County commissioner candidates answer questions

Most of discussion at forum focused on oversight of auditor’s office

IAN SMAY, Evergreen reporter

The pair of candidates for Whitman County Commissioner District 3 answered questions from constituents at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Pullman at the Whitman County Library on July 17.

Incumbent Republican Michael Largent and Democratic challenger John-Mark Mahnkey will move on to the general election in November as the only two candidates in the field.

Following opening statements, the first question posed to the pair asked how they would deal with the ongoing issues within the county’s auditor’s office.

Both candidates noted that the county auditor is an elected official, putting the decision on the office’s leadership in the hands of the public.

“That’s up to you, not the [Whitman County] Board of Commissioners,” Largent said.

Mahnkey added that while it was up to the people to choose the next county auditor, the commissioners need to monitor what is happening in the various county offices to ensure everything was being carried out correctly. He also said he would support whatever measures the office takes to get back on track.

“They have my full support to do what needs to be done to make things run smoothly again,” Mahnkey said.

The next question dealt with funding county services if sufficient resources were made available to the board of commissioners.

Mahnkey said the first area he would like to address would be increasing the wages of jailors at the Whitman County Jail, who he said take home near minimum wage while also having to pay for healthcare.

“I think taking care of jailors is step number one because that is a thankless job,” Mahnkey said.

Largent agreed that the issue of jailor pay is important and added it was addressed in union negotiations. The problem he said he would focus on first would be the county classification system for workers, and that he would like to increase pay across the various departments. However, he sees this as challenge moving forward.

“It’s difficult as county commissioner because we don’t generate money,” Largent said.

The following question brought the discussion back to the auditor’s office, asking the candidates if they would support a potential change to a charter form of government in an effort to allow the auditor to be selected based on merit instead of voting.

Largent again said the decision came to the people but noted past failures of a potential switch.

“It’s up to you,” Largent said. “It was tried in Whitman County and turned down by the voters.”

He also told the voters that while the commissioners can allocate funds, they cannot tell elected officials how to run their respective departments.

Mahnkey said he would not support the switch to a charter system.

“I would not honestly because it is completely up to you as the voter to choose to keep the auditor or change the auditor,” Mahnkey said.

He added the voting process already chooses officials based on how the public perceives their merits.

Another topic discussed between the two addressed rail banking, which refers to the procurement of private land by the state or county to be used for public rails and trails.

Mahnkey said he would support rail banking as it could increase recreation opportunities for people in the county, as well as allow for future use of rails for transportation if gas prices skyrocket.

Largent said the county does not have the funds to contribute to a new rail service and that public opinion on the subject is diverse. He said he would not support it if it was county-funded and that the decision needs to be made by the state legislature.

The final question asked what separates each candidate from their opponent.

The pair answered that not much separated them, as they were both citizens who cared greatly about the county.

However, Largent did cite his previous experience in government, while Mahnkey said he did not aspire to be a career politician and would only run for reelection once or twice.