U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden stands outside the News-Times office April 2 after broadcasting a town hall for Lincoln County residents from the newspaper’s conference room. (Photo by Jeremy Burke)

NEWPORT — U.S Sen. Ron Wyden broadcast a virtual town hall from the News-Times office April 2, taking live questions from Lincoln County residents and elected officials with a heavy focus on disaster recovery.

The senator appeared taken aback to learn that the Salmon River Mobile Village community in Otis, where 29 of 31 homes were destroyed by the Echo Mountain Complex fire, had not yet been cleared of debris after almost seven months.

State Rep. David Gomberg raised the issue in a comment on the live Facebook feed, noting that the Oregon Department of Transportation began work at the site last week at his urging. The Oregon Debris Management Task Force, which consists of the state transportation, emergency management and environmental quality departments, leads government provided wildfire cleanup efforts with reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA ruled that Salmon River Mobile Village did not qualify for reimbursement because it was a commercial operation, and cleanup in the mobile home park was in limbo while Lincoln County and the state appealed that determination. Gomberg, a member of the state House Special Committee On Wildfire Recovery, pressed ODOT to move forward with debris removal pending the result of the appeal.

ODOT’s contractor began debris removal at the site on March 31, and it appeared largely complete as of Tuesday. Gomberg asked Wyden during the town hall, “Why has FEMA declined to help these people?”

FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Tony Raines, joining the town hall via Zoom, referred the question to Stan Thomas, deputy director of Oregon Emergency Management. Wyden interrupted.

“Before we do a lot of ‘senate yielding,’ as you know, when your top officials were out here, the big focus of mine was debris removal because everything else is uphill if you don’t do it,” Wyden said. “And I’ve been under the impression that a lot of the debris has been removed. We have to get this done quickly. Quickly. This was at the top of our list months ago. So let’s hear from the Oregon official, but when we’re done with this call, we have to have a plan to get that debris cleaned up.”

Thomas said the state made an early decision to cover the cost of cleaning fire-damaged sites regardless of eligibility for FEMA funding. Salmon River Mobile Village had been deemed a commercial property, he said, but work was now underway there. He did not say why the mobile park remained untouched until last week, even as more than 50 surrounding properties were completely cleaned and others were in progress.

Wyden said, “We understand there’s a lot of work to do, but more than six months after the start of the fire, if one of our constituents says nothing has happened … we just have to move now.” He said he would assign a member of his staff to follow up with Gomberg and would “bird dog” the issue until the job was done.

Diana Hinton, a member of the Lincoln City City Council, asked if something could be done to reduce the number of private applicants for FEMA wildfire aid who had their claims denied over minor issues with the application form. “The applicants are forced to appeal those denials. Couldn’t there be another level of ‘clarifications’? These folks have been through a lot, and a denial is harsh when a clarification is all that is needed,” Hinton wrote.

Wyden said, “This question goes right to the heart of my concerns. If there is something technical and small and it really relates to a box being filled out or a clarification, we’re going to get that fixed.” At the same time, he said, FEMA pointed out that serious fraud had taken place, so there needed to be a “sharp line.”

Raines said the agency agreed with Hinton’s comment. “If there’s some way that we can correct the system, we’re working with our liaisons at the national processing center to eliminate some of those blockages.” He said they were now speaking with some applicants over the phone to correct minor form errors, but some problems required applicants to provide documentation.

Another Lincoln City councilor, Riley Hoagland, chimed in with a wildfire concern relating more to the immediate response than recovery. He asked what Wyden could do to “help us provide a very clear and concise way of providing a safe evacuation program,” such as procuring electronic reader signs for Highway 101.

Wyden offered to facilitate a discussion between local officials and representatives of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The senator also fielded a question about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, which one live town hall participant said killed hundreds of thousands of animals in the state per year with traps and poisons that pose a danger to pets and children.

Wyden said he thought there needed to be more oversight and transparency in the agency’s practices, noting that U.S. Rep. Peter Defazio cosponsored a bill banning its use of poisons.

Another participant joining the town hall live said she was concerned about the influence of corporate money on electoral politics. Wyden said, “Here’s what the effect of money in politics is all about — If you’re a nurse on the Oregon coast treating COVID patients, you pay taxes with every paycheck. If you are a billionaire in some affluent suburb, and you have all kinds of slick accountants and lawyers, the tax code is pretty much optional to you.”

He said he was committed to changing that calculus and would wield his influence as the new chair of the Senate Finance Committee to do so. “We’re going to be laying out a different approach on the taxing of multinational corporations on Monday,” he said, noting that a report from the Joint Committee on Taxation following the 2017 tax bill found that taxes for the country’s largest corporations were cut by 50 percent.

The senator also used the town hall to tout $13 million in funding recently announced for Oregon fisheries from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, allocated to address direct and indirect impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. “These resources will provide a much-needed lifeline so that Oregon’s job-creating fishing and seafood processors can weather this economic storm,” Wyden said.

Before closing the broadcast, Wyden addressed an issue he said he was surprised no one else had raised. “I want everyone in Lincoln County to know that I very much favor what’s called a talking filibuster,” Wyden said. “So that if a senator feels strongly about an issue, they should have to show up and actually be accountable and not just file a motion to object and then go off and play golf with a bunch of lobbyists somewhere.”

He said he learned the value of the strategy in 1998 when he threatened to filibuster the Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act, the Senate companion to a House bill that would have overturned Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law, which had already survived court challenges and referral for a referendum after its initial passage as Ballot Measure 16.

Wyden said he ended up not having to speak for hours on the Senate floor to block the bill, but he’s convinced the power to potentially stymie proceedings gave him room to make his case to colleagues and save the state’s physician-assisted dying law.

The senator also addressed “net neutrality,” federal approval of COVID-19 treatments and more during the 45-minute town hall, which can be found online at https://www.facebook.com/PeoplesTH/videos/292727245605409

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