Five vying for a spot on the Thurston County Commission

Five vying for a spot on the Thurston County Commission

Published by The Olympian on 7/24/2016 linked here.

Five vying for a spot on the Thurston County Commission

  • Job comes with a $111,600 annual salary
  • Agriculture, economic development are top issues
  • Aug. 2 primary will winnow field to two, who will advance to the Nov. 8 general election


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Thurston County voters may see a little of themselves among the five candidates vying for the County Commissioner District No. 1 seat in the primary election.

There’s a veteran, a retired public servant, a lawyer, a Ramtha student who lived off the grid for more than a decade, and a South County ranch owner who has wrangled with county officials over land-use issues.

During a recent public forum at Tenino Middle School, all of the candidates said they are passionate about protecting the environment, keeping agriculture a viable local industry, and boosting economic development across the county. But each one has a different plan for how to manage those critical Thurston County issues.

Only voters who live in District No. 1 — which runs through the central portion of the county and includes Tenino, rural Rainier, Olympia and Johnson Point — can vote in the primary for the race, which will choose two candidates for the November ballot. About 57,400 voters are registered in that district, according to Valerie Walston with the Thurston County Auditor’s Office.

In the Nov. 3 general election, voters across the county will vote for Commissioner District No. 1, which is currently held by Cathy Wolfe, as well as Commissioner District No. 2, a position that is held by Sandra Romero. Both Wolfe and Romero are retiring.

The candidates for Romero’s seat, former Thurston County Sheriff Gary Edwards, who is running without a party affiliation, and Democrat Kelsey Hulse, are automatically advancing to the general election.

Both seats have an annual salary of $111,600.

In District 1, Democrat Jim Cooper, 41, is chief executive officer of the United Way of the Pacific Northwest, a trade association of the United Way organizations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. He has served on the Olympia City Council since 2011, and is chairman of its finance committee. He is an Army veteran.

If elected, Cooper said he wants to work to make Thurston County government more transparent and effective.

“I don’t see any reason why the Thurston County government shouldn’t have as high level of customer service as a Hilton Hotel,” Cooper said. “Right now when you look at county government, it’s very hard to navigate. It’s very hard even when you walk in the building to know where you need to go.”

Cooper said he wants to help retain local agriculture by creating tax incentives to bring new farms and ag-related businesses into the area. He also supports relocating the fairgrounds to south county.

“We can better promote agriculture if it’s closer to real farms and ranches, rather than surrounded by houses,” Cooper said. “A larger rural fairgrounds would bring a multitude of options, if we could figure out how to do it together.”

Diane Dondero, 66, of Rainier describes herself as the “people’s candidate.”

“So why would you vote for me?” the Democrat said at the forum in Tenino. “I am you. … I lived for 13 years in the mountain wilderness where I raised my family, beyond power poles and all of the conveniences of life.”

Dondero is a retired in-home care provider. She moved to the rural Rainier area about 27 years ago to attend Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment in Yelm.

She’s never run for political office before. Dondero said she wants to work toward creating a new way of life that does away with the oil-based economy.

“We are not separate from our environment, and therefore I love nature, but I love all of you first,” Dondero said. “I love the people first and I’m putting you first in my thoughts about the county and the things that are important to me.”

Dondero is the author of “Udderly Simple Dairy Foods,” which includes recipes and instructions on natural animal husbandry and tips for a self-sufficient lifestyle.

She said she is against increased taxes and wants to remove partisanship from county politics. If elected, Dondero said she would schedule town hall meetings to find new solutions for the county’s problems.

Dondero said she doesn't support a change in the county commission's districts, or the charter movement because that issue has been voted down several times already.

But she said she would support creating a rural council that could provide input to the county commissioners. “It’s just a matter of giving people a voice," she said.

John Hutchings, 62, of southeast Olympia, retired from the Olympia Police Department in 2012. He served as the city of Tenino’s Police Chief for about three years.

Last October, Hutchings filed an $850,000 defamation lawsuit against Tenino and former Tenino mayor Bret Brodersen, who fired him, alleging that the police chief had worked extra hours, hired a reserve officer without approval, and generally overstepped his authority. The city filed a counter-suit against Hutchings over “unjust enrichment,” but recently withdrew an earlier claim that alleged he committed fraud.

A trial is set for early next year, and Hutchings said he’s been advised by his attorney to not speak publicly about the case.

During the town hall, Hutchings said his professional and community experience has prepared him to serve as county commissioner.

“I bring 35 years of service to others from both sides of the badge,” he said.

Hutchings said he would work to improve the overall community health in Thurston County, which includes taking care of people who are mentally ill or chemically dependent, youth at risk, veterans and the homeless.

He co-authored “The Thin Blue Lifeline: Verbal De-escalation of Mentally Ill & Emotionally Disturbed People — A Comprehensive Guidebook for Law Enforcement Officers,” and trains police officers on how to deescalate interactions with those who have mental illness.

He said he would “bring common sense” to county government, and work to bring economic development to the area while also protecting its natural resources.

“Economic development must occur in a reasonably managed fashion to energize the county’s economic engine,” he said at the Tenino forum. “In order for Thurston County to survive, we need revenue to mitigate expenses and rising costs, but not on your backs.”

Hutchings said he doesn’t support a proposal to increase the size of the Thurston County Board of Commissioners, or reconfigure its districts to bring more representation from the rural areas.

“It’s not the government structure that’s been the problem for the last dozen (or) 16 years,” he said. “It’s not having the right person in the job.”

Allen Miller, 61, is a land use attorney who served two terms on the Olympia School Board.

He is not affiliated with a political party, and is a former state assistant attorney general for the Department of Ecology. He served as the chief land use and environmental deputy prosecutor for Thurston County before returning to private practice at the end of 2006. He also serves as a judge pro tem in Thurston County District Court and Olympia Municipal Court.

Miller said he believes his school board experience will translate well into county government.

“When I got appointed to the school board, it was a dysfunctional body of five people,” he said. “And through my reason, through my listening skills, through just rolling up my shirt sleeves and getting to work, making sure that policies matched what the Olympia School District needed, and just being a collaborator, I was able to make that a very smooth functioning school board and I think I could bring those skills to the county commission.”

Miller said he’s already been tackling economic development through his work with the South Sound YMCA, the United Way of Thurston County, and the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce. If elected, he would work to make sure the county’s land use regulations allow businesses to thrive, he said.

“We’ll have 150,000 (more) people over the next 20 years here in Thurston County, so we need to make sure we have those family-wage jobs,” Miller said.

If elected, Miller said he would support putting a charter measure before the voters that could change the county’s form of government to a five-member council.

The candidate who has spent the most time at county commission meetings and hearings during the past few years is real estate broker Jon Pettit, 58, owner of the Deschutes River Ranch, south of Tumwater.

He’s been caught up in legal snags in the past for opening up his riverfront property to the public for camping and special events.

Pettit routinely speaks at Thurston County Commission meetings. In fact, he was one of the only speakers during several public hearings that were held for last fall’s county budget. He describes himself as a citizen watchdog, and is running as an independent.

Pettit also is a bit of a rebel: Every year, he get slapped with late fees for not paying his county property taxes on time. He said not paying on time is his way of demonstrating civil disobedience.

“I’ve always been a big person to believe that if you don’t fight for your rights, soon you don’t have something to fight for,” Pettit said, adding that he always pays his bill, including the late fee.

Pettit’s dad, the late Delbert “Del” Pettit, was a conservative Democratic Thurston County Commissioner in the 1970s. He said he never considered following in his dad’s political footsteps until recently.

“As we age, often times we become much like those we watched, learned and respected,” Pettit said. “My father believed that government is to serve the citizens, not the other way around. I was very proud of my father.”

If elected, Pettit said he would work to cut excess regulations for businesses and landowners. He also would work to make sure county commission meetings are held at times that could attract more public participation. Those meetings now are held during the work day.

Pettit said he also would cut down the county’s public relations staff, and use that money to pay for an ombudsman who could help residents with their county government questions and issues

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433@Lisa_Pemberton

Jim Cooper

Contact address: 120 State Ave. NE #101, Olympia

Campaign phone: 360-451-9053

Political party: Democratic

Age: 41

Family: Wife Thomasina and 4-year-old daughter Maggie.

Education: Associate in Arts (liberal arts) from Whatcom Community College and coursework from Colorado State University


Campaign fundraising: Raised $26,275 and spent $20,700 as of July 21. Top donors include Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, Thurston-Lewis-Mason Counties Labor Council, Progress for Public Safety, and IAFF Tumwater Local 2409.

Endorsements by: Washington Federation of State Employees Local 443, Thurston Environmental Voters and numerous local elected officials including Thurston County Commissioner Cathy Wolfe and state Rep. Chris Reykdal.

Diane Dondero

Address: 16940 Russian Hill Lane SE, Rainier

Campaign phone: 360-446-5746

Political party: Democratic

Age: 66

Family: Widow; four adult children and three grandchildren.

Education: Studied at Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment and California Polytechnic State University; has certifications in counseling, health care, crisis management and disaster mitigation.


Campaign fundraising: Has raised $6,148 and spent $5,094 as of July 21. Top contributors include JZK, Inc., JZ Knight, Cephus Childs, Xana Clegg

Endorsements: About a dozen personal endorsements on are listed on her website included ones by Lyn Evans, Jan Ferarri, Susan McLean and Mary Abramson.

John Hutchings

Contact address: 1910 Fourth Ave. E PMB 170, Olympia

Campaign phone: 360-742-2529

Political party: Independent

Age: 62

Family: Wife Debbie and two adult children.

Education: Associate of Arts, Santa Ana College; Bachelor of Arts, The Evergreen State College; Master of Arts in organizational leadership, Chapman University; graduate of FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Association academy.


Campaign fundraising: Raised $17,156 raised and $11,298 spent as of July 21. Top donors are Brian Offord, Olympia Master Builders, Nathaniel Holmes, Waste Connection Inc. and Gene Weaver.

Endorsements: Olympia Master Builders, Thurston County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, Washington State Farm Bureau PAC and more than 200 individuals including Rainier mayor Randy Schleis and former Thurston County Prosecutor Ed Holm.

Allen Miller

Contact address: 1801 West Bay Drive NW, Suite 205, Olympia

Campaign phone: 360-754-9156

Political party: No preference, running nonpartisan

Age: 61

Family: Three adult children.

Education: Juris Doctor from Seattle University School of Law, Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia


Campaign fundraising: Raised $16,367 and spent $12,213 as of July 21. Top donors include Robert McIntosh, Greg Miller, Jace Munson, Ron Rants and Don Rhodes.

Endorsements: The Olympia Education Association and more than 125 individuals including Gary Alexander, Gerry Alexander, Sam Reed and Judy Wilson.

Jon Pettit

Address: 9725 Rich Road SE, Olympia

Campaign phone: 360-951-8888

Political party: Independent

Age: 58

Family: Wife Biying, 13-year-old son Jinrong and adult daughter Holly.

Education: Timberline High School graduate, coursework from South Puget Sound Community College


Campaign fundraising: Has raised $4,682 and spent $3,644 as of July 21. Top contributors are Terry Ballard, Carolyn Lattin and Bryan Anderson.

Endorsements: Has not sought formal endorsements.


For a complete guide to the contested races in the Aug. 2 primary, go to