Chris Cummings, left, and Micki Varney, are running to represent west Salem, Ward 8, on the city council (Campaign photos)

On May 17, Salem voters will select four city councilors and the city’s next mayor.

Council candidates are running in ward 2, 4, 6 and 8. Voters must live in a ward to vote in that ward’s race. All Salem voters can cast a ballot for mayor.

Races are nonpartisan, which means candidates aren’t running from a political party and voters don’t need to be registered with any party affiliation. 

Salem Reporter sent all nine candidates for city offices the same questionnaire based on reader suggestions and major issues facing the city. We’re printing responses from candidates over the coming days, organized by ward.

Salem Reporter also reviewed records of campaign contributions, criminal and civil court records and voting histories to learn about each candidate.

Micki Varney and Chris Cummings are seeking the ward 8 seat to represent west Salem on the city council.

Cummings, 51, is the CEO of Petra Technologies, a Salem IT company. Varney, 62, is a salmon biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Fellow councilors appointed Varney to the city council on March 21 after Councilor Jim Lewis resigned to spend more time with his family. Cummings also applied to replace him.

Lewis had held the seat since 2015.

Varney is endorsed by fellow councilors Chris Hoy, Jackie Leung, Trevor Phillips and Virginia Stapleton. 

Cummings is endorsed by Lewis and Polk County Commissioner Lyle Mordhorst.

Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett has not made an endorsement in the race.

Cummings has raised $33,148, with his largest donations from real estate and developer companies and political action committees. That includes $2,500 in cash and $666.67 in in-kind donations from the Home Builders Association of Marion and Polk Counties’ political action committee, $2,500 from the Oregon Realtors political action committee and $2,500 from Mountain West Investment Company.

Varney has raised $9,998. Her top donation is a $3,500 contribution from her mother, Katharine Conder. She’s also received $1,750 from the political action committee for the Service Employees International Union Local 503, the union representing many state employees and caregivers, $500 from Salem resident Mary Kamppi, and $500 from the Polk County Democratic Central Committee.

Q&A

How long have you lived in Salem?

Cummings: Over 50 years.

Varney: Most Recently since 2011, so 11 years.  I spent a lot of time in Salem though. My grandparents lived here their entire adult lives, most of it on Park Avenue across from the State Hospital. My Dad lived in the Salem area until leaving for medical school in St. Louis, MO after graduating with his pre-med degree at U of O and after his service in the Korean War.  After Dad finished medical school we returned to Oregon. I spent a lot of time in Salem while Mom was teaching and Dad was completing his residency at OHSU. 

Please describe previous civic experience. This could include service on a board or commission, previous elective office, or work or volunteer service in a related field. Please include the year(s) for the work or service.

Cummings: I’ve not been part of a city council before. I’ve watched many Salem city council meetings over the years, and almost all of them within the last year as well as reaching out to past council members to gain familiarity with the process and expectations. At some point it requires jumping into this volunteer position and start using the talents we’ve got. What’s important is: Do I represent the best interests of West Salem as well as Salem as a whole, and do I have the logic and capacity do the work needed for the position? I do. The decisions and issues we face now are also important–they are needing a different approach than the past. The question for the voters will be if they want change.

Varney

-Current Salem City Councilor for Ward 8 (appointed March 21st, 2022) 

-Past member and Chair of the Salem Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (2018-2022)

-Parks Chair (2020) and active member of the West Salem Neighborhood Association (2014-2022)

-Edgewater Partnership activities (2014-current)

-Homeless Outreach—volunteer for City Vibe and the Polk County Point in Time count (2017-2018), Food and Sundries Distribution Task Force (2019).

-City Councilor, Dayton WA (2009-2010)

Describe one volunteer circumstance where you held a leadership position and used that position to accomplish a specific goal. We are looking for information on not only previous leadership but effective leadership.

Cummings: Although I’ve been president of some IT and networking associations, one experience was very crucial for a specific goal. It was jury duty for Polk County Circuit Court. After the selection process, I then was elected to be head juror by eleven peers of all walks of life, including some that was a farmer, retired, stay-at-home mother & father, business professionals, factory worker, introverts, and extraverts. This was a very diverse group with some challenges. Using my leadership skills, I was able to keep the discussions on track, make incremental steps that kept the group engaged and on the same page, be sure each person was heard and understood, review the facts, and reach our goal on time. It was a rewarding experience to see the teamwork. I enjoy being part of a group of people collaborating and solving problems.

Varney: I was elected Chair of the West Salem Parks Committee in 2017.  In October 2019, I applied for a Salem Park Improvement Fund (SPIF) grant for the 2019-2021 grant cycle for improvements in Dan Chandler Nature Park. The improvements included repair and widening of the nature trail,  installation of new park signs at the entrances to the trail and removal of ivy invasive from ~14 trees.

Every biennium the City sets ~$60,000 for the SPIF program.  

SPIF grants provide an opportunity for Salem Neighborhood Associations to partner with the City to help make local park improvements. I also applied for a grant with the Salem Parks Foundation (SPF) to provide a portion of the matching funds for the repairs.  We were successful and received $6,000 from the City and $2,000 from SPF for the improvements (total cost was $8,192.62).

In 2020, I applied for and received a $2,500 SPF grant for a park bench on a concrete pad in Orchard Heights Park. 

In fall of 2020, I submitted a letter of intent for a new SPIF grant for the 2021-2023 grant cycle for improvements at Brush College Park. The project included complete renovation of the trail system, installation of 3 disc golf practice baskets, two new picnic tables and a new sign at the park entrance.  The formal SPIF application was due in January.  The application included the support of multiple volunteers, local Scout Troop 7150 and $500 from WSNA to go toward the project. WSNA was successful in being awarded $11,500 for the park improvements and we recently applied for a SPF grant to provide additional funds for the $15,000 project.

What motivated you to run?  What specific issue is a priority for you to address if elected and what steps would you take?

Cummings: I see the current council, as a whole, off track and out of touch with the rest of the community. The community is faced with homelessness overrunning our sidewalks, parks, downtown areas, and neighborhoods, we’re seeing crime on the rise, and we’re seeing a lack of affordable housing. Our Ward 8 is also faced with this.  When the system makes it easier to live on the street rather than getting help, we have a fundamental problem. I will lead the efforts to address the factors that are causing folks to lose their homes, find ways to encourage the use of shelters that provide transitional programs, and adding more officers to our police force.

Varney: I’ve been an active member of the West Salem community for years and have worked on so many issues that required support from the city, so when looking at what more I could do for my community, the City Council was the logical next step. As a councilor I can advocate for West Salem and work with the Neighborhood Association and other civic groups to help enact our shared vision for a better West Salem.  We face many issues, but one that takes priority for me is the approval of the Unified Development Code as part of the Our Salem plan. These ordinances inform and impact every other issue that the city faces, including affordable housing, congestion, economic development, the environment, and livability. If we want to address our current issues like homelessness and traffic, and have a beautiful city for the next generation we have to get these rules right.

Homelessness remains a major challenge for the community.

What action has the city taken in the past year that you agree with and support?

Cummings: I agree with plans so far for the Navigation Center. The details of the layout, staffing and specific services are still in the works. I hope to see this facility be an integral part of keeping folks out of homelessness as well. 

I agree with building innovative, low-cost, managed microshelters and placing them in commercial areas to reduce the high levels of homelessness facing us today.

Varney: I am supportive of the establishment of the managed micro shelter communities.  The micro shelters themselves provide a safe, secure and sheltered place for unsheltered individuals to live temporarily.  The sites provide 24/7 staffing and wrap-around services.  The sites provide, housing and employment-focused assistance, health and behavioral health services on-site, a main meal and the sites are fully enclosed to ensure the safety of the guests.  The first micro shelter community on Portland Rd was able to transition almost 40% of the community into more permanent housing.  The success continues to build.  Salem has established two micro shelter communities and is working on the third.  The micro shelters are a practical and positive step forward.  They also protect our parks and communities while taking care of our most vulnerable residents.  The micro shelter communities allow for easier access to social services to help people transition off of the streets.  

What action has the city taken in the past that you disagree with and oppose?

Cummings: I oppose allowing the homeless to camp in our parks and overrun our sidewalks. Bill 6-20 states that the City Manager cannot enforce the ordinance until certain facility criteria is met. Our community does have facilities to house homeless. But many homeless seen on the streets do not want to follow the few rules at these facilities. 

I disagree with the 90-day transition goals and expectations within the current shelter program. Originally the transition goal was less than 30% but current achievements have reached 40% and 60% in a couple of locations. Although that is good news, I would like to see a goal of 100%, coupled with a plan with expectations to accomplish that goal. Currently, anyone in the program may remain there.

Varney: Unmanaged camping in parks. As the Chair of the Salem Parks and Recreation Advisory Board I strongly opposed this action, and I think that while it was a stop-gap measure at a time of crisis, that it has caused more harm than good. During the beginning of the pandemic as we saw increases in homelessness the city struggled to staff the resources that were needed to assist the homeless.  Allowing folks to use city parks provided a means of providing the space to spread out and to somewhat manage where our unsheltered were going to be.  But it should not have been allowed to continue for as long as it did.  The practice resulted in the vandalism of both Cascades Gateway and Wallace Marine Parks.  Cascades Gateway is still closed to the public while the city replaces restrooms, plants trees and replaces structures.  Not having full access to a couple of our major parks as areas where children and families can play and enjoy nature and the safety issues that have arisen have led to a lack of trust of the City by residents and businesses.

What would you propose to address encampments around the city?

Cummings: Initially, the microshelter project that is underway is a good way of reducing unmanaged encampments. These need to include a requirement to transition into another program and, with assistance of case worker(s), actively work on a plan to toward obtaining a home or a structured community place to live. Too low of expectations and routine many handouts will cause many of those in homelessness to remain there. With effective solutions, encampments would become uncommon, and the city would have a process to work with them. We need to obtain and direct funding into homeless prevention programs.

Varney: We need to create a system of managed transitional housing communities, utilizing micro shelters like the ones built by Edomo Homes, manufactured right here in West Salem. Managed housing and the establishment of enclosed safe parking sites for RV’s allow the City to better provide resources and services in a centralized location, improve the health and safety of those experiencing homelessness, and open up our parks to be used and enjoyed by all.

The managed communities provide a viable alternative to camping, and are a safe and clean space to live. The managed communities address the majority of our concerns over homeless encampments around the city, and offer a path forward when working to help people transition out of homelessness. Working with local non-profit organizations, churches, and other municipalities we can reserve unused areas of land, establish them as managed transitional housing communities or safe-park sites, and create a structure and method to get people off the streets and into stable housing and employment. I am also supportive of the navigation center which will provide a low barrier shelter with 50 beds and a centralized location to connect our unsheltered with services. 

What additional collaboration or partnership do you propose the city expand or initiate to address the reasons people are homeless in Salem?

Cummings: I support partnerships with new agencies and mobile units to provide mental health services that would work with local law enforcement and dispatch to attend to those with mental health needs. This would allow police to focus on the criminal activity.

Varney: Homelessness can come about for several reasons, but by far the largest that the City can assist with is the lack of affordable housing.  By working with developers on the pricing of new apartments and houses and providing tax incentives we can facilitate an increase in affordable homes. The city can also continue its program providing assistance on utility bills ad continue to build on partnerships which provide resources and guidance to those struggling with rent or payments.  If we can provide extra support for as little as one month, that can allow someone time to get a new job, find more affordable housing, or to address whatever their current situation is and prevent them from getting on the street in the first place. We are also currently relying on partnership with local nonprofits and churches to provide wrap-around services to the unhoused, and we can develop those partnerships to create community support systems that help prevent homelessness.

Salem is continuing to grow and has a shortage of both rental housing and homes. What should city government do to address this shortage beyond what it is now doing?

Cummings: City Council should approve city staff approved/proposed housing developments without delay. When city council denies the staff recommendations, it adds more cost to the city and as well as on down to the buyer. The city needs to work to lower the costs of starter homes for first-time buyers.

Varney: Current zoning changes allow for the construction of multi-family housing in areas formerly zoned for single use residential. Next, we must take steps to make it easier to redevelop and infill underutilized properties that already exist, and make the construction of more efficient and more affordable housing attractive to developers.  We also need to focus this redevelopment in core areas of the city.  This can be done by promoting vertical development downtown near transit hubs and job centers, which can help revitalize our downtown and make affordable housing readily available to young professionals without overburdening our streets. By eliminating setback requirements for denser and more walkable neighborhoods, and eliminating parking minimums we can make it cheaper to build new housing and free up hundreds of acres of land within the city limits for new homes and businesses. 

We also need to continue to develop partnerships between developers and the Salem Housing Authority to increase availability of affordable housing like Yaquina Hall and Sequoia Crossing.

City leaders have developed a Climate Action Plan to guide city efforts to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, including a proposal to ban natural gas hookups. How ambitious should the city be with its climate goals?

Cummings: The city should provide guidelines and education to the residents. The Climate Action Plan, instead, is the city’s plan that will negatively impact many working families-- to alter city services, raise costs to new homes and sale of existing homes, and make it more difficult for families to commute within Salem. With effective communication and education, residents can do their part as they are able and work toward the goals of a global climate concern.

Varney: Salem is the state capital and a major stop along the I-5 corridor. We have an opportunity to lead the Pacific Northwest and the nation as a green city that attracts new residents and businesses, and better protects and serves our residents. 53% of our GHG emissions come from transportation.  We should focus on strategies to reduce our reliance on gas-powered vehicles.  We also need to be financially responsible to our city budget and the budget of constituents. Rather than banning natural gas hookups, I prefer to use incentives for people to switch over to more energy efficient electric appliances and for developers to install electric appliances as a means to lower costs as well as decrease GHG emissions.  In 2021, the price of natural gas increased 13.2% whereas the rate for electricity fell 5.2%.  There is a proposal by the PUC to increase natural gas an additional 10.8% in November of 2023.  Electricity is looking even more affordable all the time. By working together we can implement a plan that will achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and help improve our economy and livability.

Police Chief Trevor Womack has said his department has had to scale back certain services due to being short-staffed, and identified increasing the size of Salem’s police force as key to implementing his strategic plan. How would you assess such a proposal as a councilor? 

Cummings: I am in support of increased police staffing. Post-pandemic should get us back in the right direction with fewer unexpected costs. In addition, I will help with efforts to find ways to increase police funding within the city’s budget as well as looking for additional ways the city can increase revenues.

Varney: My son is a police officer, and was recently wounded in the line of duty because his department was short staffed. While I do not think that the police department needs a blank check, we do need to make sure that we are properly funding public safety so that they can effectively do their job. I’ve been in contact with Chief Womack to discuss his strategic plan, and specifically what steps will be taken for Ward 8. West Salem specifically is understaffed because we are across the bridge and we need plans in place to make sure that we are still being protected. We also need to see how best to allocate resources so that our officers are free to respond where they are actually needed, and not overburden them with responsibilities better handled by other departments.

The police department has reported an increase in murders and weapon offenses from last year as the agency prioritized responding to an uptick in shootings at the beginning of 2021. What action, if any, would you propose the city take to reduce gun violence or otherwise improve public safety?

Cummings: Criminal offenses are a result of less policing. Increasing the number of officers on patrol will help reduce these offenses and improve public safety.

Varney: Crime prevention and public safety is improved by removing the incentives for criminal activity. This includes increasing affordable housing, growing the economy so that people can have access to well-paying jobs, and funding local community services that can assist people who are struggling, and connect everyone through a shared sense of community. It is also important to recognize that public safety is not just increased policing. Police officers respond to dangerous situations and can help to de-escalate them and protect us all, and they need the resources to do that properly. But we also cannot overburden the police by expecting them to solve every community problem that we have. As such we also need to invest in community mental health services and response teams that can intervene before an issue arises and allow the police and other first responders to focus on tangible threats and safety issues.

What, if anything, should the city do to attract good living-wage jobs to Salem?

Cummings: Attracting great businesses in Salem will provide good living-wage jobs in Salem. Making commercial areas attractive to new, out-of-state private businesses will bring more jobs to Salem. Avoiding top-line revenue taxes and allowing taxable profits to increase will help keep thriving businesses around to provide jobs and help the city at the same time.

Varney: 

-Make it easier to start new businesses by providing resources and a dedicated city liaison city liaison who can help guide them through the permitting process from start to finish. 

-Change zoning laws to make building and maintaining a business easier

-Working to increase affordable housing and infrastructure in the area that attracts more businesses and young professionals.

Should the city be taking steps to recognize and serve Salem’s increasingly diverse population? If so, what steps?

Cummings: The city should provide equitable access to city services. In addition, the city must constantly keep up with current methods to effectively communicate with the residents. 

Varney: Yes, we should. As the state capital and a center for commerce and tourism, we need to make sure that we are taking steps to make our city as welcoming and inclusive as possible. This means working to address ways in which we can better serve members of our community who may be overlooked, and working with local nonprofits and community groups to support and celebrate these communities that help make Salem a better place. 

Salem needs to review and develop policies through an equity lens.  That’s why it is so important that we include areas that have been underserved in the past when we are looking at projects for the Community Infrastructure Bond which will provide funds for repairs, maintenance, public safety, fire/emergency services and branch libraries.  We also need to increase our tree canopy in areas of the city with low tree canopy percentages to reduce the impacts of heat islands on vulnerable residents.

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

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