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Langley’s new mayor outlines his top priorities

It’s time to get to work.

That’s the promise, the focus and the charge of Larry Kwarsick, who was set to be sworn in this week as Langley’s 26th mayor.

“I’m not just a person coming in that’s a chief executive officer. I’m a worker person,” he said.

“I’ve produced things. I help other people produce things,” Kwarsick said. “At a time like this, I think I’m the right person at the right time to help Langley.”

Kwarsick, who takes office Jan. 1, recently sat down with the Record to talk about what Langley — and the greater community — can expect once he becomes the next mayor in the South End’s only incorporated city.

Having a city that invests in itself and encourages private investment, creating an atmosphere of trust and confidence in city hall, and empowering city employees top the list.

“I look at the council, the mayor and the staff as a team. We all have talents and we all have ambitions and our own initiatives, and that’s the way I want to operate: as a team,” he explained.

“We are a little community and everybody there has a lot to offer,” he added. “Not every council member will want to do that. But those that want to … they can stand with me and we can work together.”

Kwarsick, 64, is no stranger to the city. He has lived in Island County and has called Langley home since 1987.

He’s not an outsider at city hall, either. Kwarsick became the city’s planning director after the departure of Larry Cort at the end of 2010.

The changeover was quick.

“Larry Cort left me a little note that said, ‘Good luck.’ That was the extent of that transition,” Kwarsick laughed.

Kwarsick, however, has lived a life of public service, starting as an Army infantry officer in 1969, after he graduated from Michigan State University.

He landed a job in the Island County Public Works Department the year after he got out of the Army, and was a development coordinator until he was named assistant county engineer in 1984. He also served as the county’s solid waste director and led the county planning department before becoming Island County’s first public works director in 1994.

Kwarsick announced his candidacy for Langley mayor in early June, and said he gave an early head’s-up to Mayor Paul Samuelson, who Kwarsick said was surprised by the news but immediately added that he wouldn’t seek a second term. (Samuelson announced a few days later that after “much soul searching and with enormous sadness,” he had reached a crossroad and was taking a hiatus from public service.)

One of the inspirations for running for the mayor’s post, Kwarsick said, was Proposition 1, the proposal that would have eliminated the position of an elected mayor in the Village by the Sea.

Prop. 1 landed on the August primary ballot by a citizens’ petition drive, largely pushed by residents who were upset over the city council’s approval of the controversial Langley Passage housing project.

The initiative almost left Kwarsick without a job before the vote for mayor ever made it to the November ballot.

Kwarsick said the initiative came at a time of discord at city hall, with tension between the mayor and the council rising amid criticism over the city’s handling of the controversial Langley Passage subdivision.

“There was just some people who thought the best way to relieve that tension was to change the form of government, rather than dealing with whatever problems there were straight up,” he said.

Most of the struggle was behind the scenes, but soured relationships were brought into full light when former deputy mayor Robert Gilman resigned from the council in August.

“The government, at that time, frankly, wasn’t working. But it wasn’t because of the form of the government,” said Kwarsick, who was working at city hall under contract as the part-time head of the planning department. “We just had some unnecessary tension going on, and I think it was exacerbated by the community struggles with the Langley Passage development.”

In the weeks leading up to the Primary Election, Kwarsick became an energetic opponent of the measure and spoke against Prop. 1 at community forums.

“I felt very strongly that the manager-council form of government wasn’t right for this small of a community,” he said.

Langley voters resoundingly rejected the proposal.

Kwarsick said he wants to rebuild relationships inside and outside city hall. And though some have questioned his plan to serve as a “part-time” mayor, and not warm a seat at city hall every day of the week, Kwarsick has tried to allay concerns by stressing that the city’s department heads will be asked to do more and be given greater responsibility.

“I’m big on empowering people,” he said.

Kwarsick said he’ll rely on Challis Stringer, the city’s public works director, to serve as an assistant when he needs help. Last week, the city council approved a bump-up in pay for Stringer, to roughly $70,000, to compensate for the extra duty.

Kwarsick said he will focus on big-picture issues, and not the day-to-day details of city government.

“I want to support our existing local businesses but I also want to attract service to Langley.

“We’re missing the service component of a small town,” he said, pointing to the loss in recent years of the Langley Clinic and Linds, once one of the town’s main retail anchors.

“I want to find ways to try to attract services back to the community,” he said.

Kwarsick said he wants to earmark funds, though they may be modest, in the city budget that could be used for economic development. The city can’t wait to ride the coattails of a national economic recovery.

“I do believe that the road to economic recovery starts locally. I don’t think the national movements are going to make it all the way out to little old Langley or Coupeville,” he said. “That’s why I am big at looking for ways that we can invest in ourselves, to encourage other people to invest.”

“I want to focus mostly on what I can do for the city in the next four years to help the city through economic hard times, to what we can do in terms of promoting affordable, livable homes for people — how we can attract families back into the community.

“We’re losing families. We’re losing kids. We need to turn that around,” he said. “I’m going to be looking at ways to attract families into the community.”

In his short time as Langley’s planning director, Kwarsick helped push the successful effort to lower building fees and loosen development regulations.

Fears of rampant growth that were spread in the community in recent years are wrong and unfounded, he said, and Langley certainly didn’t put its best foot forward when it vociferously opposed proposed development near the marina a few years back or, more recently, Langley Passage.

“Langley’s population is 1,045. [In] 2013 we will be 100 years old. It will take us 30 years, I believe, if we continue to grow at our historic pace, to get to the size of Coupeville.

“The fears of becoming a Lynnwood, those types of things that I know were shown at some of the community meetings on this, were nonsense. Absolutely nonsense.

“Langley, with or without growth management, over the last 100 years, has grown at a pretty steady pace.

“I don’t see that pace changing at all. But I think it is important for the vitality of Langley, the vitality of the school district, the vitality of the business owners and operators, that we accept our fair share of growth and development,” he said.

Kwarsick’s immediate work plans started to take shape this week, as he called for a special council workshop on Jan. 4.

Agenda items include legislative committees for the city council, setting project and program priorities for 2012 and beyond, a discussion of council, mayor and staff communications, and the city’s legal services budget. Kwarsick also wants to talk about advanced notice of agenda items.

“I am a worker person. I have always been,” Kwarsick said. “When I was a county planning director, or a county public works director, or an infantry lieutenant. Just because I was in charge didn’t mean that my only goal was directing the work of others.”

“I’m not big on talking about things. I am big on doing things.”

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