This is the first of three stories highlighting the three contested races for seats on the Warrenton City Commission. Ballots will be mailed Oct. 19.
WARRENTON — Commissioner Mark Kujala and candidate Merianne Myers have more in common than just running for Position 1 on the Warrenton City Commission.
Both embrace the food industry.
Both believe in community decisions.
And both use the word ‘love’ to describe their feelings about Warrenton.
“I love this city,” Myers said. “I love Warrenton. I fell in love with the community and started to pay attention to what is going on and how I can be a player in some helpful way.”
On her list of concerns for the community, Myers hopes to bring more consistant and welcoming opportunities for community input, great ideas, new eyes and new skill sets if elected.
“I thought it would just be really nice to have new eyes to take a look at the problems,” she said. “We have a lot of huge issues in Warrenton. … But I thought maybe it would be nice to have a broader perspective and also a more accessible way for people to have input.”
On her list of concerns for the community, she hopes to tackle downtown revitalization, the city’s budget, natural resources and big development.
On the prospect of Walmart coming to Warrenton, Myers called it a complicated project and a daunting task that will likely take a while. Also coming up is LNG’s “brand new incarnation.” Both of those projects, she said, will affect a large number of people outside the city limits and need to be dealt with carefully.
She says she hopes to make the small Warrenton business community sustainable in the face of “some daunting competition,” setting the stage for other small businesses to come in to Warrenton – protecting the entrepreneurial spirit that defines America, she said.
Myers is the only female running for a City Commission seat. The commission is made up of five males, two of whom – Frank Orrell and Terry Ferguson – are not seeking re-election. But being a female is not the way she plans to earn votes. In fact, her yard signs do not contain her first name. But when she comes to the door – she’s knocking on all of them, with her team of supporters – Myers introduces herself and as a result of those visits, she’s held meetings in living rooms. She’s also invited citizens to her dinner table – literally.
“In my experience in life, I have not found anything that is more reliable, a more unifying tool than eating and/or cooking together,” she said. “It’s very powerful and it allows us to start at a common ground place of pleasure and then from there, be able to talk about things we may not even think about talking about. It’s a very wonderful tool in addition to being a necessity. … What I am promising to people is that every other month we’re going to sit down and have dinner together.
“I will cook and we will eat and talk about whatever it is –what’s working what’s not working, what we can do about it. We’ll slowly foster an understanding that every one of us is important, everyone of us is responsible to have a part and everyone of us has something valuable to contribute to the process.”
Myers’ family has lived in the county since 1964. She has lived in Warrenton since 2004. She’s retired, but performs 30 hours per week of community service and volunteer work – mostly food related.
She’s a cooking instructor for the Clatsop Community Action Regional Food Bank, teaching community members how to “cook great food on a tiny little budget.” She’s also involved with the community gardens in Hammond, growing food for the food bank. She’s on the board of the North Coast Food Web and is president of the board of directors for the Astoria Co-Op.
“I’m pretty foodcentric in my work,” she said. “I tend to concentrate on food issues. Hunger is a big issue in Clatsop County in general and specifically in Warrenton. We have a lot of folks who do not have regular reliable access to enough food. So that’s really high on my list. It’s really hard to do anything else if you can’t eat.”
Involvement began in 2001
Kujala also spends his time with food – working at Skipanon Brand Seafood, a family business, with his wife Alana who also works for the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce.
Kujala is a born-and-raised Warrentonian. He has lived in the city nearly all of his life.
“I got involved with city politics back in 2001, and at the time Warrenton was undergoing a big wetland remapping, and discussing a lot of issues of boundaries and wetlands and it was impacting a lot of property owners and a lot of property owners were asking questions about the rationale,” he said. “I was looking at it from that perspective, asking, ‘What is this based on?’
“And when I looked further and deeper into it, I realized there were a lot of decisions that were being made that I felt were arbitrary. They weren’t really based on what was on the ground and what were realistic expectations for Warrenton. So that kind of spurred my interest to learn more because I realized those kinds of decisions being made could really impact a lot of people and impact their financial futures a lot.”
From there, Kujala began attending meetings and speaking to the commission, before making the decision to join them.
If elected, this will be Kujala’s third term.
“I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I really didn’t realize what a city commissioner did and how many different avenues you have to be involved in, so that was a learning experience and I am still learning to this day. I’ve really enjoyed being on the commission and it takes a great deal of time and a great deal of effort and I’ve grown in appreciation of what the staff does and what our department heads do. I am anxious to continue serving in that capacity.”
There are five things, Kujala said, that he has been a part of as a member of the City Commission and would like to see through: levy certification, public safety, infrastructure and projects such as the wastewater treatment plant, economic growth and communication between the community and the commission. To improve that communication, Kujala has written a regular column in the Columbia Press for the last six years to help explain situations and decisions made at the commission level.
“These are things that I have particularly seen progress in, some not enough progress in,” he said, namely the levy certification process. “The reason that’s a big thing for us is not just because it’s a public safety matter for our levees to protect us against flooding, but it’s a public safety matter because we have the Coast Guard and we have the airport and they all are all protected by the Warrenton levy system.
“Because we’ve worked so hard on it, I want to see it done and I want to be on the commission when it does get completed because it’s a major project and a major undertaking and it’s confusing to a lot of people because they don’t understand what the ramifications are. Really, it’s three-quarters of our city that’s going to be impacted by it and that’s why I want to make sure that I’m continuing that. I feel like it’s unfinished business that I want to see through.”
Kujala says he is glad that during his time on the commission, the city has been able to provide additional personnel and new vehicles for the Warrenton Police and Warrenton Fire departments. The city’s new six-year Capital Improvement Plan also provides for additional vehicles in the future for police and fire. Public safety, Kujala says, is the most important thing a city commission does and he intends to see the six-year plan through.
Economic growth is also something that, during is tenure, Kujala has been proud of. And along with that, comes the prospect of Walmart.
“We’ve been very fortunate to see, in an economic downturn, to see economic growth in Warrenton. That’s very rare. And over the last four years, a lot of communities have been struggling and we’ve managed to, at City Hall, keep a pretty conservative budget and keep everybody on. We haven’t had massive layoffs like a lot of other communities have,” Kujala said.
On Walmart, Kujala says the name of whatever business has applied through PacLand to build near Costco doesn’t matter. It’s a growth in jobs and growth in the community. But the growth of both of those will depend on the community and what the community wants.
“Walmart to me, I don’t think of it by its name, the main thing is that we ensure a fair public process for whatever the retail store is. I want to see a community decision,” Kujala said, while noting “growth brings significant challenges to our service at City Hall and we need to be as responsive as possible. And that means the fire department and police department need to have the resources to respond to a greater number of people and I think that’s definitely going to be something we’re going to continue to monitor in the years to come.”
Kujala was instrumental in most recently keeping the planning commission involved in the upcoming land use hearings for that business, rather than outsourcing the process to a Medford-based hearings officer per staff suggestion.
“We want to make our process as accessible as possible and as transparent as possible,” Kujala said. “ It has to be a fair process, and consistant transparent for everyone.”
Last year, he served as mayor and says he believes the mayor selection should be open to the voters. An item on the Nov. 6 ballot will ask whether the community wants to vote in the mayor or not. If passed, the first mayor would elected by the public in 2014.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.