The Polk County Courthouse. (Courtesy of Janet Guzman/Polk County Itemizer-Observer)

UPDATE 10:50 a.m. Dec. 5: Micky Garus was not appointed Polk County Commissioner. Commissioners unanimously chose Lyle Mordhorst, a manager at Les Schwab and former president of the West Salem High School Education Foundation.

As a Dallas city councilor, Micky Garus once commented against transgender people and Muslims in a way that drew so much public reaction that the council shifted its next meeting to a local theater.

Now he’s near becoming Polk County commissioner, a job paid $70,000 a year by taxpayers, without a vote of the county’s 83,000 residents.

Garus, 38, is one of five finalists to replace Jennifer Wheeler, who is stepping down early after discovering changes at the Public Employees Retirement System would upend her retirement payouts.

Wheeler’s early exit opens the door for someone to finish the last two years of her term.

Commissioners Craig Pope and Mike Ainsworth don’t have rigid criteria for picking Wheeler’s replacement, according to Pope. They hoped for a candidate with a history of working in the community and perhaps local government. Pope said he’d like someone with a business background to help steer the county and its $70 million budget.

Pope and Ainsworth will meet Wednesday to pick the new commissioner. Oregon law gives the remaining commissioners that authority as long as the office is nonpartisan.

Pope and Ainsworth have already whittled a field of 25 candidates down to five, whom they interviewed last Wednesday. If they have different choices, the two commissioners will debate at the meeting.

It’s unclear which of the five finalists they will choose, but at least one appears to check the commissioners’ boxes. Garus’s four-page resume, acquired by Salem Reporter, lists a career of volunteerism, business ownership and public service.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Garus volunteered as a firefighter and medic. He rose steadily in the region’s food processing industry, leapfrogging to bigger responsibilities at different firms. He also coached youth sports and founded a softball league. Today he owns a distributor of gloves and safety supplies and a local gun store.

He recently resigned from his city council seat, where he garnered considerable attention for controversial comments in November 2015.

Garus twice took to his personal Facebook page, where today he has more than 1,500 friends, to threaten transgender people and call the Muslim faith “pure evil,” comparing Muslims to Adolf Hitler. The comments drew statewide attention and condemnation from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“We need to stop pandering and address Islam, the Muslims and the evil that is knocking at our door,” he wrote on the social media site, linking to an article about the then-recent election of three Muslims to a city council in Michigan.

Another post on his site less than a week later linked to an article about the issue of transgender students using girls’ locker rooms at an Illinois school district.

“If this ever happens in a school that my kids attend, I’ll be the first in line to issue a ass whooping, both to the transgender and the administration whom failed to protect our children,” Garus wrote, according to a report in the The Oregonian. “Wake up America!”

After local and state media reported Garus’s comments, the next city council meeting was moved to a local theater down the road from City Hall. More than 100 people attended. Media reports said more than half of the 15 speakers supported Garus.

Garus then told the crowd he stood by his remarks.

“I have literally received hundreds and hundreds of emails this last week and out of the ones I’ve received personally to my inbox, there’s been about six or seven negative ones,” he said. “And all the rest are from around the entire world, you guys, saying ‘Thank God someone finally said it. Thank you for standing up for the world community. The world and our country.’”

“It’s obvious not everybody up here agrees with me, but there’s a lot of people across this world that are appreciative of me being a voice for them. So, that’s all I wanted to let the room be aware of. Thank you,” he said.

Garus faced no sanctions from the city, said Dallas Mayor Brian Dalton. Councilors felt Garus’s statements were protected as free speech as an unpaid elected official, although Dalton denounced the comments.

“It’s not what I observe to be the philosophy of this community and certainly not mine at all,” he told Salem Reporter on Monday.

Garus resigned from city council this year after moving out of Dallas city limits and into unincorporated Polk County.

“I have had the aspiration to serve our community in this capacity for some time. Commissioner Wheeler’s vacancy has sped up my timeline somewhat, but my intentions were to run for a seat in the next election,” he wrote in his application for commissioner. “I am looking forward to serving our county through this appointment, and God willing, through future terms as an elected commissioner.”

In picking him as a finalist, commissioners Pope and Ainsworth acknowledged Garus’s qualifications for the job.

Asked what stood out about Garus, Pope said, “Some of it has to do with prior government experience. Some of it has to do with prior community engagements.”

Pope said he was aware of the past controversies. He said while he didn’t agree with the comments, they were a matter of free speech.

“We didn’t judge candidates on their history of free speech,” he said.

Pope said commissioners received several letters after Garus was named a finalist, either praising or chiding the county.

“Pretty much everyone has been careful and thoughtful on their views of someone’s speech,” he said of the letters addressing Garus. “For people who thought his comments were inappropriate, there’s probably an equal number of people who support it. Does that make him the prime finalist? No.”

Ainsworth didn’t respond to a message left for him Tuesday seeking comment.

When contacted by Salem Reporter, Garus said he mainly regretted how he stated his beliefs in the past, but said they were misconstrued by political opponents and the media.

“Today, I would definitely be more careful with my words,” he said. “I’m passionate about things and I put myself out there, like I said, but I do think twice about things.”

Given a chance to clarify his earlier remarks, Garus said he worried that allowing transgender people to use bathrooms of their identified gender would empower sexual predators. On his comments about Muslims, he claimed it was an attempt to say how communities change based on their elected leaders.

“That article was about a specific city that the majority (of elected office holders) now became Muslim. You could look at Oregon here and say ‘Hey, we just elected a supermajority Democrat here in the state, how is that going to affect the decisions that come out of Salem?’” he said.

“Since I put the article up, you can Google there story after story after story of things that happened there: ideologies that have been pushed, law enforcement doesn’t feel comfortable working over there, treatment of certain genders,” he added.

Garus followed the interview with an email to further explain.

“I love Muslims. Jesus tells us to. Radical Muslims unleashing hate and terror — that see no other religion other than theirs — is who I have no tolerance towards, and is where I take issue,” he wrote. “I will not let radicals whether Muslim or Hindu, Christian or Catholic, dictate policy and impose ideology that isn’t in conjunction and favorable with our Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

Garus said he took seriously that government officials should try to represent everyone.

“Once you get in an office, you see the other side of it, too and there are people you’re representing that did not vote for you,” he said. “I can’t have blinders on to them.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, troy@salemreporter.com or @TroyWB.