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Candidates square off at voters forum

Donna and Bob West of Langley listen as candidates for Langley City Council talk at a voters forum Monday. - Brian Kelly
Donna and Bob West of Langley listen as candidates for Langley City Council talk at a voters forum Monday.
— image credit: Brian Kelly

LANGLEY — Voters had to get out the magnifying glass to spot differences between the candidates in the three contested South End races for the Nov. 7 election.

The candidates did not reveal much during Monday’s voters forum at South Whidbey High School. The night with the candidates was organized by the South Whidbey League of Women Voters.

The most anticipated face-off was between Langley City Council incumbent Jim Recupero and challenger Craig Moore. Langley has been embroiled in recent months over debate about future development along the city’s signature shoreline, as well as proposed new housing projects that have gone sour.

Add to that mix a below-the-radar campaign for a coveted city council seat. Both Recupero and Moore have done very little campaigning prior to the forum, despite an earlier cry from Langley voters for details. And when voter’s pamphlets landed in mailboxes this weekend, neither had submitted a candidate’s profile with their takes on Langley’s pressing issues.

At the forum, both candidates said growth in Langley is unavoidable and needs to be planned properly to preserve the character of the city.

Recupero stressed his seven years of experience in city government, while Moore said he had plenty of insight despite this being his first run for public office.

When it came to hot button issues, however, both candidates seemed to dodge the tough questions.

One voter wanted to know what the candidates thought about the controversial Coles Road development.

The developer of the new neighborhood received city approval to build 24 homes on the 40-acre property, but later came back and asked to build more homes on the land because the plan didn’t pencil out financially.

The late change in plans irritated Langley residents, and some were still sore over the clear-cutting of the property.

While Recupero said he was proud to have voted against the original plan for the Coles Road development, he didn’t address what would happen in the future with the undeveloped property.

“I was proud of voting against this,” he said.

Moore also avoided specific ideas on a solution.

“It was an interesting time for Langley,” he said. “It was a learning experience for the city. I don’t see how we have to change what the city has done.”

“I am interested in seeing what the next stage is going to be,” Moore said.

Another hot topic in Langley politics is affordable housing. Some have raised concerns that the Village by the Sea may become an enclave for the wealthy as home prices continue to soar.

Both men said affordable housing within Langley’s city limit is a great idea, but highly unlikely.

“I think affordable housing within Langley may be gone forever,” Recupero said.

However, Recupero, who retired from a vice president position for a food chain and has served on the council for seven years, said he would like the city to work with a land trust.

He said he hoped affordable homes could be built if land were donated to the cause.

Moore, a real estate agent, said he has thought long and hard how to introduce low- and medium-income housing into Langley, but he hasn’t come up with a solution.

“Within the city limits of Langley, I haven’t come across a solution for affordable housing,” he said.

In order to make affordable housing possible, the number of homes in a development would have to be much higher, he said. But Moore said he wouldn’t support large-scale housing projects in town.

“Living in Langley, I don’t want that,” he added.

The candidates also briefly touched on a controversial comp plan proposal to set aside 85 percent of the city’s urban growth area as untouched open space.

Moore said he liked the idea of clustering homes, one of the tools that’s been suggested for leaving large areas of undeveloped green space.

“I love the concept,” he said.

Still, Moore warned that not everyone supports the idea.

Recupero said that most Langley residents want as much green space as possible, but it’s a matter of how to get it.

“With being a growth management state, the 85 percent of green space may be difficult to do, but it’s a challenge,” Recupero said.

It was also hard to detect differences on the issues between the candidates in the other races.

Two long-time firefighters, Kenon Simmons and Gary Gabelein, are up against each other in the race for Fire District 3 fire commissioner.

Voters wanted to know why Simmons and Gabelein wanted the job.

Gabelein said that after decades of active service in as a firefighter/EMT, he is looking for a meaningful way to stay involved.

He also said the position will allow him have a say in how the district’s $1.5 million budget is spent.

Simmons said he wants to make sure that the district responds to the demands of a growing population, and he said he wants to make sure that the department gets the technology it needs.

Voters were also concerned about the future of Fire District 3 as a volunteer-based fire district.

The candidates said, for now, volunteers don’t have to worry that their positions will be filled by paid, full-time firefighters.

“I believe my grandkids will be volunteers on this island,” Simmons said.

However, he said it’s time to lay the groundwork and get the district ready for a potential increase in paid staff - far, far in the future.

The district responds to about 2,000 emergency calls a year already.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be at 3,000 calls, 4,000 calls or 5,000 calls. There will come a time we’ll need paid staff to provide the service you want and pay for,” he said.

Gabelein said the district is doing just fine with volunteers.

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” he said. “We have a great system going. I see no reason to change it.”

Gabelein added that one challenge is to keep volunteers working for the district.

Overall, he said the district is in good shape, has good equipment and is ready to maintain service for the South End.

The candidates’ debate for the board of Whidbey General Hospital focused on retention of doctors on the island.

Due to Whidbey Island’s limited population and low wages, it has been problematic to keep good doctors on the island, especially the South End, the candidates said.

Candidates Bert Speir and Ron Wallin both said it’s a significant problem.

“We need to stop the revolving door,” Wallin said.

However, Speir pointed out that it is a fragile balance of economics and medical quality. He said doctors need a sufficient patient load to maintain and refine their specialized skills.

And if there aren’t enough patients on the island to do that, it may be better to see a doctor on the mainland than one who isn’t on top of his game, Speir said.

Both candidates said the district may have to consider incentives to keep doctors on the island.

During the question-and-answer portion of the forum, voters wanted to know what specific healthcare services the candidates thought were needed on the South End.

At a public meeting organized by Whidbey General Hospital, Goosefoot Community Fund and The Record last year, many South Enders said mental health services and services catering to chronic-ill and the elderly who have trouble traveling off island for necessary care are important.

However, the candidates, both from north Whidbey, didn’t address specific needs.

Instead, the discussion quickly returned to the issue of retention of physicians on the island.

While Speir focused on his experience as an administrator in the Navy healthcare system, as well as his work on the Whidbey General Hospital Foundation Board, Wallin also said he was concerned with the direction healthcare was going in general.

“The insurance industry is dictating our healthcare system,” he said.

Two candidates from uncontested races also briefly introduced themselves.

Fred O’Neil, a candidate for the South Whidbey school board, and Bob Waterman, running for Langley City Council, are up for reelection after filling vacant positions last year.

Barbara Seitle, president of the League of Women Voters Washington, gave an outline of other items on the ballot. She introduced four constitutional amendments that are up for vote this November, as well as Initiative 960 and Referendum 67.

I 960, another Tim Eyman initiative, would require two-thirds legislative approval or voter approval for tax increases, legislative approval of fee increases, and advisory votes on taxes enacted without voter approval.

R-67 is designed to prevent insurers from unfairly denying claims.

EHJR 4204 is a bill that would allow for a simple voter majority for approval of school levies.

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