This May, thousands of Umatilla County residents will get something that isn’t supposed to be novel in a democracy — a choice.
Each spring of every odd numbered year, dozens of seats governing services like public education, fire protection, parks and recreation, public libraries and more go up for election. During most of those elections, most candidates either run unopposed or no one runs at all, meaning the election is determined by write-in or appointment.
But after the Thursday, March 18, filing deadline for this year’s May 18 election, residents stepped up to run for office, especially in the Pendleton and Hermiston school districts.
Multiple challengers file against Hermiston incumbents
The Hermiston School Board hit a low in 2017, when no one filed for an open Position 3 seat. In a district that serves well over 5,000 students, Mark Gomolski won the write-in election with a total of 14 votes.
In 2021, only Position 2 incumbent Bryan Medelez is getting a free pass to a new term.
Gomolski didn’t file to run for a second term, and Dain Gardner, a senior trooper with Oregon State Police, and Lili Gomez, a records specialist with the Hermiston Police Department, are running to take his place.
Karen Sherman, the Hermiston School Board vice-chair and 20-year veteran of the board, is facing a challenge from Caitlin Melhorn, a coder at Good Shepherd Medical Center, for Position 6. Brent Pitney, the incumbent representing Position 4, is facing a challenge of his own from attorney Sally Anderson Hansell.
Jim Green, the executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association and a self-professed “school board elections nerd,” said he’s seen the same spike in interest for school board seats across the state.
The association has encouraged Oregon residents to run for their local school board for years, but he said this cycle may have seen a greater interest in educational policy following the extended school shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The races to govern the rest of the county’s taxing districts, such as fire districts and ports, are generally noncompetitive, with a few notable exceptions.
With incumbent Heidi Van Kirk retiring from the Blue Mountain Community College board, two candidates are vying for Zone 3, an area that includes south Pendleton and southern Umatilla County. Echo farmer Kent Madison will compete against Carrie Sampson-Samuels, a project director for the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board.
Zone 4, which is based around west Hermiston, will see a contest between incumbent Kim Puzey and Kipp Barron, a “global security officer” from Umatilla. Abe Currin, a cider maker for Blue Mountain Cider Co., is running unopposed to succeed Tony Turner in Zone 6, which encompasses the Milton-Freewater area.
The Umatilla County Special Library District, which provides funding to about a dozen public libraries across the county, also has multiple elections. A board member resigning mid-term means the board will have two at-large elections: one election for one two-year term and another for a four-year term.
For the four-year term, county voters will select two from a field that includes incumbent John Thomas, BMCC instructor Sharone Pettus McCann and Caleb Barron of Umatilla. For the two-year term, voters will only select one candidate from a group that includes Fatima Machado, an assistant professor of library services at Columbia Basin College, Gaby Gonzalez, a Umatilla property manager, and Jubilee Barron of Umatilla.
Ballots will start going out April 28 for the May 18 election.