Island County commissioner candidates butt heads at final forum

Helen Price Johnson, the incumbent Island County District 1 commissioner candidate, speaks during a League of Women Voters of Whidbey Island forum in Freeland last week. Fellow candidates from the left include Curt Gordon, Ed Jenkins, Jeff Lauderdale and Wayne Morrison.  - Justin Burnett / The Record
Helen Price Johnson, the incumbent Island County District 1 commissioner candidate, speaks during a League of Women Voters of Whidbey Island forum in Freeland last week. Fellow candidates from the left include Curt Gordon, Ed Jenkins, Jeff Lauderdale and Wayne Morrison.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Island County District 1 commissioner hopefuls squared off Thursday at one of the last political forums before the August primary election.

Candidates sparred over a range of topics for about an hour and a half before a crowd of more than 115 people at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation church just north of Freeland.

It was the second of two commissioner forums held by the League of Women Voters of Whidbey Island for the primary election.

Ballots went out Thursday afternoon and Election Day is August 7. Washington uses a top-two primary system in which the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party, proceed to the general election in November.

District 1 participants included lone Democrat and incumbent Helen Price Johnson, Republican challengers Jeff Lauderdale and Wayne Morrison and independents Curt Gordon and Ed Jenkins. All but Lauderdale, a Coupeville resident, hail from Clinton.

Although the gathering lacked some of the fireworks present at the District 2 forum in Oak Harbor earlier this month, the new format that utilized predetermined questions rather than opening it up to the crowd resulted in healthy debate and discussion on a wide range of issues.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Perhaps one of the most interesting, if not entertaining, questions of the evening focused on job creation in Island County.

Answering first was Lauderdale, a retired U.S. Navy commander. The former officer said government walks a fine line between the right to regulate and the need to regulate.

A business-friendly regulatory environment should be established and it should not restrict growth, he said. When an “entrepreneur comes to Island County with an idea, with money, with energy, they need to get the regulation out of the way.”

“You cannot protect Island County from every imaginable problem,” Lauderdale said.

Price Johnson, who is seeking re-election to a second term as commissioner, talked about her recent efforts to promote economic growth through the expansion of broadband internet service and by fostering partnerships among high school students, community colleges and local businesses.

Efforts to expand broadband coverage, which may boost e-trade, were based on a planned study that was to be funded by a state grant. It was not awarded but it’s likely the grant money will be applied for again next year.

Price Johnson also talked about the need to support local businesses by shopping locally, saying the community needs to do a better job at doing so.

“That would have the biggest impact on our economy,” she said.

Jenkins, a retired businessman, said the issue is about “job, jobs, jobs, not broadband.” It’s a small component and important, he said, but this is more about changing dynamics and branding Whidbey Island for what it is.

“It’s a place where we can have tourism 12 months out of the year,” Jenkins said.

There is enough happening on the island that it would be “very simple” to create new jobs and increase sales tax revenue. Promoting Whidbey’s quality of life would be key and having “tech businesses” would create living wage jobs and keep kids in school, Jenkins said.

Gordon, a small business owner and a current Port of South Whidbey commissioner, said geographic isolation is a problem and that the board should stay on top of transportation advancements.

Improving the connection between the island’s current “state of the art” transit system and the ferry system will go a long way toward making the island more accessible and just may help create jobs.

“I’m all about transportation,” he said.

Morrison, a small business owner and the president of the Island County Economic Development Council board of directors, talked about the needs of people who are trying to open new businesses.

It can be a detailed and complex process, involving the development of business plans, the acquisition of permits and licenses, an examination of profit and losses, etc. Having someone in office with experience and knowledge of those needs would be useful.

While Morrison was the last to address the issue, the question of economic development and job creation continued on in the form of four “challenges,” all of which were directed at Gordon.

Challenges in the cards

The new forum format introduced the use of challenge cards. Each participant was provided three and could use them to quiz or debate the responses of the other candidates.

Jenkins, who is starkly against the port’s marina expansion project and lost a recent battle in court to fight the sale of $878,000 in bonds, charged Gordon with supporting a project that used up almost all of the port’s borrowing ability and was a low priority on the comprehensive plan.

Gordon argued that the bond sales were only a small portion of the port’s bonding capacity, and that it was the biggest tool it had to create jobs. The facility was already owned and the improvements will make room for larger tourism boats, which he said would result in increased commerce and employment.

Jenkins used his second challenge immediately to dispute Gordon’s claim that the port still has bonding capacity. Gordon repeated that the port “was nowhere near” its borrowing limit.

Port administrative officials were unable to answer the question when contacted earlier this week due to a financial officer being out of the office.

Lauderdale was the third to challenge Gordon when he questioned him about whether or not he believes it’s government’s responsibility to create jobs with tax money

After jokingly offering some of his challenge cards to his fellow candidates, a jest  that resulted in healthy chuckles from the crowd, Gordon responded to Lauderdale with an emphatic yes.

“It is absolutely the job of the port district and every port district in the state of Washington to strive for economic development and access to waterways; it’s very simple,” Gordon said.

State law establishes ports as junior taxing districts, and according to the Washington Public Port Association’s website, economic development and job creation is one of their primary charges.

Gordon’s final challenge came from Morrison, who also quizzed the port commissioner about the marina expansion plan. He claimed that the project was predicated on the assumption years ago that it would generate 400 new jobs. He said he thought it was outrageous at the time and questions the use of $1.2 million in Island County Rural Economic Development funds.

Gordon again turned the tables on his challenger with a quip and a grin.

“Thanks for the air time guys,” he said, earning a healthy round of laughter from the crowd.

He then went over the funding specifics of the project in greater detail while emphasizing that the expansion wasn’t so much about year-round moorage but is about transient moorage that will facilitate economic development.

The environment

Candidates were also quizzed on environmental and conservation priorities, specifically the management of water resources and the Conservation Futures Fund.

Jenkins said protecting the island’s resources should be done at all costs and that the biggest problem today is lack of enforcement. He suggested the county begin allowing other non-professionals to inspect neighbors’ septic systems, particularly for the elderly, and that some fees should be reduced but overall made it clear he supports responsible resource management.

“Whatever has to be done, we have to do it,” Jenkins said. “I don’t think we can afford to be wrong.”

As for the futures fund, a special pot of money garnered from property taxes that’s used to purchase or protect a variety of different types of undeveloped land in Island County, he said it was a no brainer.

Others were less supportive. Lauderdale said it “is a good program, or at least it was.” He criticized the program, saying that it may take a million years but that eventually the county would end up owning “every square inch” of Whidbey and Camano islands.

The county is struggling financially to maintain the parks it has yet the program results in additional purchases every year. The county should consider not levying the money and buying property on an annual basis, he said.

Lauderdale said it’s the county’s duty to protect its water resources but said the septic system inspection program and the Clean Water Utility “have absolutely nothing to do with our aquifer.” He said spending has to be defined and prioritized.

Gordon said the county’s septic inspection program gets a lot of attention but that he’s more worried about storm water. The Clean Water Utility may help fund some necessary projects, such as in Freeland, he said.

Gordon, who was one of the first members and a long time chair of the technical advisory, one of two that help select futures fund projects, said he participated in the effort to secure public places such as Double Bluff and Ala Spit. While he shares some concerns about too much property, he fully supports the program.

Morrison, addressing water resource management, started off by saying he doesn’t believe “the Olympics is forcing water underneath the bay and having it rise magically on Whidbey Island.”

However, he said water quality is absolutely crucial and is concerned about salt water intrusion and septic system management. As for the futures fund, he said it was a good program provided that it is managed properly and is used for good projects.

Price Johnson called water “our most precious resource” and briefly described the history behind the septic system inspection program and an unpopular $62 fee. While the fee has since been removed — the funding it provided is now covered by the Clean Water Utility tax — she maintained that the community should fund the preservation of the resource.

“It’s our responsibility to look after our water and we should be paying for that,” she said.

She was equally supportive of the futures fund, saying it has preserved “some of the most wonderful places” on Whidbey and Camano islands. It also helps sustain agriculture by providing funding for the purchase of development rights, which helps farmers stay in business, she said.

Vulcan mind melds

While the candidates addressed a range of other topics, from law and justice funding to the recent Deep Sea sunken boat crisis in Penn Cove, some of the most interesting responses of the evening came during closing comments.

Gordon pitched himself as the “no party” candidate, saying his lack of party ties was one of his greatest strengths. Voters can have more of what they had for the past four years by voting for the incumbent and maintaining the Democratic majority or they can have the changes that would come from conservatitives, pointing out that Lauderdale worked on Commissioner Kelly Emerson’s campaign.

“What I’m here to offer you today is balance,” Gordon said.

Jenkins said the commissioner’s salary “is way too much” and promised to work toward greater transparency and public education of the goings on of government. If elected, he promised to use $25,000 of his paycheck on monthly advertorials in the newspaper and to spend the rest on tourism promotion.

“Beyond that, you’d get someone who thinks out of the box and isn’t part of the political system,” Jenkins said.

“I’ve been successful in the past and I’ll be successful again working for all of you,” he said.

Price Johnson said “the future of our county is at risk in this election,” citing the realities of the tight budget. She noted accomplishments while she’s been in office, such as the 30-percent increase in lodging receipts during a recession, making the county the “envy of Puget Sound.”

She promised to continue to bring greater government transparency and preserve the present quality of life. She said she was proud to call Whidbey Island home and asked for the public’s vote.

Lauderdale started off by refuting Gordon’s comments concerning Commissioner Emerson.

“I voted for Kelly Emerson but I didn’t do a Vulcan mind-meld with her,” said Lauderdale, earning a chorus of laughter. “I’m my own person and I’m a Republican by choice because it, in general, describes my politics.”

He went on to say that it matters who is in office. Referencing his Navy career and his expertise as a “nuclear and mechanical engineer,” he said he was “uniquely” qualified for the job.

He also noted that he has been attending commissioner meetings regularly for more than two years — the only candidate in both the District 1 and District 2 races to do so. He said he has listened and is prepared to do the job and believes “a small government is the best government.”

Finally, Morrison said he works for a living and that bureaucracy is choking the life from local businesses. He referenced pending changes to shoreline development rules and that they will only make things worse.

There are efficiencies to be had in the county budget, and his vision is to improve sustainable employment. Personal expenses continue to rise while salaries remain stagnant and it’s a trend that must stop, he said.

“We are in serious financial times, we need strong financial management and believe we need to get the maximum return on investment for the money we spend,” Morrison said.

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