Lewis County Commissioner District 3 Candidates Face Off at Forum

By Isabel Vander Stoep / isabel@chronline.com

It was June when the candidates were first interviewed ahead of the primary election for Lewis County commissioner District 3, which covers most of the southern slice and all of the eastern portion of the county.

Now, the Nov. 8 general election is fast approaching, and two candidates remain in what started as a five-person, all-newcomer race for the seat formerly held by the late Commissioner Gary Stamper, filled by previous titleholder Lee Grose after Stamper’s death.

Just barely squeezing in the district with his precinct after redistricting in December, Scott Brummer, R-Winlock, was the top vote-getter in the August primary, followed by Harry Bhagwandin, R-Onalaska. Come November, voters across the county will decide between them.

On Thursday night, the two Republicans were invited to a forum at the Packwood Community Hall facilitated by Packwood resident Mindy Brooks. Though she was there on personal time as a representative for the Packwood Improvement Club, Brooks is also a long-range planner for Lewis County Community Development. With rapid growth in the unincorporated community, she has led a charge to create a subarea plan informed by community stakeholders to guide planning and growth for the coming decades.

Questions were solicited ahead of time from the public, with some directly related to Brooks’ work and issues in Packwood, and others covering a broader range of topics relevant to the region.

Lewis County commissioners make $90,886 a year, plus benefits. To register to vote in this election, head to https://elections.lewiscountywa.gov/voter-registration/ or call 360-740-1164 to find registration nearest you.

Before answering six submitted questions, Brummer and Bhagwandin were asked to give an opening statement, addressing when and why they decided to run for the position.

brummer, 51, went first, describing his work as a former fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, addressing habitat, flood and erosion issues with landowners across the county. He’s also a farmer and small business owner who runs a church in Ethel called God’s Place.

“Nearly all my career has been spent serving Lewis County, building relationships, solving problems, meeting needs, both professional and ministry level,” he said.

Brummer said he was intending to run for commissioner in District 2 in 2024. When his precinct was moved in December, he sprang into campaigning action before filing for candidacy in May.

He gave the crowd a summary of his values, listing freedom, personal accountability and limited government, saying he’d be “a commissioner that’s involved that cares about what’s going on and the problems that we face.”

Bhagwandin, 63, followed by thanking attendees for coming to “participate in their governance,” getting to the core of his candidacy, he said, which is to give rural voters a voice as the area experiences “unprecedented growth and development.”

He first ran for the seat in 2014.

He noted his experience as a grant writer for local nonprofits, including Onalaska Alliance, of which he was the founding president. He volunteers on the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee and used to serve on the Citizens Budget Committee for the county.

“Living in East Lewis County can feel like we’re left out of critical decisions that impact our lives,” Bhagwandin said, stating intent to focus on broadband, emergency services, staffing the sheriff’s office, housing, supporting family farms, businesses and timber , and working to improve fisheries while minimizing flood damage.

The two candidates then fielded questions, swapping who went first each time. Their questions and answers are as follows:

“What kind of businesses do you think are best suited for East Lewis County and how will you help attract those businesses here?”

Bhagwandin went first, mentioning the subarea plan as a resource for asking citizens, rather than officials, what they’d like to see established in their community.

He said he’d listen to residents first to support their desired new developments and would like to support putting more resources toward that planning.

Brummer said he is a “free market guy,” that ultimately the government should be hands-off with business, but that he’d most like to find ways to help small, family-owned businesses such as mills and others in agriculture and timber . He said he’d work with the Economic Alliance of Lewis County to bring in what would benefit the citizens of the east end.

“If more resources were available, what one area of ​​the county services would you feel most needs those additional resources?”

Brummer answered that where resources were available, he’d prioritize safety and security by increasing the sheriff’s office presence in the east end and across the county.

“Safety and security is paramount,” he repeated.

He said more funds should go to the prosecuting attorney’s office to make sure they can be “tough on crime,” and that there should be a focus on increasing access to mental health care countywide, especially for veterans.

Speaking directly to Brooks, Bhagwandin said, “resources would be great if they could be used for your (community development) staff.”

She reminded him she wasn’t there on behalf of the county.

He chuckled, saying he’s not “just sucking up,” and Packwood’s unprecedented growth is making its way to other unincorporated communities.

Bhagwandin also mentioned a hope to increase access to Veterans Affairs services and to put funds toward the sheriff’s office. While just a “fantasy,” he closed saying he’d love to see a skybridge in Packwood to allow safe pedestrian crossing of the highway.

“What do you see as the most pressing needs for infrastructure or capital projects in East Lewis County?”

Bhagwandin listed sewer, water and broadband internet.

Brummer agreed water and sewer were the primary critical infrastructure issues — because their presence determines capability for multi-unit housing — praising state Rep. Peter Abbarno’s work toward sewers in Packwood, and mentioning problems with water systems in Morton. He said he’d like to see the town of Mineral on its own water system. As an unincorporated community, Mineral residents use wells and have previously expressed concerns with availability of water and contamination from chemicals including arsenic.

“What do you think is an appropriate use of the distressed counties fund and/or the LTAC (Lodging Tax Advisory Committee) funds?”

Brummer said he’s heard “grumblings” about lodging tax dollars and that those funds need to be “looked at at the county level,” while mentioning his opponent is on the LTAC committee — a volunteer group that takes a look at applications for the dollars before making recommendations to be reviewed by the county commissioners.

He said the distressed counties funds should be applied where tourism and other business can be promoted.

Bhagwandin said he’d like to see the dollars go toward increasing capacities for levels of tourism that communities can’t currently support.

“I’m encouraged by the change to Economic Alliance, who’s now going to be housing the tourism destination marketing organization for Lewis County. And I’m hoping that we can support them with lodging tax funds to develop a comprehensive plan,” he said.

“Do you support community-led plans like the Packwood subarea plan and will you honor the communities desired vision, goals and policies?”

Both the commissioner candidates said yes to this question and elaborated on ideas to give other communities avenues to express their voices.

Bhagwandin said the process was invaluable, especially as it removed the need to hire consulting firms that may not fully represent the community’s ideals.

Brummer said he’d like to use Packwood as a model for other communities, namely Adna and Onalaska, which he said also need long-term planning to improve housing issues.

“What would you do to improve the transportation system here in east county?”

Brummer started by saying he’s, in general, not a fan of using tax dollars for transit systems.

“But I also realize that we do have needs and we have senior citizens that need to be able to get to doctor’s appointments. We have needs for folks that otherwise don’t have transportation to get back and forth to those resources in the Twin Cities,” he said.

With Twin Transit increasing services through partnerships into Cowlitz and Thurston counties, Brummer said he’d like to see the group expand to the east. If not with buses, he said, maybe there could be opportunities for rideshare programs.

Bhagwandin recognized that even from Onalaska it took him an hour and 15 minutes to get to Thursday’s forum.

“And what can we do for that? I would have to come to you guys. I know that we have the transport system but most of the time I see that it’s not really well-utilized. I don’t know why that is,” he said. “We like our cars. So, I’m really gonna have to point on that one.”

Seeming to imply they missed the point of the question, Brooks recommended the candidates to drive home via Skate Creek Road, the back way out of Packwood toward Pierce County known for being a difficult drive that has taken up county and US Forest Service resources to repair .

“What will be your state legislative priorities that would benefit east county?”

Bhagwandin answered that his legislative priorities would go toward making “Lewis County livable,” by supporting infrastructure, working to reduce fire risk, supporting mental health services and tackling homelessness.

Seeming to call back to his opponent once criticizing him as having an antagonistic approach to the state, Brummer began by saying he’d “work cooperatively with our legislators. And that’s both our senator and our local representatives in District(s) 19 and 20.”

He spoke on reversing police reform laws that went into effect in Washington in 2021, which he called “ridiculous” and judged as restricting law enforcement’s ability to apprehend criminals. He said he’d also like to rein in Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency powers and see an end to vaccine mandates.

In closing statements, Brummer went first by expressing his deep care for the community, saying he is optimistic about the future of Lewis County and specifically district 3. Through listening, he said, the county can help citizens solve the issues they face.

“I’m also confident that if we hold true to the values: to truth, to doing justice, to doing what’s right, we can have — we can continue to have — a great community in district 3 and all of Lewis County,” he said. “If elected to be your district 3 representative, I will work hard to ensure that those kind(s) of values ​​are at the forefront of the decisions that I make.”

Bhagwandin closed by saying he and his wife have found happiness and freedom on their tree farm in Onalaska, but that his family farm could not fulfill the career aspirations of his four children.

Since retirement, he said, he’s worked to “preserve our (Lewis County’s) rural lifestyle while providing appropriate economic development opportunities. One of the questions we must all ask ourselves is ‘How do we retain what we value, ie a rural lifestyle, while providing our children with the opportunities and choices to stay and thrive here?’”

Answering his own question, Bhagwandin listed: zoning, permitting, housing, infrastructure, high speed internet, technical trades, training and public safety.

“My name isn’t Smith or Jones,” he said. “But, like your ancestors, the Bhagwandins came here for opportunity and freedom.”

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