Craig Pope, left, and Micky Garus, right, are running for Position 2 on the Polk County Board of Commissioners. (Candidate submitted photos)

A former Dallas city councilor, Micky Garus, wants to unseat Commissioner Craig Pope from the Polk County Board of Commissioners in the race for Position 2.

Pope has been a Polk County commissioner for over ten years and is running for reelection in the May 17 primary. Garus says the county has not grown under Pope’s watch, and that county officials have done a disservice to residents by staying complacent.

“They don't have a plan for the future,” Garus said of the county’s current elected leaders.

Pope meanwhile believes his learned experience and relationships developed on the job make him best suited to serve on the board.

“You really can't know what this job is until you've been at it a while, which is true in all elected positions,” he said. “We all have aspirations to want to do it, but then we all learn on the job that in most cases, the job is different than we thought it was from the outside looking in.”

Commissioners serve a four-year term and earn about $77,000 per year.

The seat is nonpartisan. If either candidate gets 50% of all votes cast plus one, the race will be settled in May and won’t appear on the general election ballot in November.

Candidate backgrounds

Pope worked for a couple of years as a reserve police officer for the city of Philomath in the early 1980s and also spent six years on the board of directors for Luckiamute Domestic Water in Monmouth, which delivers drinking water services to more than 1,000 homes in Polk County.

He said he is most proud of his 27 years spent as a volunteer firefighter. He also served four years on the Polk County Fire District #1’s board of directors with two years as chairman.

Pope ran for state representative in 2008 and lost to the incumbent before turning back around and running for Polk County commissioner in 2010. 

After he won the election, he sold his agricultural manufacturing business, Agriweld Inc., which he ran for 22 years. He was last re-elected as commissioner in 2018, beating challengers Terry Taylor and Michele Campione.

While in office, Pope said he has focused primarily on all things timber and agriculture policy, reviewing drinking water needs and practices for providers in the county and leading the county in behavioral health policy. He said he was also “deeply engaged” in helping lead public health policy since the pandemic hit.

Pope said he was motivated to run particularly after his past two years of work revolved largely around Covid. “I have a lot of work I've got to do,” he said. “I’ve lost two years of my work and I’m not done yet.”

He said it will take longer than the rest of 2022 to collect data from local water providers, seek state and federal funding and develop a plan for where Polk County will get its drinking water in the future. While Salem’s water largely comes from the Cascades, Polk County gets much of its water from the coastal region and doesn’t have a direct reservoir.

Pope is endorsed by fellow Polk County Commissioners Lyle Mordhorst and Jeremy Gordon. State campaign finance records show he has raised $13,070 in cash, loaned him campaign $8,000 and spent $17,900. His top donor is relative Howard Pope, who has contributed $5,000.

Garus helped start Willamette Valley Fruit Company, a fruit production plant, where he worked while volunteering as a firefighter and ambulance staff for the city of Dallas. He later joined his family business, American Glove Company, which ships safety supplies across the U.S.. He has coached baseball and softball and served on boards of Dallas-area sports organizations for almost 20 years.

He is currently on the advisory team for Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton.

Twelve years ago he opened American Outdoors, a small gun store in Dallas. It marked his entry into the local political spotlight as he began going to Salem to testify for protecting gun rights at the state Capitol. 

He said as a business owner who felt disconnected from city government and wanted to do better for the business community, he ran for Dallas City Council in 2014 and “shook things up” after taking office.

“We ended up completely changing the city management under my leadership, and a lot of the staffing changed and restructured the departments to make sure that they were better serving our community,” he said. “I wasn't always the most popular person because of that, but I've always marketed myself as the most transparent person in town maybe and people always know exactly what I'm thinking.”

As a councilor, Garus drew statewide attention and condemnation from the Council on American-Islamic Relations after a 2015 Facebook post in which he described the Muslim faith as “pure evil.” 

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 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!”

Asked about his comments Thursday by Salem Reporter, Garus said, “I will protect my daughter and my family, and I coached softball for many years and I love all those girls and I'll protect them too. And I think we need to protect the rights and privacy of everybody and nobody should have special rights. And it’s one of those things, I said it and I could have been more careful with the words I used at the time. But I'm not going to change my beliefs or my moral convictions to try to win an election. That's just not who I am.”

Garus clarified Thursday he was specifically talking about extremist Muslims in his 2015 post. 

“I have a lifelong record of volunteerism and service to my community where I treat everybody with respect and dignity,” he said. “I don't care (about) your race, color, creed, religion, sexual preference. None of that matters when it comes to serving the community and working to create policy that is conducive to the wants, needs and desires of the community that you represent.”

Garus resigned from council in 2018 because his family bought a farm between Independence and Monmouth and moved out of city limits.

He sought appointment to the board in 2018 after former commissioner Jennifer Wheeler retired, but he was not appointed after commissioners unanimously chose Lyle Mordhorst.

Garus has raised $5,230 and spent $1,847 on his campaign, state campaign finance records show. His top donors are Dallas resident Harlan Howard, with $1,500, and $1,000 each from Nicks Timber Services in Sheridan and Setniker Farms in Independence.

County direction

Garus said he feels the vision elected officials in Polk County have is different than that of citizens. He said the county’s infrastructure, industry growth, economic development and public safety has not improved over the past two decades. “They're content with us being a bedroom community and if they need more money, they're going to try to get it out of the taxpayer through a bond or a levy, and that’s not right,” he said.

Pope responded that Garus has never heard officials say they were comfortable with any community in the county being a bedroom community. He also said the county has made “substantial improvement” in industrial opportunities over the past 20 years. “He's insulting every single person and agency company that's working towards trying to find opportunities for Polk County when he makes these statements,” Pope said.

Garus also said commissioners “pretty much jumped when the state said to jump” with regard to Covid and did nothing to push back against mandates he said some viewed as potentially unconstitutional. “Businesses were shut down, people lost their livelihoods because of the mandates from the state and all commissioners stood by and allowed that to happen,” he said. 

In response Pope said “that’s flat out not true,” adding that he personally had as many meetings as possible with the governor and legislators to push back against the Oregon Health Authority. “But at the end of the day, by Oregon Supreme Court rule, we were told to get in line and follow the directives of the state government,” he said.

Homelessness

Pope said Polk County is one of eight jurisdictions to receive $1 million from the state Legislature to create a “coordinated homeless response system,” including an advisory board, dedicated to providing services for homeless people. He said he is helping develop a five-year plan.

He said county officials are also working to add more mental health workers to Polk County’s mental health response team, which pairs mental health professionals trained in crisis response and de-escalation with a patrol deputy who keeps the scene safe.

But Pope said he is concerned homelessness in Polk County will get worse before it gets better because there is no place to take people they encounter who need 24-hour mental health or addiction treatment. “We can't provide those kinds of services to people when they're on the sidewalk or worse when they're off deep in the woods somewhere, trying to hide from any kind of official,” he said.

The only institution people in crisis can be taken to in Polk County is jail, he said, “and we all know that’s not the place that these folks should be.”

Garus said Polk County officials have not been proactive about addressing homelessness, treating it as a concern existing largely on the other side of the bridge in Salem. “I think especially where the Polk County Courthouse is and where the commissioner's office is, they're not having to step over needles and human feces and trash and tents to get to their office building,” he said. “It's kind of out of sight, out of mind.”

Garus said county officials need to ensure law enforcement have the resources to address the region’s growing drug problem and lobby at the state level against Measure 110. The law passed in 2020 decriminalized possession of small quantities of heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs, intended to treat addiction as a health matter instead of a criminal concern and invest in grants to expand treatment and referral centers.

Infrastructure 

When asked about couty government’s role in addressing Polk County’s shortage of housing, Pope said, “I don’t know that the county has a real role in addressing housing shortage.”

Outside of urban growth boundaries, he said rules around development are fairly tight. “Counties don’t get to make a change in those rules. That’s a legislative process,” he said. 

Both candidates said the county needs to prioritize drinking water needs before building more housing.

Garus said it is difficult to get building permits for any kind of development in Polk County, whether that means installing a new septic system, building a house or a second dwelling on one’s property.

“It's like pulling teeth to be able to accomplish these things,” he said. “We need to give people their property rights back and we need to aid them in what they want to do with their property, not constantly throw up red tape and roadblocks.”

Employment

Pope said he is working on new childcare programs “find pathways to solve the childcare desert problem” that has exacerbated a workforce shortage in Polk County.

“We're investing (federal pandemic relief) dollars in that work by providing assistance to current providers, but also looking for ways to provide assistance to people who might want to be providers in the future and trying to figure out how we can help get new childcare programs started so that we can open up more slots for families that really want to go back to work,” he said.

As a member of the Strategic Economic Development Corporation’s board as well as the Regional Solutions Advisory Council to Gov. Kate Brown’s office, he said he is always looking for new ways to attract businesses to Polk County. “But my primary focus right now is making certain we provide the necessary assistance to the existing businesses in Polk County who are struggling to survive because of workforce challenges and resource challenge,” he said.

Garus said supporting law enforcement is key to the county’s economic and industrial development. He said every couple of years, the county brings a public safety levy due to a lack of money in the budget for law enforcement. 

“Tell me why the county is going to the public and asking them to pay extra money for a service that should be the first priority. Why aren't we looking at other areas that we maybe can cut?,” he said. “Maybe we don't need to invest so much money in the parks, and we can give more money to law enforcement. Maybe we don't need to do the big remodel that they're doing right now on the county courthouse.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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