Planning chief to replace Shelton

COUPEVILLE — Hallways around the county campus were buzzing with speculation Wednesday about who the new commissioner would be.

At 7:05 p.m., the wait was over. Commissioners John Dean and Mac McDowell appointed Phil Bakke, the county’s planning director, after a closed-door executive session that lasted only roughly 15 minutes.

Bakke replaces South End commissioner Mike Shelton, who left the county for a job in Olympia on Sept. 1.

“It’s an honor,” Bakke said after the commissioners announced their decision.

“The position is very important, it affects a lot of people’s lives,” Bakke said, on issues ranging from health, to land use, to public safety.

Prior to the announcement, the board of county Commissioners quizzed Bakke and two other candidates, Auditor Suzanne Sinclair and GOP activist Reece Rose, for about 15 to 20 minutes each.

A crowd of roughly 60 watched the interviews, and the audience included county workers and other elected officials such as the county treasurer and assessor. Organizers of the meeting were unsure how many people would attend, but a secondary seating area set up in an adjacent hallway wasn’t needed.

The protest planned by critics of Bakke never materialized.

South End activist Marianne Edain had circulated an e-mail before the meeting asking members of the audience to use “body language” or hold up signs to pressure the commissioners to pick Sinclair over Bakke. No one did, however.

Dean and McDowell took turns asking the same set of questions, and candidates were interviewed separately so they could not hear each other’s answers.

Sinclair appeared relaxed and often looked into the audience as she answered questions, many of which had been submitted by the community.

The commissioners wanted to know from the candidates how they would represent a “greener, more progressive” South Whidbey constituency.

“Being green and and being Republican are not mutually exclusive,” Sinclair said.

Serving people with different ideas on how the environment should be treated is a matter of communication.

“It’s a matter of listening with an open heart and an open mind,” she added.

Rose, who was widely considered the most conservative candidate among the three applicants, echoed Sinclair’s words when it was her turn.

“I am just about as green as you can get,” Rose said. “We live on acreage. We feed our wildlife, we enjoy our land... we love the rural lifestyle.”

One of Rose’s main priorities would be to keep the island as rural as possible over the coming decade. She said she wanted to preserve the rural character and lifestyle that attracts many to the island.

Bakke said being green was not a partisan issue.

“I consider most of our residents progressive,” he said.

Commissioners also asked about the candidates’ takes on the effort to make Freeland a city.

“I think there is a desire for changes in the planning process without losing the quality of live,” Sinclair said.

However, she said not all Freelanders want cityhood.

“I don’t observe a great desire to incorporate either,” she added.

Rose said she hadn’t been actively part of the incorporation discussion and meetings.

“I think there is a lot of interest in becoming a city,” she said.

Bakke, as the planning director, was familiar with the topic like no other candidate.

Due to his job he has been directly or indirectly involved with the 77, and counting, public meetings on the issue.

“The process was driven by the community,” he said.

He credited Freelanders with their dedication and ownership of the process and said he would be supportive if Freeland wants to become a city or doesn’t.

“The cry was not to move forward, but to fix flaws and problems and move forward,” he said.

The interviews were informal; the candidates joined commissioners Dean and McDowell at a small table set up in front of the commissioners’ dais.

The biggest laugh of the night came when Sinclair was asked by Dean if she knew where Camano Island was located.

“Yes,” she said, adding, “And I can name roads.”

The informal tone continued when the commissioners asked about the candidate’s goals.

“I am tempted to say ‘survive,s” Sinclair joked.

She quickly added she planned to lay the groundwork for a full term as commissioner in 16 months and to focus on the budget.

Sinclair admitted to not being a land-use expert, even though land-use and growth is often considered the most pressing issue in Island County.

She said affordable housing was one of her top priorities.

As one of her top three priorities, she named managing the growth that is coming. Other priorities included dealing with possible decline of county revenue as the housing industry slows.

Rose stressed during her interview that communication between government and the community are vital to getting things done and noted that she had spent a lifetime practicing these words.

“I believe in community and I believe in always working on making it better,” Rose said.

She named the state of emergency preparedness and police protection in the county as a prime concern.

She recalled an incident a few years back when a county employee was attacked by an angry customer and the sheriff’s office wasn’t able to provide security.

“If that was the case, what chance did the lady down the road have?” Rose asked.

Rose also pointed to growth management as one of her top priorities.

“Our main objective is to allow for needed growth without really changing our rural lifestyle,” Rose said.

Bakke said his goal for his 16 months in office focused on “becoming part of the team,” getting the county’s critical areas regulations finalized, and working with central services on technology issues for the county.

And though the Fairgrounds Road battle is over, Bakke said there is more work to be done with the Island County Fair Board to help the fair’s future be successful.

Commissioner Shelton had been the mediator between Langley and the fair during his time on the board, and Shelton also brokered the deal that lead to the end of the 20-month-long conflict. Bakke will likely become the go-between now between fair officials and their critics..

The reoccurring theme of Bakke’s interview was enhancing community relations.

“I am starting to sound like a broken record,” he said. “But there are issues with the community having trust with the county. It has to do with communication.”

For his priorities, he cited keeping the county budget in check, managing growth and maintaining the level of county services as the population grows.

Neither Dean nor McDowell took notes during the interviews.

The commissioners left the meeting room for a closed-door executive session in the county’s Emergency Operations Center while the crowed chatted and offered predictions on who would get the job.

When the commissioners reemerged, they quickly announced their decision.

Bakke’s father, Inguar Bakke, was in the audience to see his son appointed and Sinclair was one of the first to congratulate the new commissioner after commissioners announced their pick.

The announcement was the culmination of the two-month process to replace Shelton.

Shelton announced plans in mid-July to step down as commissioner, a post he has held for 15 years, to take a job in Olympia as executive director of the Washington Counties Insurance Fund.

Plans for a mid-day swearing-in ceremony in Coupeville are being finalized, Bakke said Thursday. His appointment became effective Sept. 7.

Bakke has worked for Island County for 12 years, the last eight as director of the county planning department.

Bakke said Jeff Tate, the planning department’s assistant director, would likely become the interim director of the planning department.

“He is the most logical choice to be appointed,” Bakke said. “He certainly is the most capable. There won’t even be a hiccup.”

Coming back to the office Thursday morning as the new commissioner was a unique experience, he said.

“There were a lot of smiling faces and congratulations,” Bakke said.

Bakke said he hopes to hit the floor running on Monday as the commissioners start the review of the county budget for the next fiscal year.

As a department head, Bakke said he understands the needs other department heads have, which include having adequate funding to hire and retain good staff. It also means managing workloads, as well as modernizing offices and procedures.

“It’s a very different role,” he said. “I haven’t walked in the commissioners’ shoes. But I have thought about it.”

Bakke said he will have an open-door policy for county workers and the public.

“I hope people feel comfortable coming up and giving me a kick in the pants and occasionally a pat on the shoulder,” he said.

Brian Kelly contributed to this report.

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