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City council candidates appear at the League of Women Voters of Plumas County Forum held Oct. 4 in Portola. From left: Leah Turner, Bill Powers and Phil Oels. Photo by Lauren Westmoreland

Portola city council candidates participate in local forum

By Lauren Westmoreland

The League of Women Voters of Plumas County held a forum for three candidates running for two four-year seats on the Portola City Council at the Portola Veteran’s Memorial Hall on the evening of Wednesday, October 4.

The League of Women Voters is non-partisan and was formed in Plumas County in 1993 to encourage informed and active participation of citizens in government.

The Portola City Council is composed of five council members elected to staggered four-year terms. There is an election each November of even numbered years with either two or three seats up for election. The council selects a mayor and a mayor pro tem from among its members to serve a year term.

The candidates: introductions

The candidates running for the positions are incumbent Bill Powers, incumbent Phil Oels and Plumas County resident Leah Turner.

Linda Judge of the League of Women Voters spoke at the forum, noting that each candidate was given two minutes to open and introduce themselves, with the session opened by candidate and current Portola city council member Phil Oels.

Oels thanked the League for sponsoring the event and introduced himself as a ‘native born Portolan’ and a military veteran, having served in the Army for two years. Oels now has five children, eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren, and stated that he didn’t see himself as a politician.

“I am a public servant,” Oels stressed. “I have always listened to people and helped wherever I could, beyond normal city council duties- I have volunteered for numerous projects to help our community become more fire resistant.”

Incumbent candidate and current city council member Bill Powers also thanked the League before introducing himself as a lifelong resident of Portola and a graduate of Portola High School, after which he became a graduate of Chico State University, where he received his teaching credentials.

“I enjoy volunteer work and serving our community, and currently serve on the city council and sub-committees,” Powers said. Powers noted that he serves in many other roles ranging from Chair of the Juvenile Justice Commission to representative at Plumas County LAFCo (Local Agency Formation Commission).

“I am currently involved in two different grant searches,” Powers noted. “I am also a substitute teacher at Portola High School and an assistant soccer coach for the soccer team.”

Leah Turner introduced herself as a resident of Portola for the past 14 years, having lived in Burney, California for 40 years before that.

Turner noted that she had two grown children with her husband of 43 years, with her son, his wife and son living in the Portola area as well.

Turner currently works for Eastern Plumas Health Care (EPHC), where she has served for 12 years first as a per-diem employee on the ambulance, and then as a phlebotomist in the lab, and now currently in the emergency room as an E.R. technician.

Previously Turner was also a community services officer for the City of Portola for a period of seven years. “During that time, I became very familiar with the city and its’ citizens,” Turner said. “The number one question asked of me is ‘why doesn’t the city repair the roads.’ In order to accomplish this, we need to replace our aging sewer and water infrastructure, some of which are probably more than 50 years old.”

Turner also noted that while living in Burney, she had worked for Shasta County Head Start, Shasta County Sheriff’s Office as a public safety officer, and also was a member of the Burney volunteer fire department, working on the ambulance for 15 years.

Turner is currently volunteering as the medical training officer at the Eastern Plumas Rural Fire Protection District (EPRFPD) and was on the City of Portola Fire Department for six years. “My whole life as an adult, I have been involved in community in some fashion,” Turner said.

What procedures do the city council use to recruit a permanent, qualified city manager?

This question was first put to Phil Oels, who responded that the city had been putting the position out to those who are interested in it, interviewing them, and trying to figure out how to give a good candidate the ‘right environment to stay for a while.’ “It’s hard to do,” Oels said.

Powers then responded to the question, noting it was a three-part system, starting with national level research and advertisement, going on to do a written screening of each candidate, before a group is invited to interview in person. The individual then comes back for one-on-one interviews, with council then choosing from that group.

Turner agreed that there must be national advertisement for a good city manager and noted that she felt good interviews and background checks were essential. “They must meet the criteria we need for our city,” she said.

Will Portola residents be able to burn pine needles this spring, and will the local fire district be teaching a class on proper burning methods and providing permissive burn certificates?

This question was put to Powers first. He said, “Funny you should ask! Pine needle burning probably will not be allowed. We have green waste facilities, and the council has always gone after trying to get free days at the transfer station.”

Powers answered the second part of the question, stating that the Portola city council is already working with the air district (Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District, or NSAQMD) in efforts to reach attainment on local air quality. He also noted that NSAQMD is already putting out a ton of good information on how to burn in the area as well.

Turner answered that she was not in favor of having open burning again in the city, but that she believed good training from the local fire department was a good idea.

Oels stated to begin with, the burn ban came from NSAQMD due to air quality, due to non-attainment because of the way the inversion layer keeps smoke held into the Portola area.

“It’s kind of a moot point whether or not to train people,” Oels explained. “We should if we are going to have burning, to see to it that people do the job right. Simple common sense, respect for your neighbors, things like that.” Oels noted how much NSAQMD had been doing to help the community with green waste, community mitigation, and much more. “I appreciate them,” Oels said.

What’s the biggest problem faced by the City of Portola in your view, and how would you solve it?

Turner answered that she thought the biggest problem was city infrastructure and road conditions, and that she would look for grant monies through the state or national government to try to solve it.

“We also need to figure out how to use our own funding through water and sewer to help pay for that, but I do understand that it will be millions of dollars to pay for that,” Turner said. “However, a lot of our streets are not safe, when our aging infrastructure breaks, we are spending thousands of dollars to repair it.”

Oels agreed with Leah Turner that the pipes were aging, and that the roads were bad, but there was no point in fixing roads if the infrastructure underneath wasn’t repaired first. “New pavement is really nice until you have to stick a backhoe into it to get to the pipes that are under it,” Oels noted. “With funding, we spent a big part of our water fund money repairing leaks, so we have to find a person to find us grants to fund this probable $30-40 million dollar project.”

Powers said that there was a “swing and a miss” when a team from Chico State University that put a grant proposal together for the state to raise funds for infrastructure, but that class had graduated, and the city had to start over again.

“The city asked for $35 million, and now there is a new effort with optimism for a third shot at this thing,” Powers said. He then agreed with Oels on not replacing pavement before first repairing the underlying infrastructure.

What is the city doing and what has it done to procure grant funding?

Oels stated that he felt it was a job for the city manager, noting he had however obtained a grant for firesafe work during his time on council thus far.

Powers noted that the efforts described earlier on attempts to obtain grant funding for city infrastructure were one way the city had attempted to procure funds. “Before that, there was a competitive grant that funded ten small communities, and we were number 11. We are still searching and continue to go after money. Almost every grant we go for is competitive, and I am optimistic this newest chance may be the best chance we have ever had.”

Turner noted that the city needed a grant writer first, and that there should be an ad-hoc committee to help the grant writer look at what was available, with the assistance of the city manager.

“We need to be on the alert and looking daily to see what is available,” Turner said, before agreeing with the other two candidates that the first priority should be infrastructure before street repairs.

What can the city council do to help job prospects for young Portola residents?

Powers noted that it was an interesting time in our existence, with many help wanted signs out and nobody to make the connection between those available jobs and the folks looking around for those jobs.

“Maybe it is the councils’ position in our town to figure out how we connect those dots,” Powers said. “Is that part of the schools’ role? Could we do a survey of every employer in town and give it to the school?”

Turner responded that the city could start their own “mini EDD” program, agreeing with Powers on perhaps sending a lineup of local jobs to the schools. “One of the main things we have to worry about is age limits, with work permits and things like serving alcohol,” she said.

Oels stated that he felt the city needed to attract more businesses, and some sort of industry such as biomass. “The tourist-based economy we have isn’t enough,” Oels said. “When we were coming out of high school you could go into logging or to work for the railroad, and we need to find replacements for that I believe.”

What can the city council do to attract more businesses to Portola?

Oels responded that to bring more people in, there were events such as the Lost and Found Gravel Grinder and fishing derbies at Lake Davis.

“I know that several people came back and bought property and moved their kids up here after they had visited for the Gravel Grinder,” Oels said.

“Things like that for the time being until we think of something better to do.”

Turner responded that she felt it wasn’t something the council could help a lot with. “Our biggest problem is housing- you can’t find a place to rent in this city unless you know someone who knows someone,” Turner said.

Powers said that there would be biomass well into the future and agreed that could be a potential option for an area industry.

What is your vision for the City of Portola ten years from now?

Oels stated that he would like to see the city clean with solid infrastructure, good roads, a reasonable amount of tourist flow, and more prosperity for the community. Oels also noted that he would like to see Portola with cleaner air. “The other thing I want to see is that we guard our water rights. We are in a drought right now and probably will be for years to come. We have past experience with Sacramento- if we don’t watch our rights, they’ll have it,” Oels said. “Clean water and for the city to be firesafe- I want to see that fixed enough so that it isn’t a constant worry every year.”

Turner responded that she agreed with Oels that she would like to see a clean city, as well as more businesses and families in the area. “I would like it to be more oriented with the retired community as well, and to see the city residents feel proud to live here. I’d like the kids to feel safe, and to get rid of the drug problems and homelessness,” Turner concluded.

Powers stated that he was proud of the resilience of the people living in the area, and he would like to see the infrastructure problem solved in the next ten years, along with being firesafe.

“Clean water is one of our selling points,” Powers said as he agreed with Oels’ earlier statement on the vitality of protecting water rights. “We have to keep it and do whatever it takes to make sure that happens. In ten years, this place will be a place people say they want to run up to and stay in,” Powers said. “We have to keep working on what we are already working on- our optimism to get it fixed, and I think we will see that in the next ten years.”

Closing statements

Each candidate closed with a brief statement, with Turner commenting that she was ‘running for city council to learn more about our government and how it works’ and that she felt the city needed some fresh eyes and ideas. “We need to start thinking about how our tax dollars are being spent, and what we are getting for the money we are spending,” Turner said. She also noted that she would like to see the city put in a dog park and become a little more pet and senior friendly. “Spending money on special interests isn’t helping our city become safer,” Turner noted in closing.

Powers stated that he felt there was a need to “remember and enjoy what we have” and to continue to do one thing at a time. “Our rental situation is dire, but we have a lot of empty buildings and owners fixing up properties around town. I think with our strict budget, we have to continue to do what we can with what we have,” Powers summarized. “Our general fund is sometimes strapped, and the little bits we spend, we try to get matching funds for from other sources and make it stretch as far as we can- our city budget probably looks like a lot of family budgets right now. I think we can make it work and continue to move forward.”

Oels then closed, saying that he had been serving the community for ten years now, and done a lot of volunteer work. “Two minutes wouldn’t cover the speech I had about that,” Oels said with a smile.

“It’s my community and hometown, and I would be honored to serve you guys for four more years.”

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