Feeling the pressure to put Baker in best light

By Jayson Jacoby January 10, 2014 09:52 am

I spent an hour or so on the phone the other day trying to explain what sort of town Baker City is.

This is not as easy as you might think.

At least not when the conversation feels more like an interrogation.

The man who called said he and his wife are considering buying a home in Baker City.

Of several towns they’ve visited, Baker City is by a large margin their favorite, he told me.

But he still has questions.

A whole lot of questions.

The one that prompted his call had to do with a recent poll I posted on our web site, www.bakercityherald.com.

The poll question was whether Baker City and Baker County should try to ban medical marijuana dispensaries through local ordinances.

The caller was worried because a small majority of poll respondents answered no, they don’t think the city and council should block dispensaries.

He wondered whether he and his wife were preparing to move into a haven for medical marijuana users.

I told him I doubted that was the case, pointing out that anyone with Internet access can vote on the online poll. 

I also told the caller that so far as I know no one has proposed to open a dispensary in Baker City. I posted the poll question after Police Chief Wyn Lohner wrote a memo to the Baker City Council explaining that they have the authority to ban dispensaries, and that he recommends they do so.

I gave the caller the voting results from the November 2010 election, when Oregonians rejected Measure 74, which would have allowed medical marijuana dispensaries.

Baker County voters opposed that measure by 69 percent to 31 percent.

(If you’re wondering why medical marijuana dispensaries are an issue now, given the voters’ decision in 2010, ask the Legislature and Gov. John Kitzhaber. The former passed House Bill 3460, which allows dispensaries, last year, and Kitzhaber signed it into law in 2013. The state will start accepting applications for medical marijuana sales licenses in early March.)

What I would also have told the caller, except I didn’t have the figures readily at hand, was that in 1998, when Oregon voters approved a measure allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes, Baker County voters balked.

Local voters rejected that measure by 62 percent to 38 percent.

I also poked around briefly on the web site of the Oregon Health Division, which oversees (or something) the state’s medical marijuana program.

According to the state, as of Oct. 1, 2013, 199 Baker County residents had a medical marijuana card.

That’s about .012 percent of the county’s population, a percentage similar to that for Union County, and a bit below the statewide average of .014 percent.

From a purely business standpoint it seems to me unlikely that anyone would want to open such a business here.

199 customers is not much of a clientiele.

I don’t know whether I allayed the man’s fears about Baker City.

Moreover, I’m not sure I wanted to do so.

Frankly I felt a bit queer about the episode.

It’s not that I mind touting Baker City; I do that often.

But it’s one thing to, for instance, regale a hiking enthusiast with the wonders of spending a couple days on the Elkhorn Crest Trail, and quite a different matter to possibly influence a couple making such a momentous decision as where they might spend a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Not to mention possibly the rest of their lives.

I don’t like that kind of pressure.

What I do like is a spirited discussion, and that’s pretty much what we had.

A few times I felt as though I was, in a sense, defending Baker City.

The caller said he was disappointed in the dilapidated appearance of some homes he had seen during one of their several visits.

I allowed as how we have some properties that deserve to be branded as eyesores. But I suggested that every town does, and that I don’t believe Baker City’s examples represent an epidemic of ugly. 

The caller also expressed concern about how the city deals with dogs that roam the streets, citing the tragic death last September of 5-year-old Jordan Ryan.

I told the man that I walk in town quite often and, although I’m occasionally incensed by an unattended dog nipping at my heels, I don’t believe Baker City has a “dog problem” that significantly mars the quality of life.

I also pointed out that the pit bull that killed Jordan wasn’t running loose, but in its owner’s yard.

It became obvious to me that the man’s overriding fear isn’t that Baker City residents don’t cut their grass or paint their siding often enough, or that they don’t make sure their dogs stay in their yards, but that these matters might be symptoms of a bigger problem, that being a culture of illegal drug use.

On that score I felt confident in telling that man that I believe his concern, though of course understandable, almost certainly is exaggerated.

Drugs often cause problems, of course, but most frequently the victims, it seems to me, are the drug users and their families.

This is a terrible thing, to be sure.

Yet there is a substantial difference between drugs wrecking a person or a family, and drugs fouling an entire city with their attendant crimes of theft and abuse and a general disdain for social responsibility.

If anything, I told the caller, Baker City’s atmosphere has improved over the past decade or so, largely because meth labs are far less common than they used to be.

I told the caller that the attractive attributes he mentioned — the friendly people he and his wife have met in restaurants and motels and retail stores — are the genuine article rather than the veneer of warmth typical of towns which cater primarily to tourists.

Basically I told him what I believe, which is that Baker City, though hardly perfect, pretty much is the pleasant place he and his wife hope it to be.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.