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No settlement, no chairmanship for Emerson

Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson speaks during the work session of the year Wednesday where she nominated herself as the 2013 chairwoman. Her bid did not get a second but instead the board gave her until March to resolve a long-standing dispute with the planning department. - Justin Burnett / The Record
Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson speaks during the work session of the year Wednesday where she nominated herself as the 2013 chairwoman. Her bid did not get a second but instead the board gave her until March to resolve a long-standing dispute with the planning department.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Until the issues surrounding her Camano Island home are settled, including the $37,000 she owes in planning department fines, Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson’s future as chairwoman remains cloudy.

During Wednesday’s work session, the board’s first meeting of the year and the first ever for freshman Republican Commissioner Jill Johnson, Emerson nominated herself to be appointed chairwoman for 2013.

“I am ready, willing and anxious to take my turn as chair,” Emerson said.

But the Tea Party-Republican faced a tough public crowd and lukewarm support from her colleagues, despite the recent tipping of the political scales from a Democrat-led board to one with a Republican majority.

Critics waved signs from the audience opposing Emerson’s bid for chairperson, along with other ideas she proposed for the new year, and her self-nomination did not receive a second from either Johnson or Commissioner Price Johnson.

Instead, the board tabled the matter until March, giving Emerson two months to clear up the long-standing issues regarding her Camano Island home and alleged violations to a slew of county ordinances.

Emerson, in a later interview, declined to comment on the lack of support from the board.

In the spirit of bipartisan cooperation and rotation, the board has long held to a tradition of choosing a new commissioner to lead the board each year. While there have been exceptions in the past, the idea is to give each of the county’s three districts a turn at the helm.

Emerson was up last year, but her Democratic colleagues at the time, Commissioners Angie Homola and Price Johnson, broke with tradition and elected to pass over the Camano Island Tea Party Republican.

They cited a handful of reasons, from Emerson’s adversarial relationship and an alleged unavailability with county employees to Emerson’s issues regarding her Camano home.

Price Johnson, who serves as the current chairwoman, made it clear Wednesday that she would not endorse Emerson’s bid until the long-standing matter was resolved, once and for all.

“Until those are done, I don’t feel I can give you my support,” Price Johnson said.

“I don’t believe a leader of an organization should be at odds with the organization,” she said. “I think that’s a huge stumbling block in leadership.”

Emerson has been duking it out with the planning department over an alleged critical areas violation since her election in late 2010. The issue revolves around a building permit required for an addition to her Camano Island home.

The battlefield has ranged across courtrooms and the desks of private, county and state wetland specialists but the matter remains in dispute.

Emerson and her husband, Ken Emerson, owe at least $37,000 in fines levied by the planning department. They are refusing to pay, maintaining that the whole issue stems from a wetland that doesn’t exist.

Emerson argued Wednesday that there was little she can do, laying the blame and the lack of resolution on the planning department and her fellow board members, who she claims perpetuated the issue.

Johnson, who campaigned for an end to partisan bickering on the board, quickly took up the mantle of mediator and proposed the issue be tabled for several months with the hope that Emerson could settle the issues by then.

She made it clear that she supports the tradition of rotation but felt it was important for both the board and the public to have a unanimous vote, signifying the end of partisan bickering among the commissioners.

“My vote for chairman is for District 3,” Johnson said. “I think District 3 deserves its turn, I think it’s time for its turn, but there are legitimate internal concerns that are going on.”

“I think everybody’s ready to vote for you to be chair — it just needs to be dealt with,” she said.

She added that if a resolution with the planning department is reached while Emerson is serving as chairwoman, it might be “an uncomfortable position for that department head to be in.”

In a later interview, however, Johnson said her intention is to vote for Emerson when the issue comes back to the board in March, whether the matter is resolved or not. But, she could be swayed in the meantime as she learns more about the issue and the dynamics of the board, she said.

Price Johnson, who admitted she wasn’t aware of all the details involving the controversy, said she was unsure Johnson’s proposed mediation would settle the issue, noting Emerson’s expressed belief that resolution is solely in the hands of planning department officials and select commissioners.

“I’m not sure if that would get us there but I’d be willing to consider it,” she said.

In the end, the board agreed to table the issue in a split 2-1 vote. Emerson voted against, saying the delay wasn’t fair and was not just a slight on her but also the residents of North Whidbey and Camano.

“I don’t think that’s fair to the District 3 constituents,” Emerson said. “I think they made their voice heard when they voted me into this position. They expected their representative would get the full term.”

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