Merkley’s town hall sought ‘full spectrum of opinions’

Columbia Gorge News

THE GORGE — Sen. Jeff Merkley held his 13th town hall of 2024 on April 27 at The Dalles High School, drawing an audience of just under 50.

He held town halls in Hood River and Sherman counties the same day.

Merkley holds a town hall for each Oregon county, each year. They are a way to maximize contact between the federal government, and local governments and citizens, Merkley said, and reinforce the work of his field representative, who stays in contact with councilors and commissioners.

And they open the floor for “the full spectrum of opinions,” including those who disagree. “We occasionally have chaos at town halls,” he noted. “But most of the time, people are like, ‘Oh, I like that idea.’”

Participants, chosen through a raffle system, stood to ask questions or voice concerns. They brought up wide-ranging topics including youth and student resources, houselessness, mental health resources, climate change, and the prospect of another Trump presidency.

Merkley also honored Next Door, Inc. in The Dalles, and Gorge Grown at his town hall in Hood River, for their service to the community. Each organization received a flag, once flown over the capitol in Washington, D.C., and an attendant certificate.

Mental health care for youth and better programs at schools came up multiple times. Mental health “has come up in my town halls a lot,” Merkley noted, due in part to a shortage of counselors. “We’re going to dedicate ourselves to training more counselors,” he concluded, acknowledging that pandemic isolation is also important.

For youth programs, “I think the best programs are those that are envisioned locally to meet the local circumstances,” Merkley said. “And whether that’s behavioral health counseling or the opportunity for sports … and it should be a conversation with youth because the youth are going to provide that perspective on what’s most needed … So we have a variety of federal programs that provide grants to communities to enact those visions.”

Merkley then fights for a local project initiated by the community. Many, he told Columbia Gorge News, involved water storage, childcare, housing and behavioral care.

Another questioner asked what measures Merkley thought should be taken on climate change.

“It’s so scary how fast we’re seeing the changes … And unfortunately, despite having talked about this for decades, now, last year, humankind took more carbon dioxide and methane into the air than in any previous year,” said Merkley. His response was a call on Joe Biden to declare a national climate emergency.

Merkley stated his belief that “dark,” or legally untraceable, fossil fuel money contributed to political campaigns is driving the issue. “Last year, the fossil main companies have $300 billion in profits, they put 1% of that $3 billion in our political system, it pretty well ties it up in their favor,” he said. Which is partly why Merkley — who once gave a 15-hour speech — advocates for keeping the filibuster, “so that we have a fair chance to work for people other than the powerful.”

A local student asked what steps the Senator is taking to address cities’ policies on houseless people, in the context of the Grants Pass v. Johnson case before the Supreme Court and the closure of a The Dalles shelter.

Merkley said he doesn’t know how the Grants Pass case will turn out, but that he guesses it will give cities more power than they currently have over where to allow houseless people to sleep. “And so city governments are going to be wrestling with this. The philosophy I bring to this is that every person deserves a decent home, a decent community. … of mental illness or addiction, whatever reason they are homeless, and they don’t have a car or they don’t have a friend, there needs to be a place that they can spend the night, whether that’s more shelter capacity and places they are allowed to pitch a tent,” he said, adding that changing resources and judicial standards make this an ongoing conversation. “And I like the idea of cities saying, ‘Here’s a last-resort place, you can pitch a tent and we’re going to have services there.’”

Merkley stated housing prices are also problematic. Hedge funds and other large investors buying up to 40% of single-family dwellings drive up housing costs, he said, describing a bill he and U.S. Rep. Adam Smith introduced in 2023. The End Hedge Fund Control of American Homes Act would force hedge funds to gradually sell all dwellings to families.

A local student asked about the lack of infrastructure at Native in-lieu sites, including basic services like electricity and sewer.

“There are two basic efforts under way,” Merkley said, one an in-progress renovation of some “often-overcrowded, underserved” Native fishing sites.

The second solution involves rebuilding villages flooded by the dams. The only Caucasian village, North Bonneville, was rebuilt. But “the native villages were not rebuilt; it is an outstanding obligation that we failed on,” Merkley said.

Currently, funding has been granted and the Corps of Engineers is working with tribes in Oregon and Washington to locate sites. “Locations are hard, because if they had good services they’re already developed,” Merkley noted.

Asked by a reporter what his response to a Trump presidency would be, Merkley stated, “I’ve worked with the Trump administration before … I have always tried to find a partner across the aisle … whatever I’m working on. And I’ll continue that pattern.”