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Utility rates eclipse all at Langley voters’ forum

Jim Sundberg, a candidate for the Langley City Council, speaks to the audience at the voters
Jim Sundberg, a candidate for the Langley City Council, speaks to the audience at the voters' forum Monday in Langley. Sundberg is challenging Robin Adams for Position 3.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

LANGLEY — Candidates hoping to get the nod from Langley voters tugged at the thorn that’s long troubled both businesses and residents alike — the city’s water and sewer rates — at a forum Monday evening.

Though Thomas Gill has made the city’s rate structure a key part of his campaign, others at the forum also said they supported changing Langley’s water and sewer fees.

It was Gill, a candidate for Position 4 on the Langley City Council, who again led the way, however. Many in Langley feel the rate structure is unfair because utility bills include a large base fee, which makes attempts at water conservation meaningless.

“It’s strangling the residents. It’s strangling the businesses,” Gill said.

Others agreed.

Larry Kwarsick, who is running unopposed to be Langley’s next mayor, recalled a conversation with a neighbor who was having a garage sale.

“The first thing out of his mouth was, he was moving because he couldn’t pay his water bill,” Kwarsick told a crowd of about 20 gathered at Langley United Methodist Church.

“It’s amazing to me that we would have … a rate structure that could force people out of their homes,” Kwarsick said.

“It’s not a whole lot of money,” he added. “But to some degree, a little bit of money is a whole lot of money to other people.”

Kwarsick said a consultant review was already under way at city hall.

He said permit fees should be looked at, as well. “All those things that push people back from wanting to choose Langley as a place to come, and a place to invest time and money.”

Candidates staked out familiar ground during the forum, and returned to pledges and promises they have made since their campaigns started this summer.

R. Bruce Allen, a retired Army command sergeant major running against Gill for a council seat, trumpeted teamwork and moving the city forward.

“I have no agenda. I’ve made that point clear throughout the whole campaign.

“I don’t come armed with any ammunition as far as what I want to see happen here,” Allen said.

He also acknowledged there would be a bit of a learning curve if he was elected.

“I don’t understand all the things that need to be done here, for sure,” Allen said, adding that he would learn what needs to be done when he gets on the council.

Gill then drew one of the few contrasts of the evening, and seized upon his extensive attendance at council meetings and the relationships he’s formed with the mayor, council and staff.

“It’s nice to want to know what people want to do and to kind of go with the flow, but there are other things you have to start with,” Gill said.

Gill again pressed for greater transparency at city hall, and said he supported the changes proposed by Councilman Hal Seligson, who has called for the creation of a council finance committee and other reforms.

“The city needs to be more open and more forthright about what’s actually going on,” Gill said.

Besides utility rates, the other common thread of the evening was economic development.

Kwarsick — who was asked more questions than any other candidate at Monday’s forum — said economic recovery would likely start first at the local level.

“We need to be a more full-service type of community,” Kwarsick said.

“Langley does have to adapt. We have to look at some economic development strategies; we need to have a sustainable economy.”

Jim Sundberg, who is squaring off against Robin Adams for Position 3 on the council, sounded a positive note while acknowledging the city was moving into “lean economic times.”

“I like what I see happening in Langley today, but I want to help these positive trends continue. We’ve lost a few large, iconic businesses, but there are 16 or 17 new businesses in town,” Sundberg said.

Sundberg said he was encouraged by projects on the horizon, such as the renovation of Second Street, the expansion of the Langley Marina and the Main Street program.

He also touted a sustainable future for the city; with improved walking paths through downtown, better signage for bicyclists, new opportunities for recycling and perhaps a pilot project on solar power.

Adams, Sundberg’s opponent, was not at the forum due to a previous commitment in Toronto, Canada that was made before he became a candidate for the council.

In a statement from Adams that was read at the meeting by moderator Chris Skinner, Adams addressed his absence head-on.

“My absence raises a basic question — does Robin Adams have the time to be an effective member of the city council?” Adams asked in his statement.

He added that he was able to adjust his work schedule “within reason.”

“I think that the city council should be composed of a diverse group of legislators from a cross-section of the life of the community, even if this means that not everyone is able to be present at every meeting,” Adams added.

In his statement, Adams also pressed for new utility rates and economic development, as well as government accountability.

“If you want a council that will simply rubber stamp the proposals of the mayor and staff then I am not the right candidate,” Adams wrote.

“My starting assumption is that the mayor will be making proposals that he genuinely thinks are in the best interests of the community and that the staff will have done their homework. I will therefore be inclined to support them.”

But he added that initial positions should be open to modification. And Adams also said the council should take ratification of the mayor’s appointments “more seriously” and interview candidates before they are approved.

Seligson also stressed that give-and-take was an essential part of governance, including the back-and-forth between elected officials amid the diverse opinions found in the Village by the Sea.

“I respect everyone’s visions and everyone’s ideas. I don’t necessarily agree with everyone,” Seligson said.

“I will speak my mind after listening to other people and I will vote as I think it is right to vote.”

He also offered a little advice to those seeking to serve for the first time.

“Anyone who is running for council should be aware it’s not a walk in the park,” Seligson said, adding that the time commitment was substantial.

The forum also included Dennis Gregoire, who is running unopposed for the Port of South Whidbey.

Gregoire gave a brief overview of his experience as a planner for the city of Everett, and his later work as planning director for the Port of Everett.

It was a background that would prove helpful, Gregoire said, and he also promised to seek input from residents on port plans after he joins the port’s board.

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