U.S. Rep. Greg Walden addressed a wide range of issues during a community meeting at the Mt. Vernon Community Center on Thursday, Feb. 9.
The Republican representing Eastern Oregon assured citizens he would take their concerns, voiced on issues ranging from education to forest management, back to congress. He said his office has been regularly occupied by protesters as well inundated with phone calls, emails and letters from those he represents.
A reoccurring concern brought up throughout the meeting was land management by the federal government. Many citizens at the meeting showed distaste for current management plans on forest and grazing lands, which they said had led to catastrophic fires. John Day resident Mark Rogers said many federal agencies were heavily litigated and bogged down with regulations and bureaucracy, all of which could lead them to non-logical decisions. He asked what could be done to help the agencies function more effectively.
Walden said people voted for President Donald Trump because they wanted change, and could expect it to happen under his administration. One example he gave was better fire prevention through management. Walden claimed it’s four times cheaper to prevent fire through proper management than to fight it. He said over time this management would pay for itself.
Grant School District No. 3 Superintendent Curt Shelley said he approved of Walden’s work on education but said the local school system was strained and underfunded and that unfunded mandates were a huge problem. Grant Union social sciences teacher Cindy Dougharity-Spencer said she was fearful of Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’ past history and called on Walden to help defend public education for all.
Walden sympathized with them and said the state’s Public Employee Retirement System placed a huge burden on the schools and the state in general. He pledged to communicate their needs in Washington, D.C.
Resident Sharon Livingston thanked Walden for his service and expressed her repulsion at the treatment of Trump’s cabinet nominees. Both she and Frances Preston called for Walden to free Dwight and Steven Hammond, Burns ranchers who were imprisoned after a fire burned from their property onto federal lands.
Walden said he supported freeing the Hammonds, and it was an ongoing concern of his.
Livingston also said she did not want the federal government controlling water and water rights in rural communities.
Walden said President Barack Obama’s administration had fought rural values and tried to shut down the local way of life.
Another resident voiced concerns about the federal hiring freeze enacted, specifically regarding the local Natural Resource Conservation Service office, which he said was being run by a “skeleton crew.”
Walden assured him the hiring freeze was only temporary and had been put in place to prevent the remnants of the Obama administration from hiring people to serve during the current presidential administration.
In response to a question about Oregon’s status as a sanctuary state — which would not help the federal government deport illegal aliens if their only crime was being in the country unauthorized — Walden said he was unsure if Gov. Kate Brown even had the authority to declare Oregon a sanctuary state. However, he said there was a nexus in place used in the past to remove federal funds to states, if needed. He mentioned examples when it had been used to lower speed limits or raise the drinking age.
The issue of broadband connectivity was brought up, and Walden said there were federal programs in play that would help rural communities increase connectivity in the future.
Grant County Commissioner Boyd Britton voiced concerns about whether or not the county would continue to see Payments in Lieu of Taxes funding. Walden assured the commissioner they would continue to receive PILT funds.
At the end of the meeting, Walden took time to answer follow-up questions and confer with citizens who still had concerns before leaving for Baker City for another town hall meeting.