Douglas County citizens ask US Senator Jeff Merkley questions at town hall

Douglas County citizens ask US Senator Jeff Merkley questions at town hall

By:  Sam Temple

WINCHESTER —U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley started off his town hall meeting Saturday at Umpqua Community College by giving recognition to Wayne Elsworth of Umpqua Heart and his work with the homeless community at Sutherlin’s Hastins Village.

“I like to put a spotlight on an organization that is doing important work in the county and today we’re going to put that spotlight on Umpqua Heart,” Merkley said. “We talk a lot about the housing challenge and homelessness. There are folks who have just made it their mission to help put people back on their feet, and Wayne is one of those people.”

Merkley’s visit to Douglas County brought a comprehensive cross-section of constituents to the Bonnie J. Ford Health, Nursing and Science Center at UCC with questions ranging from international conflicts to the impact of the federal government in Douglas County.

UCC President Rachel Pokrandt welcomed the senator to the college for his 12th town hall of the year.

As the town hall began to find its rhythm and questions were being fielded, the recent spy balloon from China was brought up by a concerned citizen.

“It’s just bizarre,” Merkley said, “and, you know, I lead the congressional-executive commission on China so I’ve been holding human rights here in the last two years on China and their human rights record is terrible. When I first heard about this, I thought it was an article from The Onion, I mean China is sending balloons over our county… Where did they inflate them?”

Despite the jovial nature of the town hall, the concerns expressed were real and Merkley spoke about China’s actions in the South Sea and along its border with India as “aggressions” and “intolerable actions.”

Ukraine was another topic that caused an audible murmur through the crowd when the question was asked regarding the climbing national debt.

“We have a horrific autocracy dictator KGB agent called Putin who decided to do a ruthless assault on a republic. The Ukrainian republic had a revolution to maintain stability. Their citizens have freedom of speech and we need to stand with people who believe in freedom,” Merkley said. “It’s a terrible, oppressive dictatorship who is committing war crimes every day bombing houses and schools and hospitals, sending in troops to execute people in towns and throwing them into mass graves or just leaving them lying in the ditch or on the street. I believe it is exactly the right thing to do.”

Along with geopolitical questions, Merkley was asked about wildfires, a subject near and dear to the hearts of Douglas County residents.

“I spent a lot of time going up and down, north and south, because everywhere from Clackamas County on right down through the southernmost point we have had people affected by fires,” Merkley said. “Visiting fairgrounds with hundreds of families pouring in having lost everything and wondering if their loved ones have been killed. I have a whole team of caseworkers who help people with government bureaucracy and anytime we can be of help follow up with us.”

Several Umpqua Community College students were in attendance and Josiah Green asked the final question of the night.

“What are you doing to combat the rising crime rate in Portland?” Green asked.

Merkley smiled and asked if there was anyone else with a question, before saying, “When I was working for Habitat for Humanity, I was working in the northeast quadrant at a time that had a super high crime rate. The city undertook a community policing program. The community policing program involved officers not being in cars, but being on the streets and getting to know everybody because they had to have a trusting relationship or nobody would tell them what was going on. The police had no chance of discouraging crime if people couldn’t be held accountable.”