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Talent voters eye three contested City Council races

Candidates for three seats on Talent City Council in the Nov. 3 election agree that making possible the return of citizens displaced by the Sept. 8 Almeda fire should be a top priority as the city rebuilds.

The blaze destroyed nearly 700 residential units, many of them affordable housing in manufactured home parks that served seniors, low-income and Latino communities.

Three of the candidates suffered losses or damages in the fire and all had to evacuate from their neighborhoods.

David Pastizzo and Ana Byers are vying for Seat 2, held by Emily Berlant, who is not seeking re-election.

Incumbent Councilor John Harrison is opposed by Derek Volkart, a planning commissioner, for Seat 4.

Challenger Ron Timen is taking on incumbent Jason Clark for Seat 6. All terms are four years long.

“It’s been about 20 years since anyone from a minority community has been on City Council. I thought I could bring some fresh perspectives and also solid skills,” said Byers, who said she’d like to see the city undertake efforts to ensure that public documents are consistently and well translated into Spanish.

Byers has lived in Talent since 2013 and works as program and communication director for nonprofit Rogue World Music. She previously worked to help establish a restaurant in town.

“I think it is really important that as we create our rebuilding vision and take steps toward that, we are sure we are asking for input from our disenfranchised families and make it as easy as possible” for families to return, said Byers. “As we move forward it is essential that we continue to make affordable housing a priority.”

Small businesses could be discouraged from rebuilding or coming to Talent, but Byers wants a vision that would be supportive of those endeavors.

Pastizzo said he is running because he has a lot of experience that can help the council make decisions. He’s served on the city Planning Commission for five years and been a town resident since 2014. He is the Geographic Information Systems manager for the city of Medford and worked in GIS and land use for governments and a private firm in California.

“I think we need to see what our options are as quickly as we can,” said Pastizzo. “We need to be prepared to make decisions. I feel there has been, in Talent, a lot of time talking about really tiny little details that we could sort out along the way that keep the bigger options from moving forward as fast as they could.”

Work by the Planning Commission over the last two years has created building code changes that are nearly ready for approval. Those would open up more options for low-income housing by allowing more density, smaller units and smaller setback requirements, Pastizzo said. The updates also create more objective standards, which should cut down on approval process time, he said.

Harrison was elected to a four-year term in 2016. A number of people, including current councilors Stephanie Dolan and Daria Land, asked him to seek re-election, he said. The three councilors have often voted together, opposed by three others, leaving the deciding vote to Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood, Harrison said.

Support for the town’s police and employees is critical, Harrison said.

“We need to be able to put all options on the table to help those rebuilding to do so quickly,” said Harrison. That includes expediting permit processes for cleanup and rebuilding and working with county, state and federal agencies. But the city also needs to be ready to push those agencies to get things moving, he said.

Houses all around Harrison’s burned, and his own home suffered $100,000 in damage but made it through the fire. The fire should bring added levels of preparedness for future emergencies, he said.

Volkart has served on the Planning Commission since 2018, including a year as chairman. He has a paint and plaster business but lost his workshop and most of his tools in the fire.

“What I think is critical for my children’s future in Talent is we must provide opportunity for our diverse population of displaced Talent residents to return to their town,” said Volkart. “That message is a consistent theme I have heard from discussions with community members, and a goal for all of us.”

Prior to the Almeda fire, Talent had a huge deficit of affordable homes. Following the fire, it will be even more important to create that, he said. Planning Commission work on zoning codes will remove barriers to development, and he expects a recommendation to go the council in the near future.

“Public-private partnerships with nonprofit developers will likely be critical to providing additional affordable housing as we move forward rebuilding,” said Volkart. “Talent residents are not interested in becoming ‘Ashland North.’ They want to retain the town’s diversity and be able to afford to live near where they work.”

Clark was elected to a two-year term in 2018. He is an ecological consultant. He ran to promote affordable housing and says that issue is now even more pressing due to the fire.

“Affordable housing is going to be a priority we have to focus on if we want to be able to keep our community intact,” said Clark. “If we don’t have a concerted effort from elected officials and throughout the community, the character of Talent will change for the worse.”

Some have suggested that a nonprofit could purchase some the mobile home park land, and that needs to be explored, said Clark. It would be one way to help ensure housing that is affordable.

“It’s important for the council to be engaged in the conversations at the county and regional and state levels to help other elected officials to understand the issues in Talent and the market pressures that are bearing down on the city,” said Clark.

Clark also wants to bring back 24/7 policing to the city. He said creation of a joint Talent and Phoenix police department needs to be examined.

Timen said he filed to run because he saw a lot of division on the council, especially over policing issues, and wants to see if he could bring some peace to the body. He has lived off and on in Talent since 1977 and lost his home in the fire.

“In late spring and into summer there was a lot of back and forth and issues relating to defunding the police,” said Timen. He said a police force is critical to making citizens feel safe.

Getting back multifamily housing — and places for older citizens and residents of mobile home parks — is critical for recovery, said Timen.

“I will be leaning on lots of community input and other councilors’ insights and planning commissioners’ insights,” said Timen, who admits he would be new to the governing process.

Timen is an associate pastor. He was pastor of Rivergate Prayer Fellowship, which built a new sanctuary in Talent two years ago before merging with Empowered Life Church. He previously worked as director of the Jackson County Shelter and Evaluation Center.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gamail.com.