Merkley said he likes to open his town halls by spotlighting a local organization or program – in this case, the county’s proliferation of Little Free Libraries. He yielded the floor to Waters, so she could describe how, with the help of library volunteers and assistant librarian Chris Ostberg, the library has placed the kiosk-style book boxes in communities throughout the county.
The idea is to make books free and available to citizens where they live. The library stocks the boxes – they’re like “big birdhouses,” Waters said – with duplicate or unneeded books; users can borrow at any time, and also contribute their own volumes to the mini-collections.
Merkley called it “an excellent idea,” and gave the library a U.S. flag that had been flown over the Capitol.
Waters and assistant librarian Chris Ostberg were thrilled with the new flag and immediately began plans for its use at the library.
The flag presentation preceded a wide-ranging question and answer session, with the Democratic senator touching on topics including government transparency, the administration’s policies, NSA spying, and more. About 50 people attended the event at the Mt. Vernon Community Center.
Merkley said in the past year, he’s been working on issues important to the region, including keeping rural post offices open, boosting funding for hazardous fuels reduction on the national forests, inserting county PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) into the farm bill, and ensuring continued authorization of forest stewardship authorization.
Asked about the environment and climate change, he said everyone is affected by the carbon pollution that is fueling drastic changes on the landscape. He noted ripple effects of insect infestation and catastrophic fires in the forests, droughts in agricultural areas, and disruption of marine life at the coast.
“We all have a stake in this,” he said. “We have to burn a lot less fossil fuels.”
Merkley said coastal areas are reporting trouble with oyster seeds – the base of the state’s oyster industry – because of excess carbonic acid in the sea.
“If there’s a canary in the coal mine, it may well be these baby oysters,” he said, acknowledging that not enough is being done about carbon pollution.
Merkley also was challenged by John Day resident Dave Traylor to step up for the people and challenge what he sees as corrupt policies of the Obama administration.
Merkley noted he has been in several “high-profile fights” with the administration lately, including a challenge of the NSA’s bulk data collection on ordinary citizens. He also opposed the president’s effort to move against chemical weapons in Syria without authorization by Congress, and he opposed the nomination of Larry Summers for Federal Reserve chairman. In the latter, Merkley got national attention as a key voice in persuading Obama to give up on the Summers nomination.
He said senators have a duty to take on the president “when they think he is wrong, as I have often done.”
He suggested the partisan standoffs in Congress leave a void in governance, fostering more activity from the administration.
“We have to end this paralysis in Congress,” he said.
Merkley said one small step he has taken to combat it is to try to have “a partner across the aisle” on every bill he proposes.