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Langley council candidates stress their top priorities

LANGLEY — From ambitious goals to admittedly more modest ones, the two candidates for Position 3 on the Langley City Council have pondered the possibilities — and the priorities — they’ll set if elected to the seat come November.

Robin Adams and Jim Sundberg are both seeking to win the seat now held by Councilwoman Fran Abel, an appointee who chose not to run to retain her place on the council.

Adams and Sundberg both emerged from a three-way race in August’s primary that also featured city hall watchdog Kathleen Waters, with Sundberg winning the most votes in the election.

Sundberg, a retiree who most recently worked at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has been a Langley resident since 2002. He currently serves as the chairman of the city’s Planning Advisory Board.

Sundberg said he’s learned to work well with Langley’s other officials and city staff, which will help him serve as an effective councilman if elected.

“You can have very creative ideas, but you need to build trust between you and the people who help you implement or enact your ideas,” Sundberg explained.

“I think I have quite strong experience in terms of working with most of the city department heads and with the mayor’s office,” he said.

“I have an established record of being able to work with the various city departments and that record also brings along, I think, an understanding of how these departments operate,” he said.

“I have ... a pretty intimate knowledge of how the budget works and how the budget process works for the city.”

He’s built trust at city hall, he said, and has found that there’s an essential give-and-take process that is fundamental to good governance. It was a lesson he learned during the city’s review of the controversial Langley Passage housing project.

“Believe it or not, I think the Langley Passages, in the end, turned out to be a process of give and take. The project that was finally approved by the city council included additional conditions to make the project environmentally more acceptable and presumably more acceptable to the neighborhood.”

The new subdivision came out better in the end, he said, because of the back-and-forth.

Sundberg, 69, said his leadership style was one that revolves around getting more information; conducting additional research, or asking to get a different perspective and the other side of the story.

“I like to research an issue before I settle on a position,” he said. “I like to gather the facts.”

“Of course, you have to know when you’ve done enough research.”

Langley has struggled through some lean years, budget-wise, but Sundberg said it looks like the city’s financial situation is starting to improve.

He said the current number of employees at city hall was “about right,” and that the mayor’s executive assistant position should be kept, even as the administration changes to a new mayor next year.

“I think there’s a need for it,” Sundberg said.

When asked if the council should restore the salaries of employees that were cut at the end of last year if the budget improves, Sundberg said he’d wait before making such a decision.

“I would have to take a look at salary questions almost one by one. I’m not on the council yet, and I don’t have that kind of detailed information,” Sundberg said. “It’s a little premature for me to advise on exact salary levels.”

Likewise, he said he would need to learn if some of his suggestions for new projects — which include the installation of new recycling containers throughout the village, and perhaps a solar collection station south of the post office — would be practical.

“When you get into making recommendations, you have one foot in practicality as well as one foot looking out for cost control. You have to have both,” he said.

Most recently, the big issue for the city council has been the design of the first phase of the expansion of the Langley Marina. City officials panned the proposal at a joint session with port officials earlier this month.

Sundberg said he hoped the current plan could move forward, while the port continues to work on a dual track on long-range plans for the small boat harbor.

“As an outsider … I have quite a bit of confidence that the current plan is a doable plan,” Sundberg said.

Adams is even more unwilling to second guess the progress made by the port on the makeover of the Langley Marina.

“We have a saying in our business: ‘Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,’” Adams said.

He called the scrutiny of the first phase design a “sterile issue.”

City officials transferred ownership of the marina to the port, which took over the small boat harbor in 2009, Adams recalled, and it’s now the responsibility of port officials to best decide how it should be rebuilt.

“A marina down there is not a facility for the citizens of the city alone; it’s a facility for the whole of South Whidbey, and the broader Puget Sound,” Adams said.

City officials shouldn’t second guess the elected officials of the port district.

“If you want to criticize the port authority and you don’t like what they’re doing, run for port commissioner,” he said.

“I’m not a micromanager,” he added. “I believe in accountability, not micromanagement.”

Adams said his priorities are elsewhere. The city needs a stronger voice on ferry issues, for example.

“I think the city needs to take a much more active interest in the ferry system. It’s crucial to the visitor trade to this island,” he said, and important to commuters, as well.

A management consultant for CRU Strategies, a company that advises the global natural resources industry, Adams has lived on South Whidbey since 2000 and has been a Langley resident since 2007.

Adams, 65, said he has much experience as a leader, growing his company to 23 workers on two continents.

“I think you lead by example,” he said, adding that means displaying a strong work ethic.

“You show you’re willing to get down and do the work. People have worked hard for me because they’ve seen that I work hard.”

Leadership also means living with integrity.

“Are you prepared to put your career on the line? Are you willing to put your elected position on the line as a matter of integrity and principal?” Adams asked.

“It’s something I’d do. It’s who I am, and I’m not going to change that.”

That said, Adams stressed that leadership means being “open to listening to reasoned arguments and be willing to change your mind.”

“I’ve already demonstrated that, which some people call wishy-washy,” he said with a laugh.

He recalled how he had signed the petition to force a vote on changing Langley’s government and abolishing the position of an elected mayor.

But when he got his ballot, he recalled the arguments for and against — and voted against the switch.

“I decided that it was wasn’t a good idea,” he said.

If elected to the council, Adams said voters could count on him to get answers, even when they weren’t easy.

“I think I’m more likely to ask the difficult questions that need to be asked,” he said.

Adams recalled the news from an earlier council meeting, where the public works department had announced that the new park-and-ride project was now expected to cost roughly $500,000 — up from an earlier estimate of approximately $400,000.

“I was absolutely aghast that not one single council member wanted to talk about that cost overrun,” he said.

“Nobody wanted to go there and get into the substance, on what had gone wrong and how to fix it,” he said. “That’s the sort of thing I’m not going to put up with if I’m elected.”

Adams stressed that he didn’t want to play the blame game, but would work in the spirit of learning from failure.

“I’m not out to hammer the staff. I’m out to make sure we don’t do that again,” he said. “I don’t see the current council members doing that.”

On financial matters, Adams said he’d like to see the salaries for city staff restored, once the economy improves.

“That would be my priority,” he said.

“I do not think city staff are overpaid,” Adams explained. “I think that we should bring their pay back to its original level.”

“The other thing is, we’ve got to build our reserves as well. We don’t want to be in a hiring and firing business. When there’s a downturn, we don’t want to take it out on staff.”

Adams also said it’s vital for the city to complete the long-delayed work on updating its zoning code and development rules.

The city should also revamp how its public utilities are managed.

“I want to reform the financing of the utilities in the city,” he said. “I want to stop the cross subsidy that exists between permanent residents and seasonal residents.”

“Permanent residents are paying more than their fair share of the system, and I don’t think that’s reasonable.”

The city’s policies on where new sewers should be scrutinized, as well, because capacity is limited at the city’s treatment plant and an expansion would be quite costly.

“Sewer and water are my priority. I think I could contribute enormously in that area,” he said, pointing to the utility contracts that he has negotiated throughout the world on behalf of his company.

Voters will also fill two other seats on the council on Nov. 8.

Bruce Allen and Thomas Gill are campaigning for Position 4 on the council; Councilman Bob Waterman is not seeking re-election.

Councilman Hal Seligson is running unopposed for Position 2.

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