Eight candidates vying for four seats up for reelection this year on the Centralia City Council debated Thursday during a candidate forum hosted by the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce and The Chronicle.
Topics included streetscape projects, federal infrastructure funding and the state-ran isolation and quarantine facility. In addition to the questions asked during the event, candidates also provided written answers on a broader slate of topics.
This was the first debate of its kind hosted for local candidates during this election cycle. Three candidates who registered in May to run for these seats were not present at the debate. Chelle Wilder, Meta Hogan and Rhoda Angove will all appear on the Aug. 3 primary ballot.
The candidates were questioned in groups of two, in accordance with what seat they’re running for. Lisa Striedinger and Cameron McGee are running for Centralia Council District No. 1, Rebecca Staebler and Sarah Althauser are running for the District No. 2 seat and Max Vogt and Kurtis Engle are running for the District No. 3 seat.
Candidates Steven Hubbard and Leah Daarud are both running for Centralia Council Position No. 3, an at-large seat that’s being vacated by Councilor Mark Westley, who is running for former Mayor Susan Luond’s seat. Luond is not seeking a new term.
Hubbard and Daarud were also among a large pool of applicants earlier this year looking to be appointed to a vacant seat following the resignation of current state Rep. Peter Abbarno.
For Daarud, who worked most recently as an admission coordinator helping facilitate health classes at Centralia-based mental health care provider Wellpath, this is her first campaign. Hubbard, who works for I-5 Auto Group, has previously run.
Since the two candidates are the only ones running for the open seat, their names will not appear on the Aug. 3 primary, but instead the Nov. 2 general election ballot. The Chronicle has also previously written profiles on the other three district races, which will appear on the August ballot; those can be read online at www.chronline.com.
“I can offer my experience and community involvement, and look for fresh perspectives and solutions to some of the challenges in our community,” said Daarud, who has served for the last year on the city’s Planning Commission.
She said she would focus on infrastructure and support for public safety and law enforcement.
Hubbard, a community member of 40 years, said he’s looking to serve on the Centralia council to keep veterans services in Lewis County, continue the city’s beautification process to attract business and to get people back to work.
“I’ve seen the ups, the downs. I’ve been through the floods. I’ve been through the new homeless population that we have coming out of every corner of our city right now. My goal is to get the citizens of Centralia back to work, my goal is to get the pool open,” he said.
Candidates as a whole largely agreed that the city council did the best it could in responding to the state Department of Health’s last-minute occupation of a Centralia hotel to run an isolation and quarantine facility earlier this year. The city and county were not aware that the facility was coming to town until after it began moving in.
Relationships between local governments and the state have improved, but there’s worry the state will fall flat on its promise to recoup the city for lodging tax revenue it missed out on due to the occupation, estimated at more than $30,000.
“I do believe that the state is responsible for getting us that money back, in some way, shape or form, or working out a plan with us because that’s valuable revenue that our city needs in this time to do different things with,” Hubbard said.
Max Vogt, an incumbent candidate who was recently appointed mayor by the council, said it was unfair the state conducted that transition without letting the city know. But he’s not too worried about this facility today, especially at this stage in the pandemic.
“It is up to the state to do this — we can’t force them out. And, most importantly, I want to say this: That hotel is a private business. And private businesses have a right to do business with whomever they choose. We never attack our private businesses in our city. So, if that business or entity decided to make this contract with the state, we need to respect that and their business practices,” he said.
Candidate Kurtis Engle, who is challenging Vogt, said “gratitude would have been an appropriate response” to the state establishing a facility within the city limits.
Sarah Althauser, who’s challenging incumbent Rebecca Staebler, said it’s unfortunate that the facility is taking up such limited resources such as the city’s hotels.
“I have a heart for everyone — (it’s) that kindergarten teacher spirit in me, but to me it’s something that I think the city did the best they could with what they were told. But it is a bit of a shame that we have so many people coming to Centralia and we don’t have enough facilities for them to stay at when they come to the sports hub. We’ve got the Olympic Club, Centralia Square, but we need more places for people to come and enjoy all of what Centralia has to offer,” said the former educator of 12 years.
Staebler said she was proud with how the city responded and of the engagement they’ve been in since.
“I believe that, in the end, we’ve created a good partnership with them. So, I’m quite proud of what we did and how we are serving this population in our community and try(ing) to get over this pandemic by keeping people safe,” Staebler said.
The recently-passed American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is expected to bring millions of dollars in funding for infrastructure projects in Lewis County. The city is also expected to get a large chunk of that, and will partner with the Lewis Economic Development Council to efficiently utilize those dollars.
Staebler said it will be a balancing act to invest those funds in both short-term infrastructure projects and longer term projects that look out into the future of the city.
Lisa Striedinger, a candidate for Centralia Council District No. 1, who works as a Washington state behavioral health counselor and separately operates nonprofit Friends Without Homes, said investing in housing infrastructure and broadband should be the city’s top priority.
“If we could really dive into the building of that infrastructure so that we could build housing, I think that would be a really great way to spend that money, as well as working with others in the community to try and find out where the best interest in the community is,” she said.
Her opponent, incumbent Cameron McGee, said he believes the city is doing an excellent job in partnering with the Lewis Economic Development Council to leverage more dollars.
“The dig-once policy we’re working on there with everybody I think is going to be an excellent collaboration and will be the best way to spend those funds, is finding those spots and corridors in which we can work and utilize those resources the best way possible,” he said.
Hubbard said he’d like to see the funds used to help lessen the blow dealt by the eviction moratorium, and thinks the city should also recoup itself for funds lost. Daarud said she’d like to see those funds spent with the guidance of a strategic planning committee, noting a specific focus on sewer, infrastructure and support the city’s critical aquifer.
On the topic of the city’s large streetscape investment plan, Staebler said it’s a generational investment. She said she remembers what the city looked like in the 60s and when she got back from college in the 70s and 80s.
“It was in decline, there was not anything happening downtown. There were boarded-up buildings, there were lots of taverns. We were known for (having) a tavern, or two or three, in every block,” she said. “What happened was someone came into our community and said ‘We will invest in your community if you invest in your community. If you improve your streets and the visual appeal of your downtown and your way into town, we’ll invest. That was a game changer for Centralia, an absolute game changer.”
Businesses now, she said, are diversifying. The city is now working to improve the connection between the western shopping portion of the city with its downtown area — two cores she characterized as “thriving.”
Hubbard said he’d like to see the city focus on its highway streetscapes, specifically around Interstate 5.
“The important thing about the streetscape is we also have to talk about the outlet malls. You need to talk about the outlet malls, you need to talk about the path to get to downtown… Nobody’s going to come downtown if they get put off when they come to the entrance,” he said. “We have a whole business district that’s not given the attention that it needs.”
The debate was live streamed to the chamber’s Facebook page, where an archived video recording of it can be found.
The chamber will host a similar debate next month with the Port of Chehalis and Chehalis City Council races. It will be 11:30 a.m. on Aug. 12 at O’Blarney’s at the Gibson House.