Mayor candidates quarrel over experience and money in debate

Mayor Chris Hoy and Councilor Julie Hoy agreed on one item Tuesday night: they have little in common besides their name.

In an hour-long debate at the Elsinore Theatre, the two candidates for Salem mayor offered voters a choice between a business owner who’s still learning the ropes of city government, and a veteran elected official who sees his primary job as finding a way to get voters to support paying more for city services.

The event was hosted by the Salem City Club and Salem Reporter. More than 300 people attended with more watching Capital Community Media’s broadcast.

Chris Hoy put forward an explicit vision for Salem, saying the city has made measurable progress on its biggest challenges since he took office 18 months ago, but is hampered by the cost of city services rising faster than tax revenues.

“We’ve built a lot of momentum in Salem and we can’t stop now,” he said.

He said Salem most needs additional revenue to avoid cutting police and fire services and other core city operations. The city’s budget committee is now contemplating reducing parks, maintenance and homeless services after voters overwhelmingly rejected a payroll tax last fall the mayor backed.

Chris Hoy said he supports taking to voters a public safety levy to pay for city services. He didn’t offer details on what such a levy would entail. He said that he’ll back whatever the citizen task force seeking new sources of funds recommends. He said his track record as mayor shows he’s willing to make politically unpopular decisions to keep services Salemites tell him they want.

“I’m not ready to reduce any of our services. We have reduced and reduced and reduced over the last several decades to the point where we are at bare bones,” he said.

Mayor Chris Hoy speaks at the mayoral debate on Tuesday, April 30, at the Elsinore Theatre. (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

Julie Hoy, a business owner who has been a city councilor for 16 months, positioned her lack of government experience as an asset, saying the city needs fresh eyes and someone with a more collaborative personality in the mayor’s office. 

“Sometimes you can be so close to a situation for so long that you grow numb to it,” Julie Hoy said in response to a question about why she was the better candidate. “It takes open ears and open mind and an open heart to actually get a pulse on a community and pursue what it is they want most of all.”

She said the payroll tax and the unwillingness from the mayor to consider widespread public opposition motivated her to run.

Julie Hoy said the mayor and other city leaders have ignored citizens who feel unsafe in their city and aren’t doing enough to support police and first responders.

But she offered few specifics on how Salem should handle its budget deficit or pay for more public safety services, at times contradicting herself on issues of revenue and cuts and seeming confused about aspects of city operations.

Julie Hoy said she believes the city can stem its budget deficit through looking at “efficiency and effectiveness.”

“I don’t think it can be solved by reducing one particular fund or department. It all needs to be examined very closely. And I plan to bring the right people into the room to look at it and figure out what’s going right and what’s going wrong and what we can do about it,” she said.

Councilor Julie Hoy speaks at the mayoral debate on Tuesday, April 30, at the Elsinore Theatre. (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

Later in the debate, she said she’s interested in creating a special library district so the city library could have a dedicated source of money. A special district means the library would collect its own new property taxes, separate from the taxes property owners pay to the city.

“I’m learning about that, and I think it’s perfectly acceptable to admit that I am not the smartest person in the room. And I’m okay with that. There are a lot of really smart people who can help me figure out this problem,” she said.

She closed the debate saying Salem needs to “live within its means.”

On public safety, both candidates said Salem needs more police and firefighters to address a rise in shootings and long response times.

Chris Hoy said he has a track record of supporting public safety from his seat on the council, including lobbying to reopen shuttered city fire stations in 2019 and working to create the city’s Safety Outreach and Livability Services team, which responds to homeless camps.

The mayor said his support of an unpopular tax shows he’s willing to fight for public safety.

“I was willing to do that not because I thought it would be in my best political interest but because I wanted to fund those critical services and I knew there was no way to do it without additional revenue,” he said.

Julie Hoy couldn’t point to concrete actions she’d taken as a councilor in support of public safety beyond saying they should be funded first in the city budget. She said addressing the city’s homelessness problem by collaborating with Marion County would free up first responders to address other calls.

She misunderstood a question about her willingness to use political capital in support of public safety services, speaking instead about financial capital.

“I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s not that I don’t know who to call to find out,” she said.

Members of the audience file in for the mayoral debate on Tuesday, April 30, at the Elsinore Theatre (Laura Tesler/Salem Reporter)

Chris Hoy said the city’s climate action plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, would be “very important” in his administration.

He chairs the task force on the plan and said Salem has taken some steps, including using biodiesel in city vehicles and building a solar-powered microgrid as part of the new public works building that could power the neighborhood in case of an emergency.

Julie Hoy said she knew little about the plan but believed it was important.

“I’ve been honestly too busy trying to survive in business in Salem, Oregon, than to worry about that,” she said. Hoy’s business, Geppetto’s Italian Restaurant, is located outside city limits on Lancaster Drive in unincorporated Marion County.

“I want to learn. I want to know why it matters. And I want to be able to be helpful,” she said.

Julie Hoy hugs a supporter following the mayoral debate on Tuesday, April 30, at the Elsinore Theatre (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

The debate turned personal, mirroring the at-times testy exchanges the two Hoys have had in city council chambers.

Julie Hoy said the mayor is out of touch with the east Salem ward where they both live in. She asked him if he found it effective to be so dismissive of others, including city employees and fellow councilors.

“I think it’s highly inappropriate and I would just like to know if you think that it’s helpful,” she said.

“I do not believe I’m dismissive but thank you for your perspective,” Chris Hoy responded.

In turn, he questioned the city councilor about her efforts to have the city evaluate its contract for tire purchasing on behalf of a business who approached her. The councilor’s emails to city staff prompted a warning from City Manager Keith Stahley in February.

“I would like to know why you thought that that was appropriate to talk to your business associates and friends and then try to pressure the city into doing business with them. It’s clearly a violation of our city charter,” he said.

Julie Hoy responded that the business approached her and said she had never met the owner previously. She did not answer her challenger’s point about the city’s ethics rules.

“They brought to me the fact that that company used to do business with the city and the city had stopped that business seven years ago, when they began to follow the state contract. I didn’t understand what that was. So guess what? I asked the question. If we can spend less on tires and shop locally, why wouldn’t we?” she said.

The mayor at times appeared puzzled or bemused as his opponent spoke. Responding to a question about why he was the better candidate, he said, “I have an actual record of getting things done.”

Ballots are in the mail to voters for the May 21 primary election.

Mayor Chris Hoy speaks with an audience member following the mayoral debate on Tuesday, April 30, at the Elsinore Theatre (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

DISCLOSURE: Larry Tokarski, a founder and an owner of Salem Reporter, is a contributor to Julie Hoy’s campaign. He is not involved in news coverage produced by Salem Reporter. Read more on that here.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.