommendations to circumvent public heath recommendations and requirements, and outright denial of the severity of risk to our community over the following months painted a very poor picture of the Commissioner’s concern for their constituents.
These unprecedented times provide for an excellent opportunity to gather and defer to experts, ramp up communications, and provide clear, concise guidelines for citizens to follow. If there’s a change to those recommendations or if they’re vague, openly explaining that reality while again deferring to local medical professionals to help provide a roadmap is crucial. We have a strong scientific and medical professional base within our community to draw from. This is not the time to spout internet conspiracy theories and personal opinions. Moving forward I would continue to bring together this group of experts, develop clear, concise responses, and provide a united, educated, publicly facing panel to help our community navigate these uncharted waters.
I would do the same for our community response to substance abuse issues and mental health concerns. We need to quickly develop a task force with the goal of determining underserved populations and areas where we have inadequate services. This needs to be an open, inclusive, and ongoing dialog with behavioral health professionals in our region. We need to recognize barriers to service such as lack of insurance, services that require insurance (as an example, Lourdes Counseling Services has very limited options for those with no insurance), intake and triage barriers, long term placement options, a lack of options for mental health care that isn’t based in substance abuse, care for children, young adults, and adults with clearly defined care options based on differing age groups, communication and continuance of care between law enforcement and behavioral health professionals, etc.. This task force needs to determine a pathway forward to meet these needs with clearly defined steps that we as a community can get behind and support. And then we need to act on those goals and regularly circle back to ensure we have matrix in place to determine if what is being done, truly meets the needs or if it can be modified to do a better job in the future. I was the first candidate to bring these issues to light in this campaign. We can do better. We must do better.
- Immediately invite local medical and public health experts to join the six commissioners from Benton and Franklin Counties to serve on the Board of Health. Work with BFHD staff to conduct a needs assessment of the agency and identify federal/state/local funding sources available for support.
- Preserve funding for existing therapeutic court programs that provide alternative paths for people struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues that have committed a crime; support a comprehensive plan for providing behavioral health services including bi-county facilities that would be open to county residents in need.
- Ensure that Benton-Franklin Health District is adequately funded well into the future and improve community education efforts regarding the severity of pandemics so we are more prepared in the future.
In your newly elected position, would you consider supporting legislation to create a larger, more representative County Commission of five or seven members instead of three? Please explain your reasoning.
Jeff J Smart:
Our current structure of only three County Commissioners has resulted in a narrow focus of expertise, experience, and vision. Adding additional voices to that group would help alleviate the isolated narrative that we have seen repeatedly displayed around complex issues such as systemic racism, property and tax management, and public health concerns. We desperately need a broader approach with enhanced communication, discussion based in varied perspectives, and better representation for the diverse socioeconomic, ethnic, and geographical area in which we live and do business.
Yes, understanding that the statutory authority rests with the State Legislature regarding the size of County Commissions based on population. I do find the size of our County Commissions with three members not in line with other local jurisdictions. The concentration of power is such that one Commissioner could be consistently out-voted on issues, and the three Commissioners are basically restricted from ever congregating together outside of their public meetings due to quorum regulations. However, I am aware of the pending challenge to the constitutionality of the law that increased the number of Commissioners in Spokane County from three to five. Another path forward I would support is electing Commissioners by district in the General Election which could provide for more diversity in county representation.
The availability and level of care concerning mental health services and substance abuse treatment in Benton and Franklin Counties is significantly lower than in communities of similar size in the state. How will you work to improve this?
Jeff J Smart:
Comprehensive mental health services and substance abuse treatment options are dangerously unavailable and/or unattainable in Benton and Franklin Counties. This often leaves the police and sheriff departments as our only line of approach and the resulting dependence on criminal prosecution and incarceration as the primary avenues for intake and housing those struggling with these issues, creates an environment that is unhealthy, unsafe, and unsustainable for all involved.
We need to work together with local mental health and substance abuse professionals to develop a plan that provides immediate changes as well as pathways to longer-term solutions. I do not profess to know what this plan needs to look like but I do know from personal experience that it is desperately needed and that we have willing and able experts who can work together with the Commissioners in a task force environment to accomplish lasting changes that will make our community stronger, safer, and responsive to all of our citizens, regardless of their needs.
The state is largely responsible for funding mental health services and substance abuse treatment, and I believe a better job has to be done at our local level on providing a comprehensive series of treatments and services. I would schedule meetings with groups that represent constituents who specifically deal with these issues, as we are fortunate to have strong advocacy groups like NAMI and the Substance Abuse Recovery Coalition in our community. The building of a bi-county rehabilitation center for codependency issues remains one element to a larger strategy that I would support, knowing that most communities of our size already have such amenities. Nevertheless, the county needs to identify and prioritize the full continuum of services for behavioral health by cost-effectiveness. Additionally, the county should protect its existing services, fill in the gaps after identifying what services are missing, and start planning for future financial support.
As a member of the Board of Health, do you feel the board should only be made up of commissioners? Or are you open/willing to add additional members who come from medical professions?
Jeff J Smart:
There is a very obvious need for leadership and involvement within the Commissioners from a medical and scientific perspective. Excluding this expertise until now has proven faulty, if not deadly, especially in the face of the current public health crisis. This involvement needs to go beyond just looking for periodic guidance from the Board of Health but rather, ongoing involvement of those professionals in gathering concerns, facing obstacles, answering questions, providing clear, concise recommendations, and follow-up. In short, yes. The board needs to open up membership to key leadership from both the scientific and health communities and in many cases, defer to and support those individuals and their guidance.
No; I would immediately invite local medical and public health experts to join the Board of Health. This is statutorily permitted as long as the majority of members are elected officials. In that instance, up to five community representatives could join the six total commissioners who currently make up the board from both counties.
Do you support Black Lives Matter? (yes/no)
Jeff J Smart:
Do you believe that there is systemic racism in Benton/Franklin counties? Thinking about actions you could take from this elected position, what do you think the top priorities of our community should be in response—particularly in our law enforcement and justice system?
Jeff J Smart:
Our country is plagued by long term, pervasive, and systemic racism and Benton/Franklin Counties are not in any way immune to that. In fact, our county faces many challenges and opportunities based on our diverse socioeconomic and ethnic population where our solutions could help provide a roadmap for others to follow nationwide. But first, the hard work and that’s what I hope to advocate for and participate in at our local level. We need to start these conversations and be open to listen and learn.
Yes; Benton County has the same challenges of systemic racism that face our entire country. Understanding that there are limitations on a Commissioner's authority over local law enforcement and the justice system, as policy decisions are largely made by the elected Sheriff, Judges, and County Prosecutor, I would endeavor to work with those independently elected officials to ensure they have sufficient budget resources for training and hiring to address this important issue. I would convene a diverse panel including people of color and members of our county government, especially from the criminal justice system, who could make recommendations on how to address these challenges and work to enact those recommendations. I would be in favor of expanding the role of the Civil Service department by inviting additional community representatives to serve on law enforcement hiring panels for the Sheriff's office. I would also advocate for a practice in which law enforcement should have to live in the city or county where they work and be part of the community they serve.
All institutions have implicit biases that do not necessarily match up with their articulated beliefs. By actively engaging the community and seeking to diversify its staff, Benton County can help champion issues of equity in our local government. Amidst rising friction, we need a renewed commitment to collaboration between the Sheriff's office and the citizens of Benton County.
Black and Latinx community members are twice as likely to die from the coronavirus as white community members. What are your thoughts on the reasons for this? And what would you propose to do at a policy level to address the disparity?
Jeff J Smart:
There are a wide variety of socioeconomic and cultural differences that have led to the unacceptable level of infections among our Black and Latinx communities, locally and nationwide. The pandemic has shown a very bright light on issues that have plagued our country for a very long time. Based on socioeconomics (and often its tie to race) access to healthcare, language barriers, higher likelihood of working in crowded conditions, multi-generational and smaller footprint housing, dependence on public transportation and other close contact travel, and so many other systemic factors have led to disparate higher numbers within these communities.
As mentioned, these factors existed before the pandemic brought them into the light and are issues that we must deal with in our community and nationwide. Addressing these factors at a county policy level is actually where even the nationwide dialog should start. We need to work closely with the Board of Health to determine areas of need within the healthcare community. We need to focus on affordable housing and education regarding how to access it. We need to listen to our civic leaders when it comes to specific barriers that we can address through education, programs, policy change, opening dialog with diverse communities, and encouraging participation in governmental activities for all.
The reasons for this disparity are primarily economic: many people of color work for essential services which puts them at higher risk of exposure without the option to work from home. Additionally, many members of the Latinx community work in the agricultural industry where we have seen some of the largest outbreaks due to crowded work conditions and lack of enforcement of social distancing protocols and masking by some business owners.
All employers must be required to assure safety practices and protections for their workers, including free virus testing and sick pay. Many of these workers live in fear of losing their jobs or having their pay docked if they stay home, so they come to work despite being sick and end up infecting others. Additionally, many Latinx families live in housing conditions where multiple family members occupy small home structures where the threat of one sick person infecting the entire family is significant. Policies need to be developed from collaborations between the Commissioners, public health experts, and members of the Black and Latinx communities.
How will you improve the relationships between Benton and Franklin counties to increase the effectiveness of bi-County organizations? Do you support separating traditionally shared functions between Benton and Franklin County, such as the Courts and the Public Health system?
Jeff J Smart:
Benton and Franklin counties are often considered as one entity around the State. Many of our services are shared and we have a fairly healthy climate of working together. But we need to recognize that Benton county shares a heavier burden on operational costs than Franklin county on shared resources. Many feel that we should split the shared services and make each county responsible for their fair share. I believe we need to continue to support each other to the best of our ability. I don’t think it possible to split costs on shared services equally when the population and revenue are not equal. I would increase the communication between the counties. Joint meetings between the two counties need to happen for planning and forecasting of revenues and expenditures. I know Benton and Franklin county can continue to provide what they are and expand to bring in more shared services in the very near future.
We need to rebuild our relationship with Franklin County, especially considering the number of bi-county agencies that exist. I know our current Commissioners and am prepared to work together with them to make decisions in the best interests of residents of both counties, notably the candidates who bring fresh ideas to the table and share my commitment to collaboration.
For the most part, no, I would not support separating the traditionally shared county functions; sharing the courts and health district between the two counties helps lower the fiscal impact of those programs and ultimately saves tax payer dollars. Nevertheless, it has been a challenge over the years to have Franklin County block numerous bi-county innovations and reforms, including the result of developing a juvenile drug court only for Benton County within the bi-county district.
What are your thoughts on pushing forward legislation to move our state/district/county/city to Ranked Choice Voting?
Jeff J Smart:
Ranked Choice Voting has had success in Maine over the last few years. I am in favor of looking at it's possible implementation in our area. It's a very intriguing option in the management of campaigns and communication to the public. In our current division climate, it could lead to a calmer environment.
There is a wonderful experiment in the State of Maine right now around Ranked Choice Voting. It will be great to see how it works and then decide if it would be a good fit here in Washington State!
Should we reopen indoor restaurants, bars, gyms, and movie theaters before our case numbers go down, we’ve flattened the curve and built up our testing/tracing capacity to CDC-recommended levels?
Jeff J Smart:
In a word, no. The risk from rising numbers does not outweigh the benefits to opening indoor venues (schools included). We can work with local businesses to help them come up with creative options to open in alternate ways. As our numbers start to come back down, this can be re-addressed. We have not met our levels of testing and need to emphasize that all members of the community should get tested. We have no lack of testing supplies and/or testing sites. This must be met before we can open up and move forward.
No; I am in alignment with the Governor's Safe Start Washington phased reopening plan. I do believe that we can find a balanced approach to protecting our residents while supporting local businesses, and I will help us navigate through future phases by pursuing proactive solutions in collaboration with area business leaders, medical industry experts, and trained public health officials. I will also work closely with other elected officials from our cities and port districts to make sure we are working in tandem on this front. To that end, I believe I am the responsible choice in my race as we continue to battle COVID-19 well into the future.
What metrics should be met before schools reopen? And what precautions should be taken once they’re open to limit COVID-19 spread?
Jeff J Smart:
First it should be stated that we are not looking at whether or not schools should open per se. We are talking about whether school buildings should open to in-person instruction. This is not a political decision but rather one that needs to be based purely on our ability to keep students, staff, and teachers safe, not just in the first few days of in-person instruction but in the following weeks and months.
At the very least, our county needs to have a declining infection rate before we even start to consider gathering large groups of mixed ages in indoor settings for extended periods of time. The chaos we would face if we had even one or two positive cases per school would quickly remove any benefit from bringing everyone together too quickly. Potentially schools across the district would be opening and closing buildings repeatedly based on quarantining enough individuals who test positive to prevent widespread exposure and having limited staff and substitutes available to remain open.
School districts need to use this time to prepare for a short period of remote instruction. They should also look at in-person options for students who have IEPs with specific needs and develop isolated, small pods of teachers and aides who can work with those students. Districts need to be working immediately on determining increased cleaning schedules for rooms and common areas in anticipation of students returning to buildings. Funding needs to be addressed so that there are adequate cleaning supplies and PPE available for each school. Hybrid models of instruction online and in person should be explored as well as ways to bring back students with alternating schedules to limit the number of students and personnel in buildings at any one time and increase the possibility of successful social distancing. Plans need to be established and communicated, but flexible to accommodate a fluid situation. Funding also needs to be allocated for testing and contact tracing. BFHD needs to provide leadership in this area with full backing and support by the Commissioners.
Policies need to be in place to address families who refuse to follow guidelines for wearing masks if they are required. If social media is any indication, teachers will be in the front line of a very divisive, often combative debate and continuing that in classrooms will do nothing but take away from valuable learning time.
No one is suggesting that schools continue with remote instruction indefinitely. Schools will be open, regardless of instruction delivery. We will return to a traditional in-school, in-person model at some point soon. This just isn’t the right time.
County Commissioners have little role in the reopening of schools other than to support the decisions made by the jurisdictions who have that authority. I do believe that the Governor, State Department of Health, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and local school boards are on the right track in adopting metrics that focus on the health of teachers and students aside from partisan politics. In general, we need to get the virus under control in our bi-county area before any major reopening efforts of any industries or agencies take place. Commissioners do have a responsibility to keep county residents safe, including our children who attend school.