Saturday, February 24, 2018

‘Oly Mountain Boy’ Attorney Announces Race for County Commission

Above: Tye Menser is a candidate for Thurston County Commission District 3. Little Hollywood interviewed Menser and covered law and justice issues, growth and the environment, county public health issues, and the need for a new county courthouse complex.

The county has to be right there knee-deep with the cities in solving the county’s problems,” said Menser.

By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood

Tye Menser announced his candidacy for Thurston County Commission District 3 on Saturday.

Menser, 47, is a bluegrass, banjo-playing member of the acclaimed Oly Mountain Boys and a Harvard and University of California-Berkeley educated public defense and criminal law attorney.

Menser made his announcement at the Thurston County Democrats’ annual Champagne Brunch at the Rivers Edge Restaurant in Tumwater.

The seat is currently held by Commissioner Bud Blake, a self-described independent. Blake unseated Karen Valenzuela, a Democrat, in 2014.

Menser says he is running to improve the county’s financial management and partner with cities to work on solutions to regional problems such as affordable housing, poverty, addiction and mental health services. 

He also wants this partnership to create sustainable land use policies.

Interview with Little Hollywood

Menser sat down with Little Hollywood earlier this week to discuss his journey to Thurston County and approach to the issues.

We covered a lot of ground: the budget, growth, housing, environmental issues, the proposed new county courthouse, the proposed expansion of the county jail, and law and restorative justice issues.

Born in Southern California and raised by public school teachers, Menser is married to a public school teacher and father of two children. 

While a law student, he studied in Mexico, Argentina and Chile, learned Spanish, and served three years in large law firms. He traveled around the world in between jobs and met his wife while traveling in Bulgaria.

Menser is a ten-year singing and songwriting member of the Oly Mountain Boys. In a Northwest Music Scene reader poll, the band’s album, “White Horse” was voted as one of the top ten Pacific Northwest albums of 2014.

Set in Grays Harbor, the album, written by Menser, tells a life story from beginning to end, centering on Washington’s frontier past. One song is called, “They Cut Down the Trees.”

Menser first discovered his appreciation for environmental issues while living in Alaska nearly 15 years ago. 

“I went to Alaska in 2001, after three years in big-law firm private practice. Those three years showed me that I would only survive as a lawyer if I was in a more public service type of practice. At the same time, I became interested in environmental issues….I combined the two goals and joined the Alaska Public Defender Agency, representing the interests of indigenous peoples living above the Arctic Circle and throughout interior Alaska. I stayed for nearly seven years.

“I traveled all over the Alaskan wilderness, and developed an abiding appreciation for wild places and a deep understanding the value of pristine natural landscapes,” he said.

Coming to Olympia in 2007, Menser served on Thurston County’s Water Conservancy Board from 2010 to 2013. He has extensive training in Washington State’s complex water law.

With that knowledge, Menser pledges to enhance Thurston County’s unique features and preserve water quality, county farmlands and open spaces.

“I appreciate how smart, sustainable land use planning provides security for people and our irreplaceable lands as we continue to grow. We must provide for both prosperity and preservation. We have to be mindful of how we grow, and our current commissioners are trying to roll back protections for our prairies, groundwater and shorelines. We’re in a sweet spot here and need to retain its character. We need county commissioners who are going to fiercely protect that character,” he said.

Digging deep into the details of the county’s Habitat Conservation Plan currently under review, Menser wants to remind voters that all three current commissioners ran their election campaigns saying the Plan was unnecessary.

“The Habitat Conservation Plan is a way to help our landowners and property owners not run afoul of the law…Now the commissioners realize it’s needed, but they are questioning the science behind the need to protect endangered species and questioning the acreage for mitigation, so we’re pretty far back in the process. They have taken an obstructionist approach and I don’t think that is responsible leadership for the county. They are not asking the right questions.

“They are also looking at a reduction of protections in low impact development standards and the critical areas ordinance and considering the reduction of buffers,” he said.

Highlighting the interconnectedness of the county’s challenges, Menser says the county budget is in trouble and “it is time for the county to take a stronger role in joining the cities to work on regional issues.”

The county’s criminal justice system, including the courts, prosecution and defense, policing and the jail, currently consumes 76 percent of the county’s general fund.

“The commission has squandered two-thirds of our budget reserve with no plan to replenish it –that’s not responsible financial planning. We’re one emergency away from financial insolvency. A long term financial plan is key,” he said.

“Thurston County faces increasingly complicated problems with fewer and fewer financial resources to solve them. The anticipated population growth that we can see all around us is only going to further strain our ability to provide services and protect natural resources. The voters need someone who can safely lead the county through these challenges and I believe I’m the person for the job.”

With the commissioners also acting as the Board of Health, Menser says he will provide greater county leadership on issues on issues such as affordable housing and homelessness.

“The recent Point-in-Time count indicates that the number of unsheltered homeless on the street has spiked. Partnerships with the cities on these issues with a collaborative approach may be slow, but produces more solid, long-term solutions. Nearly a third of people in the county are under rent pressure, struggling to just meet their basic housing costs. The county has to be right there knee-deep with the cities in solving the county’s problems,” said Menser.

Menser’s practice includes court-appointed work with Thurston County Public Defense.

Despite the drop in crime, the population in the county jail is increasing, particularly those with special needs.

“We have 45 percent of the people in our jail with diagnosed mental health issues and 75-80 percent with addiction and substance abuse, so, to me, that statistic jumps off the page. If we’re concerned about why our jail is full and we’re housing people believing there’s going to be some rehabilitation, we are accomplishing a lot less incarcerating someone when they really are in need of mental health and addiction treatment.

“So, if we’re looking at the gap between revenue cap and the rising cost of government, we have to look at these issues. I’m well positioned to do that with my background. The plan to expand the jail is not the best use of our money….We could be looking at investing in other parts of the system that will have a better effect,” said Menser.

“The interconnectedness of these issues is one of my themes….You have to think of all our main issues - economic development, the environment, the budget, and law and justice. You have to see the whole system in terms of how to spend your money. I will work to implement reforms, find efficiencies and cost savings, reduce criminal recidivism, and make our communities safer and healthier,” said Menser.

Regarding the needs of the current county courthouse complex which was built in 1978, Menser agrees it needs to be replaced and says all the reasons presented are valid.

“The case that the courthouse is in disrepair is pretty clear. To me, the space concerns are the tipping factor. Three times the amount of space is needed to deal with the anticipated population growth. The space issue is acute. We have to figure out as a community how to make this project work. The judges have given a number of presentations. They are mindful of the fact that this very large expenditure needs to have corollary benefits to the community. That’s why the thought of having it downtown could be another way to revitalize our community.

“The downtown concept is good but the financial possibilities that have been presented are going to eat up capital expenditures. Whether it can it be done on a smaller scale is the challenge. Even the current commissioners are acknowledging the need. The location is the next big decision that needs to be made,” said Menser.

After covering a lot of ground on serious issues, it was time for Little Hollywood to ask Menser if he would be offended by me closing out the interview with a carefully chosen banjo joke. Menser laughed and braced himself.

Little Hollywood: So why is banjo playing like a courtroom trial?

Menser put his head in his hands, and thought for what seemed like half a minute. He was stumped. What? Had he not heard this one? He gave up.

Answer: Everyone is relieved when the case is finally closed.

But Menser was quick with a challenge:

Menser: Why do some people hate banjo players instantly?

Answer: It saves time.

Menser is hoping voters will like this one.