The six men running for Umatilla County Commissioner had one last public forum to make an impression on voters Tuesday in Milton-Freewater.

For the most part, each candidate gave carefully considered answers to questions given to them in advance by the local Republican Women’s Club, which sponsored the forum. But just before the panel could take a break, moderator Andrea Moore surprised them with an unscripted, two-part stumper on wind power.

Did the commission hopefuls support the county’s decision for two-mile setback from rural homes and watersheds for industrial wind turbines? And what were their thoughts on the negative impacts to residents, including health and economic concerns?

Put on the spot, the candidates — Tom Bailor, Jerry Baker, Michael Cannon, Jack Esp, Terry Fife and George Murdock — gave their thoughts on the issue before an audience of about 40 people at the Milton-Freewater Community Building.

Most agreed the setbacks are a good thing, but wondered whether two miles is the magic number to protect rural homeowners. Specifically, Bailor said he does not support a blanket two-mile standard, but that each project should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Speaking on wind energy as a whole, Murdock said he is in favor of development but added the county must be sensitive to the legacy it leaves behind for future generations.

Esp, meanwhile, is not completely in favor of wind projects, saying that he would not want one near his own home. Still, the wind farms are a good source of revenue for the county, he said.

Cannon absolutely agreed the setbacks are needed. Fife said he is not so sure, but all in all wind power does help bolster the county’s tax base.

Baker, a wildlife biologist, said the setbacks are needed and that he has observed the turbines’ negative impacts on birds and bats. However, he compared the impacts to those of other sources of development.

Up until that point, the candidates had time in advance to plan their responses to questions covering their qualifications, why they chose to run for the position and their top priorities if elected.

Baker reiterated his idea for an independent audit of the county Sheriff’s Office to help make the department more transparent to the public — a notion that most other candidates agreed is needed.

Murdock said the county must set goals to try and improve community police patrols. His goal would be 12 road deputies to provide 24-hour coverage, he said.

Another priority of Cannon’s is to invest more in mental health services to help alleviate the problem on police.

“A lot of people get lost in the system there,” Cannon said. “These resources need to be made available.”

Other top priorities included better communication on the commission, the problem of wolf depredation among ranchers and how to draw more water out of the Columbia River to boost irrigation and create new jobs.

“I think wolves are an issue in Umatilla County,” Baker said. “We promote nonlethal methods to prevent depredation, but I’d like to see it get to the point where we can better manage them.”

Using more water to grow the agricultural industry could unlock thousands and jobs and umpteen more tax dollars for the county, Esp said. He also would look at building a technical school to provide a workforce for those skilled positions.

Fife mentioned his desire to use and develop land from the former Umatilla Army Depot, which he said would allow the county 1,000 acres free and clear.

“Our business is to facilitate the creation of jobs,” Fife said.

Bailor said public service is a very serious commitment to him, and one he wouldn’t take lightly if elected.

“We’re living at a crossroads here,” he said. “We can do a lot better than where we’re at.”

Murdock, superintendent of the Douglas Education Service District and a former publisher of the East Oregonian newspaper, said he believes he has an understanding of the issues and connections that would help him on the job.

“This is a large and complex organization,” Murdock said. “I would like to help create a county where we can live and prosper.”

The election is May 21.

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

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