Kevin Cameron wants a third term as a Marion County commissioner but Andrew Dennis, a state policy analyst, believes it’s time for a change.
Cameron faces Dennis in the race for Position 1 on the Marion County Board of Commissioners in the Nov. 8 general election.
Commissioners are at-large positions, meaning all voters in the county can vote in every race. The position is a full-time job with a roughly $115,300 base salary.
Dennis says he has the frontline experience needed to ensure Marion County efficiently gets government money out to the public, particularly when disaster strikes.
Cameron’s motivation, he told Salem Reporter, is to finish his work for the county.
The replacement of the 1947 Scotts Mills Bridge is being designed and won’t get done until 2025. Neither will a new Interstate 5 bridge over Ehlen Road that will help clear up the often-jammed Aurora-Donald interchange. There are other ongoing county efforts he wants to see progress, such as rebuilding houses destroyed in the Santiam Canyon wildfires and expanding high-speed internet to rural residents.
“I want to do this to see projects get done for the people of Marion County,” he said. “There’s a big learning curve in this job, and the last commissioners that have been here had been here for quite a long time. It is not a political stepping stone to come in and be there for three or four years, and then move on and let somebody else come in.”
As a commissioner, he said the compounding impacts of Covid, wildfires and an ice storm have made the past two years “the most challenging time in my life.”
“I just believe that there’s a lot of things that we still need to accomplish,” he said. “We’re not going to just throw our hands up and quit. We’re gonna actually keep going as hard as we can make those things happen.”
Cameron, 66, spent nine years as a legislator in the Oregon House, representing House District 19 until 2014. He is also the founder and CEO of Cafe Today restaurants, which has locations in the Portland area.
Dennis, 32, has worked for over four years as an operations and policy analyst for the state – reviewing existing programs to ensure they are following guidelines, evaluating their impacts on the community and how efficiently they are operating.
At the state Employment Department, he helped develop and distribute the agency’s funding for regular unemployment claims, as well as for people whose jobs have been impacted by Covid or major disasters such as wildfire. He has worked since June 2021 for Oregon Housing and Community Services, helping implement an emergency funded program that helps people who fell behind on mortgage and housing expenses due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, he has served on the diversity, equity and inclusion boards for both departments.
Dennis said one reason he decided to run was watching the Employment Department’s outdated technology impair help to Oregonians early in the pandemic. He said he doesn’t believe Oregonians needing help received compassion or accountability for the barriers they dealt with, or transparency about what was being done.
“If this isn’t the only pandemic that I experience in my lifetime, or if this isn’t the only wildfire season that goes like it was, are we really going to be able to respond to that?” he said.
Dennis also said he has been concerned to see some county Covid funding go to organizations he felt “are a little too connected to our board of commissioners,” meaning those for which commissioners either volunteer or were previously board members.
Meanwhile, he said funding has been obligated but not gone out the door for agencies such as the St. Paul Fire Department or City of Stayton.
“I would just like to provide more transparency regarding that,” he said.
Dennis said he acknowledged the difficulty of beating an incumbent.
“The reason that I believe I have a chance against this individual is because I’m actively involved in everyday policy, whether it be implementing and developing it, or discussing the past and talking about the future of policy,” Dennis said. “I respect the man, but I do believe that I’m looking towards the future, and I’m focused on how we can change Marion County for the better, because I plan to be in it for the decades to come.”
As of 2020, the average personal income per capita in Marion County about $28,850, compared with $42,640 in Clackamas County, according to Census Bureau data.
Cameron said that’s because two of Marion County’s biggest employment sources are government and agriculture.
“Those two things don’t add up to high, high-paying jobs,” he said.
The best way for the county to create value out of agricultural products, he said, is continuing to invest in companies that improve technology to help farmers become more productive.
“Doesn’t necessarily add a job, but it’ll get you higher-paying jobs,” he said.
Cameron said the county could also help create jobs in Salem by backing the city in getting its airport ready for commercial air service.
Meanwhile, Dennis said the vote in November on whether to ban psilocybin manufacturing and service centers in unincorporated areas of the county could have implications for its economy. A measure banning the facilities will go before Marion County voters in the November election. The ban would only impact residents outside Salem city limits or any other city in the county.
Oregonians in 2020 legalized psilocybin manufacturing and service centers. Rules for those facilities and specifics of how services will be provided are still being determined by the state, but county governments in Oregon can independently prohibit their operations in unincorporated areas.
Dennis said the facilities provide an opportunity to bring in high-wage jobs in science and medicine, as well as agriculture and manufacturing.
“I think that that is more or less a policy that was put into place to help address mental health and post traumatic stress and terminal illness,” he said. “It’s been quoted at over $3 billion industry, and I think it’s beneficial to consider the human capital, the intelligence, the science, the medicine, and again, the funding we were able to potentially bring into our county, and maybe educate the public on why it might be important.”
As a commissioner, Dennis said he would prioritize pro-environment policies, as well as supporting school bond measures.
“I think it’s important that we update some of the schools,” he said.
Cameron said Oregonians will continue to be homeless as long as the entire state is behind in housing units.
He said county officials need to continue identifying regulations that are barriers to opening more housing – including temporary shelters – or those that drive the cost of building.
When Catholic Community Services recently sought housing for homeless people in an older building downtown, Cameron said the nonprofit first needed a grant to install a sprinkler system. “It was a quarter of a million dollars for a nonprofit to try to get there to house these people,” he said.
One challenge for Marion County, he said, will be developing new housing without taking out high-value farmland.
“We have to be very careful because Marion County is the number one agricultural, farm gate producing county. We have the highest variety of crops of any county in the state of Oregon,” he said.
Cameron said the county has money flowing in from the state that could be used to provide mental health services for homeless people. But expanding those services takes employees who are harder to recruit.
“Like everywhere else where you have now an employment and staffing issue, you’ve issues with trying to find the people that can help these people with the mental health stuff,” he said.
Cameron said he hopes to work with programs like the Salem-Keizer School District’s Career and Technical Education Center, a public-private partnership which offers high school students training for high-skill careers, to help get Salem’s long-awaited navigation center off the ground.
The county board in June approved $3 million to remodel a city-owned building to operate as a short-term shelter for 35 to 40 people.
Dennis said he supported county officials’ decision to provide shower trailers for emergency use through organizations like the ARCHES Project.
He said the county could also educate people and organizations on seeking grants for services that address the reasons people are homeless.
Cameron, who lives in Detroit, said it’s been challenging to get homes rebuilt in the Santiam Canyon that were destroyed by wildfire in 2020.
“The biggest thing is trying to get the people who are in the cracks,” he said, such as those who are underinsured or without insurance.
He said he wants to remain involved in the county’s recovery efforts, including building 32 houses in the Santiam Canyon to provide short-term shelter for people displaced by wildfire.
Half of the homes were previously planned to be at the former Oak Park Motel property in Gates, but Cameron said county officials recently learned developing the infrastructure would be too expensive. He said they are now working with Mill City to to build houses there instead. County officials also recently issued building and septic fee waivers for 700 wildfire-affected homes.
Dennis said county officials have done a good job of setting up small coalitions of government, nonprofit and private organizations helping rebuild in cities such as Detroit, Stayton and Sublimity, but he wonders if more could have been done to get people housed over the past two years.
He also said the county’s wildfire recovery efforts have been largely focused on those cities, and unincorporated areas of the county impacted by the fires would also benefit from having temporary shelters.
“I just, again, ask for the compassion, the understanding that there’s people that have been without their homes since 2020,” he said.
Cameron said housing is also the county’s greatest need to improve public safety.
“If you own a home, you’re a citizen. You have ownership,” he said.
Cameron would like to see more staff hired at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and continue to designate deputies to focus on patrolling specific areas, as the agency has done with the east Salem service district.
He said county officials are working on having deputies present at Salem’s Boys & Girls Club, likely not always in uniform.
“If you can break a cycle at the youth level, things change. We know that,” he said. “So I think continuing to have the resources that we have today, but finding the right people to staff and continue on down the road.”
Cameron chairs Marion County’s Public Safety Coordinating Council, which advises commissioners on using state and local funding to serve those charged with crimes and on criminal justice policy, according to the council’s bylaws.
With a majority of the county’s general fund invested in public safety, Cameron said he is concerned about the impact of inflation.
“We’re gonna have to really be cautious in the future. There’s been so much money pushed out to help all these things and finding the people that you can hire to use those resources to do the job,” he said. “Then if things slide backwards and the finances aren’t there, that’s when things get dicey. You’ve got to make big decisions.”
Dennis said he supported county efforts in recent years to fund public safety programs that provide a compassionate response to people who commit low-level crimes and address their underlying issues, such as mental illness or addiction.
He said he disagreed with commissioners’ decision at a Sept. 21 board meeting to postpone a vote to accept $6.3 million in state funding for a residential treatment program. The facility would care for people found unable to aid and assist in their own defense due to a mental illness or disability, as a federal judge in late August set limits on how long such patients could be committed to the Oregon State Hospital.
The ruling meant around 100 patients became eligible for discharge back to the county from which they were referred.
Commissioners are concerned that the county wasn’t equipped for the influx of new patients in the community, saying the state funding wasn’t enough.
Dennis said their response didn’t exhibit the compassion or concern he would want to see from the commissioners.
“It just seemed like it was more or less trying to not address the fact that there’s going to be 100 plus-people that are assumed to be potentially in need of home and housing, and how can you proactively address that, rather than focus on the fact that, ‘Oh, well, they’re a risk, they’re a liability, they committed crimes,’” he said.
CAMPAIGN MONEY: Here are totals for each campaign as reported by the state Elections Division as of Oct. 14. To look into individual donations and expenditures, start with this state website: Campaign finance.
Contributions: $12,700. Expenditures: $8,461. Cash balance: $17,513 (includes balance from prior campaigns)
Top five donors: Evergreen Biopower LLC, $10,000; Friends of Tim Freeman (campaign committee for the former Republican representative from Roseberg), $5,000; Mid-Valley Affordable Housing Coalition (political action committee for the Home Builders Association of Marion & Polk Counties), $2,500; Willamette Valley Vineyards, $2,000; Oregon Realtors Political Action Committee, $1,000 and Kyle Freres, $1,000 (tie).
Contributions: $1,533. Expenditures: $1,361. Cash balance: $171.90
Top five donors: Andrew Dennis, $701 in-kind; miscellaneous cash contributions $100 and under, $532; Ryan Dennis, $250; Raul Ronces, $150.
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.