Bingen and White Salmon mayors

Left to right, Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes and White Salmon Mayor Marla Keethler.

City governments in Bingen and White Salmon have found ways to improve their efficiency and accessibility during the pandemic, mayors of the two cities said last week.

Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes and Mayor Marla Keethler of White Salmon both said they hope lessons learned during the last year won’t be forgotten after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keethler said the first few months were spent figuring out how to adapt to constantly changing situation. Elected in Nov. 2019, she said she was “just walking into the position” when the pandemic hit.

“Overall, at this stage we’ve definitely found a rhythm,” she said.

Barnes said Bingen has “had time to perfect” meeting virtually and has improved public access to the meetings. She said meetings regularly went two-and-a-half hours before. Now, meetings are frequently wrapped up in around an hour.

“We’re getting business done faster,” Barnes said. She said remote access will be useful in the future as it allows people to attend meetings while traveling and could save them having to drive through a storm at home.

Keethler said the City Council of White Salmon identified virtual service as a way to make meetings more accessible years ago. Until the pandemic, no progress had been made on integrating the idea.

“For public meetings, we really want to get back in person, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to abandon virtual,” Keethler said.

Keethler said the pandemic and the natural gas outage in December have exposed “information deserts” and “information voids” within the community.

“The natural gas outage showed the value of the Facebook page, but it also showed the city we were only reaching some people,” Keethler said. “We got calls from people three days in who didn’t know anything about what was happening because they weren’t online.”

She said a lack of access to reliable high-speed internet for some locals has been exposed. People have seen “a real world example of what that actually means” as schools and governments have done business online, she said.

Keethler said the outage and pandemic have been “clear reminders of how much we rely on these utilities.” She said utility workers have continued to be “unsung heroes” through the pandemic.

“People not having to worry about their city handling the crisis is a tribute to the people in the field,” she said. “A city can’t send a message of ‘business goes on’ if the utilities aren’t working.”

Public works employees in Bingen and White Salmon helped businesses install outdoor seating, including “parklets,” last summer. Both mayors said parklets will return, as needed, this year.

White Salmon has split its public works department into two teams to ensure continued service in case of a COVID-19 outbreak. Keethler said communities with older infrastructure have to be ready for line breaks and other problems and said maintaining the city’s aging water infrastructure is a priority.

Barnes said she hopes public works and wastewater staff will join local firefighters among the ranks of the vaccinated. She said the well-being of employees has been her “largest concern.”

Both cities received relief funds in 2020 through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Barnes and Keethler said their cities passed funds through to the community after making purchases needed to support workplace compliance for businesses and the city.

In Bingen, CARES money was given to Washington Gorge Action Programs (WAGAP). Barnes said WAGAP distributed the money to people who had fallen behind on bills.

“When some of the moratoriums are lifted, these people will have a payment plan and it might take them 10 years to catch up,” she said. “The CARES money took the worry off of them. Hopefully they can stay current and keep that burden off their shoulders.”

After purchasing technology for remote work and supplies for outdoor seating at restaurants, White Salmon released its remaining $100,000 through a grant program. Keethler said the city awarded grants to 17 businesses and all applying households who qualified.

She said the city has been trying to get back to thinking long-term. She said mayors need to be able to react on a daily basis while always thinking of their city’s long-term interests. Keethler has held “virtual office hours” and said she has recently been hearing from people about more non-COVID related issues.

Keethler said a “real financial crisis” will become clear in the post-pandemic future. She said all stakeholders will need to come together to make sure lessons learned during the pandemic are applied in the future.

This is the first part of a series as Columbia Gorge News will interview mayors of towns throughout the Gorge in upcoming editions of the newspaper.