Q&A: County Commission Candidates: Ashley Carson Cottingham

Keizertimes: What motivated you to run for a seat on the board of commissioners?

Ashley Carson Cottingham: When I see people struggling in my community without access to the resources they need, I have to help. This passion has led me to a career where I’ve worked to help children, women, seniors and people with disabilities. Over the past 15 years, I’ve served as a volunteer and as a professional in a vast variety of public service positions for one simple reason – I care. .

Our county Commission has been led by Republicans for over 40 years, and in that time, they have refused requests for an increase in ballot boxes during a crisis, refused to invest what is needed to access mental health services, not prioritized the end to our homelessness crisis, and have ignored many more pressing issues that involve real people and real consequences. It’s time for a change and it’s time for some balance in the decision-making. 

We are currently experiencing the worst public health crisis in our lifetimes and our county isn’t doing well. We have systemic and structural racism that’s not being addressed by our leaders. Our kids aren’t back in school and people have lost their jobs and businesses at alarming rates. I am the only candidate running that has experience handling billion-dollar public budgets that impact people’s day-to-day lives. In order for our communities to recover, we need a strong leader with experience, who genuinely believes that we can do better. I will lead us out of this mess and to a new normal, where we all feel safe, healthy and economically secure.  

KT: Whoever wins this election is going to have to help lead the entire county through a devastating recovery effort at a time when revenues are going to be shredded. Where will you begin and how can Marion County Commissioners guide the process in a meaningful way? 

ACC: First, I will begin by talking to the families and communities impacted and I will listen to what they need from their county government – this will be the foundation for what I want to accomplish. Second, we must prioritize basic needs – this includes longer-term housing (while we plan to rebuild the communities), food, clothing, medications and access to health care and mental health services. Third, we will need to work closely with FEMA and our state leadership to demand and ensure that dollars are flowing easily to the county and its residents to rebuild their lives. As we rebuild homes and structures, we need to focus on best practices for effectively preventing loss in a forest fire – this includes brush clearing around homes, not having bark wood chips as landscaping, covering gutters and installing flame retardant roofs. These communities have already been hit incredibly hard in economic downturns and we need to invest immediately in infrastructure such as sewers, broadband internet, schools and job recovery.

Lastly, we need to work to address and remedy public policy decisions that have gotten us to this point. Corporations have taken advantage of tax breaks and dispensable labor for decades, leaving Oregonians like you and I to do the backbreaking front line work. While our communities are suffering through a public health crisis and a natural disaster, these corporations are as rich as ever. We must hold entities like this accountable to adjust margins to benefit their workers and ensure sustainability of our forests long term. Instead of coming together to work on real policy solutions that address all of the mitigating factors that cause wildfires, we’ve boiled these complex issues down to partisan politics that only address part of the problem. Last year while millions of dollars were on the table to invest in preventing tragedies like this one, the state legislature couldn’t come to a compromise, leaving our communities out in the cold.

My heart is full of empathy for the people who have lost everything, in response, I’ve volunteered my time with Red Cross setting up cots for evacuees at the fairgrounds, led a blanket/supply drive in my neighborhood for the United Way, gathered items for farmworkers in Woodburn, and also donated toys, clothes and personal hygiene items from our home to help our fellow families in crisis. I promise to set politics aside as County Commissioner, roll up my sleeves to get us through this horrible time, and work extremely hard for all of you.

KT: What practical steps can the commission take to ensure we have housing for all the people who live here and would like to live here?

ACC: First, I would like to see investment in greater housing density within the cities of our county. Second, we should look for opportunities to provide tax credits and lessen bureaucratic red-tape to pave the way for smart development that is close to public transportation. Finally, we have to do a better job of seeking out and applying for any federal grant/loan opportunities that arise to increase our investment in low-income/affordable housing. This is money that is potentially left on the table if we’re not actively exploring all avenues to provide a roof over everyone’s head.

KT: What do you see as a commissioner’s role in economic development? 

ACC: I think the commissioners have a large role to play. They are a voice and advocate for the county to bring new enterprise in, promote the impressive resources and assets we have to offer, bring back lost jobs through grant opportunities and loans, as well as convene stakeholder groups to ensure that we move forward together in a productive and inclusive manner. Lastly, I think the commissioners need to work closely with the legislature to ensure that Marion County gets what it needs to rebound from COVID-19 quickly. 

From my time working as director for a large state agency division, I have experience in utilizing all of the economic tools above, and already have strong relationships with members on both sides of the aisle in the state legislature, making it easy to get right to work for Marion County.  

KT: Lean times are likely ahead for the county and all the cities and towns it supports. Where would you look to make ends meet?

ACC: Leading in lean times is difficult, but I have experience doing just that. In my role as the Aging and Disabilities Director for the state, I was directed to look at my budget of $3.4 billion and work to bend the cost curve over time. This meant making hard decisions that impacted peoples’ lives. I got creative and asked the Federal government to support an idea of mine, so that there would be the least amount of human harm possible with the changes we made. I would take a similar approach in county government – look where we have excess spending and ensure that reductions have the least harm possible to people living here. 

KT: Many of the issues listed on your campaign website would seem (on their face) to require additional investment in programs dedicated to outreach and education in addition to bolstering services. Given finances are uncertain, are their policy changes you feel the commission should support to start laying the groundwork?

ACC: Not necessarily. To me it’s about clear and detailed prioritization of resources. This happens by being smart with your budget and ensuring every dollar is spent on the most critical services and supports. When budgets are tight it gets even more clear where each dollar should be dedicated.

Furthermore, despite our budget forecast showing that we will be in a budget shortfall for quite some time, the same report shared that now is a great time to invest in services that will help our communities thrive. By having experience working with state dollars and leveraging them along with federal resources, we will be able to creatively build some infrastructure, which will help ease our return to recovery.

KT: Voters often tend to overlook down-ballot races, what would you say to a Keizer voter who questioned the impact of the board of commissioners on our city?

ACC: I think it’s important to vote all the way down-ballot because at each level of government our elected leaders make decisions that impact our lives. The county budget is over $450 million dollars – this is your tax money spent on a variety of things. Right now, the county is handling our COVID-19 crisis through its role as our local Public Health Authority, we’ve had many fatalities and we’re doing very poorly when compared to other large counties. We need stronger leadership now so that jobs can be restored and kids can be back in school.