LANGLEY PRIMARY ELECTION: POSITION 4 | Council race will bring a new voice to Langley
August 11, 2011 · Updated 10:36 AM
In any other election year, Thomas Gill might have been able to easily shake his “always a bridesmaid” curse.
Not so this time.
Unlike many elections of the past, the line of suitors for Langley voters runs deep this year. Candidates in two council races will face a shake-out vote in the Primary Election, with the top two advancing to November.
For Gill, it’s his third attempt at a council seat. Also hoping to attract the interest of voters for Position 4 are Bruce Allen and Jonathon Moses.
Gill is unfazed by his earlier, unsuccessful attempts to earn a place on the council. He ran for a council seat against Russell Sparkman in 2009 and lost, and was passed over twice when he sought an appointed position on the council.
Now, he’s a veteran of city hall due to his extensive volunteer work there, running against two political newcomers who have been seldom seen inside council chambers.
This go-round, Gill is focusing primarily on economic issues. He said he wants to make Langley more affordable, both for business owners and residents.
“The last couple of years have been really hard for the businesses; they are seeing their prices go up and at the same time, they are having to pay higher base fees for water and sewer.”
Gill said the city should consider a lower base fee for utilities, but establish higher costs beyond those base rates that center on consumption. That way, the owners of homes or businesses that aren’t occupied year-round will pay less than what they currently pay.
That set-up, he said, would have helped the new owners of the Dog House, who took over the iconic landmark only to discover they were responsible for several thousand dollars worth of accrued water bills while the tavern had been closed.
Though he has been encouraged by talk of attracting more visitors to Langley to shop and play, Gill said the city also has to work harder to entice new residents to town.
“We need to bring more people to Langley to live. We have this abundance of infrastructure already in place that is just kind of going to waste,” he said.
Langley should focus on in-city development, which would take the pressure off large-lot development outside of the city.
That’s not to say that the city doesn’t have capital needs.
His own part of town, Edgecliff, is one area that needs more infrastructure, he said, such as sewers, storm drains and sidewalks.
“I still have my goal that I stated two years ago — to make Langley more pedestrian friendly. Not having sidewalks is pedestrian unfriendly,” he said. “Especially in the neighborhoods that are a little more rural.”
The city is doing some things right, Gill said.
He agrees with the council’s move to hire a hearing examiner, an outside expert who would rule on proposed subdivisions and other land-use matters.
“I do think it’s a good idea and to be perfectly honest, this is what the people who are supporting Proposition 1 should have been fighting for,” he said, referring to those who want to get rid of Langley’s elected mayor and instead hire a city manager to run city hall.
“Having a hearing examiner gets rid of any sort of questions about the process,” he said.
Prop. 1 made its way onto the Primary Election ballot primarily because of Edgecliff residents, and Gill is quick to point out that he doesn’t share the pro-Prop. 1 views of his neighbors.
“They are throwing the baby out with the bath water,” he said.
“I have lived in cities with a council-manager [model of government], and while they are competently run, it is much more difficult for the residents to get major changes made in the city,” he said.
Having an elected mayor, Gill noted, gives residents a more direct line to be heard at city hall. It would be different if a hired manager were calling the shots.
“I wouldn’t have anybody I could go to directly as I have in the past, and say that something is not right with x, y or z, and get it addressed,” he said.
“You have to go to the councilors and they all have to agree before anything gets done,” Gill said.
Gill, 27, is a technical support specialist at Whidbey Telecom. Like others running for council, he doubts Prop. 1 will pass.
“I think Robin Adam’s position put the nail in the coffin on this,” Gill said, referring to the candidate in the Position 3 council race who helped get Prop. 1 on the ballot, then decided he would not vote for it.
“Adams, having been one of the signers of the petition and now saying he’s not for it, kind of lends credence to the fact that it’s not going favorably,” Gill said.
Gill also said the council was right to remove some of the complex land-use proposals in the city’s comp plan that have been championed by former councilman Robert Gilman, such as a transfer of development rights program and land-use budgeting system.
While the concepts may be good, they are too complex for Langley. And making them mandatory for property owners is the wrong approach, Gill said.
“To have those required for somebody who just wants to build a 1,300-square-foot house is ridiculous,” he said.
But Gill parts company with the current council when it comes to the committee structure used by the deliberative body. Councilman Hal Seligson’s push to get a council finance committee established went nowhere earlier this year; Gill said the council should create more than just the infrequent ad-hoc committees that most council members favor.
“A standing finance committee that had public input would be a great asset to the city,” he said.
He said there’s also room for improvement on the issue of open government.
“If the city was transparent enough they wouldn’t be getting as many public disclosure requests as they are from people,” Gill said.
That said, he gave Langley a grade of B on transparency.
Though a relative newcomer to Langley’s political arena, Moses has already made waves in the Village by the Sea.
Moses is the only candidate who is solidly in support of Prop. 1, which some in Langley say has divided the town by the sometimes acrimonious debate that’s swirled around the measure.
The nature of the discourse of late has Moses concerned. It’s odd to see, he said, in a city that’s rightly known as being open-minded and big-hearted.
Langley needs a council that can openly deliberate without arguing or burrowing into hardened positions, he said.
That doesn’t mean the hard questions shouldn’t be asked, Moses added.
“There has to be a willingness to turn over every stone,” he said.
“I think it is important that we have a more open dialogue, a more critical dialogue within the council and also within the staff.”
Moses said he wasn’t involved in the petition drive to get Prop. 1 on the ballot. Still, it’s not gone unnoticed that he is the only candidate of seven for the city council this year who supports the measure.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said, though he adds that he doesn’t expect Prop. 1 to pass.
“I think people are frustrated and I think that change is difficult for a lot of people.”
Moses said he did not share the concerns of those who are worried that the approval of Prop. 1 would mean fewer checks and balances in city government, but said he understands the appeal of having an elected mayor.
“I hope it does pass,” he said, though he noted that wasn’t likely given, in part, the small crowd that came out for the forum that promoted Prop. 1.
“I was hoping more people would have showed up,” he said.
Another contrast between Moses and those already on the council: His view of what a hearing examiner should do for Langley.
“The question has to do with the scope and the authority of the hearing examiner,” Moses said.
Under the proposed arrangement, someone who disagrees with a decision of the hearing examiner would not be able to appeal for a reconsideration to the city council. Instead, challenges would go directly to superior court.
“I think it’s too much,” Moses said.
The scope of the hearing examiner’s work should be limited, he said.
Moses sees the role of a hearing examiner as more of a legal advisor, and said the council would “abdicate its responsibilities” by allowing a hearing examiner to make the final decision on certain land-use matters.
Others have said that’s exactly the reason for having a hearing examiner, pointing to the recent ham-handed handling of Langley Passage by the city council and Planning Advisory Board that prompted repeated threats of lawsuits.
Moses, 49, returned to Langley in May from a long-term position as a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Norway.
In years past, his family spent a few months in Langley each summer, and a full year in town on sabbatical every five years.
His move back was prompted by the health of his father, who lives in Kenmore, but once here, Moses has again immersed himself in city issues.
“I felt like I wanted to make a commitment to the community and get to know it better. Maybe, rather rashly I thought, this has been one way to jump in.”
His candidacy has left some to wonder if Langley Passage was a prime motivator for him to run for the city council.
Moses is one of three Edgecliff residents on the ballot, and many in the neighborhood were bitterly opposed to Langley Passage, a 20-home development planned that will be built just down the street from Moses.
“I wasn’t very involved in Langley Passage,” Moses said, adding that he did take part in the fight against extending sewers to Edgecliff in 2001, and has been active in other issues concerning the neighborhood.
Critics have noted he’s spent more time in Norway in recent years than the Village by the Sea. And despite his chops as a professor of political science, his voting record is spotty, having not voted in three recent elections where Langley council seats and the mayor’s position were on the ballot.
Moses points to the number of council meetings that he and family members have attended, and stressed he’s not a Johnny-come-lately.
“I’m running for council because I think an individual can matter,” he said.
Bruce Allen is the other political newcomer in the Position 4 race; a self-professed team player who talks in the Spartan cadence of a former military man — short and to the point.
Running for office was a put-up or shut-up deal.
“I didn’t really care for the way things are going down here,” Allen said.
One thing was for certain: He said he wasn’t just going to sit around and complain.
One of the problems with the council, Allen said, was the amount of influence that Gilman had with his fellow council members.
Things started to change, he said, when the council stripped Gilman of his role as deputy mayor.
“I don’t why it took them so long,” he said.
Allen, 70, spent 30 years in the Army and retired as a command sergeant major.
“I want to help get the council working together as a team, and not have their own personal agendas,” Allen said.
The council needs varying views, he added.
“I don’t think there was diversity, because Gilman was the only opinion that was ever aired.”
Allen recalled the land-use banking system that Gilman created, then Gilman’s jump to the speaker’s circuit to tout his ideas in Olympia and beyond.
“That’s not working together as a team,” he said, adding that city officials were left in the dark.
“That’s not right. The mayor and council didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot of get-together here.”
Allen said he has not been much interested in local politics before. Since he moved to Langley, he’s been mostly involved in his church and community efforts; volunteering for the South Whidbey Youth Connection, WICA, Mystery Weekend and other community events.
“I’m not a politician, that’s for sure,” he said.
His plan, if elected, is simple.
“The goal right now is to make this thing work. I don’t have an agenda at all,” he said.
Allen said he didn’t yet have an opinion on whether Langley needs a hearing examiner, but was firm on his view of Prop. 1.
“I’m totally opposed to that one.
“There’s a couple things I object to. You’re going to bring somebody from outside the area who doesn’t know Langley at all, then you are going to be paid a higher salary than [Mayor Paul] Samuelson is getting now.
“I, as a citizen of Langley, don’t have a say about who gets that job. I believe in the right of the people to put people in charge,” he said.
A mayor selected from the council’s ranks would be “just a figurehead position,” Allen added.
“I think we should stay with the current form — of an elected official voted on by the people,” he said.
Allen said he supports the council’s move to pare back on the neighborhood planning effort that was proposed by Gilman; a system of 16 separate plans for subareas across Langley.
“We don’t need to get such a grandiose plan going. Bring it down to our size and something we can manage,” he said.
Allen’s own view on some issues squares with Gilman, however. One example is establishing standing committees, an idea that Allen is against.
And Allen believes the city is currently quite transparent in its dealings with the public.
A letter grade?
“Probably a B. I think they’re pretty open,” he said.
On differences with his opponents, Allen said he isn’t an Edgecliff resident, for one.
“I don’t have a need to do anything other than to make it work,” he added. “I’m not going in with a preformed idea of what needs to be done in a particular area of the town.”