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Commissioners disagree on ‘State of the County’
There was no food fight or salad tossing, but the Whidbey Island League of Women Voters hosted a lively discussion among commissioners about the state of Island County Wednesday night.
The League of Women Voters event was sold out more than a week ahead of time, partly due to a tongue-in-cheek editorial by the Whidbey News-Time predicting food-related fisticuffs between commissioners with dueling philosophies. The board is made up of two Democratic commissioners and a Tea Party Republican.
The popularity of the “Dinner with the Commissioners” caused some concern since it was also a public meeting — and was advertised as a special session — with a quorum of commissioners discussing county business. A handful of people who contacted the News-Times said they were disappointed that they couldn’t get into the public meeting.
As a result, Homola proposed on Monday that the commissioners could hold a similar “state of the county” presentation and discussion prior to a budget hearing Oct. 3 so that more people can attend. She said the “goading nature” of the editorial drew attention to the league event, though she only heard from two people who had been turned away.
But Homola’s fellow commissioners decided that it would be better just to audiotape the event and make it available to the public.
As it turned out, everyone was on their best behavior at the cramped event inside the historic Captain Whidbey Inn. In fact, the highlight of the night came when Commissioner Kelly Emerson, the lone Republican, admitted that working with Democratic colleagues isn’t so bad after all.
“When we are forced to compete with ideas under such high scrutiny, I think the county will benefit,” she said.
Commissioner Angie Homola, the Democratic chairwoman, accepted the olive branch.
“I agree with Commissioner Emerson that we really need to hear different opinions so we know what the other side’s thinking about,” she said.
Yet the three commissioners held fast to their philosophies about government.
Homola started the discussion with a Powerpoint presentation that focused on the county’s declining revenues, the draconian cuts that have been made and general information about the menagerie of services the county provides. She’s been giving the presentation for a couple of years — with periodically updated information — but it recently became controversial after Emerson demanded her photo be removed from the slideshow.
Emerson had promised to create her own presentation from a much different viewpoint, but she announced Wednesday that she’s still working on it.
After the presentation, the commissioners each had time to make comments and answer a few questions. Homola stressed that her goal is to provide responsible government. She questioned the crowd about who they would call to help them with any in a long list of problems, from rat hair in food to a dead dog on the side of the road.
“You would pick up the phone and call the county because we don’t live in Somalia. And we would expect to be helped,” she said.
Price Johnson discussed how county offices had “grown up over time in silos” and there was no coordination or overall plan for dealing with technology needs. She said the commissioners funded major upgrades in technology to increase efficiency and adopted a new long-range strategy for technology needs.
When it comes to the future of the county, she said the community needs to consider its priorities.
“Are we going take care of the least among us, are we going to diversify our economy to provide jobs for young people?” she asked.
In contrast, Emerson characterized county government as the problem. She said her goal is to get rid of all county programs that aren’t mandated or required by statute; she didn’t mention programs by name, but things like the parks department, Meals on Wheels and WSU Extension are among the few non-mandated programs the county still funds.
Also, she said she wants to lobby the legislature to get relief from some statutory requirements, such as the law that obliges the county to have a juvenile detention facility.
Not surprising, Emerson said she wants to cut taxes.
“Personally, I think we are taxed enough,” she said. “I think this economic downturn is an opportunity to right-size government.”
At the end, Lois Repoz, the emcee for the salad-and-discussion event, joked about the “rather questionable” editorial during the forum. She said it was important that the News-Times reported one fact accurately: “We all acted like ladies and gentlemen tonight.”