Two vie for coveted seat on Langley City Council

LANGLEY — Two eager candidates — but somewhat reluctant campaigners — are hoping to win over voters in the race for Position 4 on the Langley City Council.

Neither Thomas Gill nor R. Bruce Allen have ever served in elected office before, but both say they would bring a fresh perspective to the city council.

For Gill, it’s not for a lack of trying. He ran unsuccessfully for a council seat against Russell Sparkman two years ago, and also twice sought an appointment to the city’s policy-making body without success.

“I have great hopes for the future of Langley. I’ve seen what we’ve been, where we’ve made some errors, and where we’re going,” Gill said.

Gill, 28, grew up in the village and came home to live here in 2008 after college. He soon became a familiar fixture at city hall — volunteering to help out with the city’s computer network, an effort that now includes getting council meetings online — and is one of the few Langley citizens who attends nearly every public meeting in town.

“I wanted to see what was really going on and make my own informed decisions,” Gill said.

That’s a plus that not every candidate running for the council can point to, he said.

“I’m the only one who actually goes to the council meetings. I’m ready to hit the ground running, if elected.”

Gill’s persistence as a ready volunteer recently paid off with an appointment to the city’s Planning Advisory Board. He’s also had an up-close view of things he’d like to see changed; Langley’s historic aversion to development, and the lack of transparency that sometimes afflicts city hall.

The city’s no-growth attitude was apparent during the review of Langley Passage, a controversial 20-home subdivision on the city’s eastern end, and Thomas said he was heartened that the city has moved forward with establishing a hearing examiner system that would lead to land-use decisions “based on the actual law, and not on people’s emotions.”

Gill is also an advocate for open government, and has ideas on how to increase transparency at city hall.

“I think there are still several issues that go on in the city that are hidden behind closed doors,” Gill said.

Not that there’s anything nefarious going on, he said.

“I don’t think there’s a conspiracy or an effort to prevent information from getting out,” he said.

Even so, there’s been a lack of sharing information that’s important to residents, and that’s something that can be improved, he said. On city money matters, for instance.

Gill said he supports the creation of a finance committee that would be made up of city council members, one that would have regular meetings and discussions that are open to the public.

The city currently has a finance committee, but it’s run by the mayor and meets in private.

Though Councilman Hal Seligson previously proposed establishing a council finance committee, the idea never got traction with others on the council.

That may change come November, however, as two new council members will be elected, joining Seligson — who was appointed in December and is running unopposed this year — and Councilman Doug Allderdice, a former councilor who recently rejoined the council after Robert Gilman’s resignation. That means just one holdover, Councilwoman Rene Neff, from a council that was harshly criticized as a chummy collection of group thinkers.

To increase openness, Gill also said the city’s website should be expanded, and become more of a repository for city documents and other records. Making information more easily available to the public could help citizens become better informed about their government, and may lead to fewer public records requests and costly attorney bills.

Gill said he’d also like the council to reconsider how much the city pays its mayor.

“I definitely think the council needs to revisit the base salary for the mayor. Having a higher base salary gives the wrong impression.”

He noted that the $53,000-plus salary was set with the hope that the mayor would work “full time” at city hall. It’s the mayor who decides how much time to put into the job, though.

“And then the city is stuck with the compensation level without any real recourse,” he said.

Gill said he has other priorities, as well. Those include a close examination of the city’s water and utility rates, which Gill said are unfair because the base fee is too high. He’d like to see business rates reduced, and based on actual consumption.

Gill also supports the installation of more sidewalks throughout town, and adding more energy-efficient street lamps where they’re needed.

Though some city officials have recently raised concerns about the first phase of the expansion of the Langley Marina, Gill said he believes the Port of South Whidbey is on the right track.

The port is rightly in charge of the expansion project, he said, though the city will reap the economic benefits of an expanded facility.

“We need to get something going sooner rather than later,” Gill said. “It will never be cheaper.”

Allen, who came in second to Gill in the three-way primary race for the city council by just 10 votes, is also hoping to win his first-ever election.

Like Gill, Allen’s campaign has been low-key in some respects. Though both candidates have put up some signs, neither submitted a candidate’s statement to the county voter’s guide, and neither has ventured out to doorbell across the village.

Allen has done a bit more on the retail politics end of the campaign, having hosted a series of coffee meetings with voters in recent weeks.

Another contrast: Allen doesn’t have a set list of must-do priorities if he’s elected.

“I’m not a politician, I don’t have an agenda,” Allen said.

“I’m not going to go in and say, ‘This has to be done.’

I don’t know what needs to be done,” he said.

That’s a good thing, Allen added, though it’s been a bit hard for some people to grasp. He recalled offering that view at a recent coffee with voters, which led one person to conclude, “Oh, so you’re just going to be a ‘yes’ man.”

“I’m not going to be a ‘yes’ man; never have been in my life. I don’t expect I would start at age 71,” he said.

True, Allen hasn’t stopped learning, and running for office has taught him a few things. He got dinged by a critic just after the primary, for example, when he made an offhand comment about his youthful opponent that led to a complaint that Allen was being ageist.

Now, Allen’s quick to talk about his age and experience, and not his opponent’s.

He retired as a command sergeant major after a 30-year career in the Army. Allen also ran his own business, a stationary and office supply store that had two locations and 25 employees in Vancouver, Wash.

His military career has taught him a lot about leadership, he said, and he’s developed many skills that will be helpful at city hall.

“One of the things a good leader does is to listen and to respond to the listening, as opposed to going in and shooting off at the mouth,” Allen said.

“You don’t get to be 71 years old without learning something,” he added. “I’m a good listener.”

Allen freely admits his motivation for running for the council was spurred by his disappointment in the makeup of the council in recent years, when Gilman’s influence at city hall reigned supreme.

“He was the one doing all the homework and everyone was following him. And that’s not my idea of how things get done,” Allen said.

Council meetings have changed for the better since Gilman’s departure, he added.

“Everybody is expressing an opinion and that’s a good thing,” Allen said.

Though he lacks a preset list of goals, Allen said he has formed an early opinion on some of the recent hot topics in Langley.

A redesign of the first phase of the marina expansion isn’t needed, he said.

“I think they’ve used up enough paper. It’s time to show somebody something,” Allen said.

He didn’t agree with one characterization of the marina makeover, that the first phase was like tearing down a new house so an addition could be built. Rather, Port Commissioner Curt Gordon’s view — that the phase-one effort was like building a garage and living in it while work started on the house — was the better way of viewing the initial marina expansion effort.

“It’s all a question of money. They have $2.5 million,” he said of the port. “They might as well move on it.”

Allen also said the city should look at restoring the pay cuts that city employees had to endure in the last budget cycle, once Langley’s budget situation improves.

“You’re not going to keep people around if you’re not going to pay them what they’re worth.”

“If the funds are there, sure, pay the people who are making it work,” he said.

Allen said this election will mean a wholesale change to city government. Langley will have a new mayor, and a new majority on the council, and he wants to be a part of it.

“I think everybody is coming in with a fresh start and new ideas, and that makes a big difference.”

“I’m interested in the welfare of the city of Langley. I hope that I can make a change, if I happen to get on, and get issues going in a positive direction,” Allen said.

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

Robin Adams and Jim Sundberg are campaigning for Position 3 on the council; Councilman Bob Waterman is not seeking re-election.

Seligson is running unopposed for Position 2.

Larry Kwarsick, currently the city of Langley’s planning chief, is running unopposed for the mayor’s position. Incubment Mayor Paul Samuelson decided to not seek another term.

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