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Commissioner Johnson butts heads with Old Goats

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson, left, gets a round of applause after speaking at the Old Goats-Fully Informed Voters meeting at the Useless Bay Golf & Country Club on South Whidbey on Jan. 18. Next to her is Rufus Rose, an original Old Goat, and his wife Reece Rose.  - Justin Burnett / The Record
Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson, left, gets a round of applause after speaking at the Old Goats-Fully Informed Voters meeting at the Useless Bay Golf & Country Club on South Whidbey on Jan. 18. Next to her is Rufus Rose, an original Old Goat, and his wife Reece Rose.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Let it be known: Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson doesn’t like bullies and she isn’t going to be a blind vote for her party.

If Johnson’s record during her first two weeks in office hadn’t already made that crystal clear, the freshman Republican commissioner dispelled any misconception about how she plans to approach her job, and deal with harsh criticism from party members, during an Old Goats-Fully Informed Voters luncheon on South Whidbey this past Friday.

“I don’t like bullying. I don’t like it,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t work well with me, it’s not effective. If you’re somebody who wants to get something from me as a county commissioner, you need to have good ideas. They need to be thought out and well presented.”

“I’m not going to meet your standard, ‘My way or the highway.’ I’m not going to bully you back or call you names. I’m just going to disengage. That’s how it is. I’m a county commissioner elected to serve the people of Island County.”

And for the “more conservative” members of the audience, she had a special message.

“I’m disappointed in you, just like you’re disappointed in me. I’ve been on this job two and half weeks and you expected what, some kind of blind loyalty, some kind of no thought behind my decisions? That’s what you thought you were going to get? I don’t think you know who you voted for,” Johnson said. “I’m going to think it through and do what’s right. You have four years to vote for somebody else who will blindly follow your cause. I’m going to make good decisions for Island County.”

Johnson’s pointed comments came at the end of a 35-minute talk and were in response to strong criticism she’s received since taking office late last month, largely for decisions she’s made that have been in opposition to fellow Republican Commissioner Kelly Emerson, a tea party favorite.

The Old Goats began as a conservative and Libertarian discussion group about 25 years ago. It now meets monthly at the Useless Bay Golf and Country Club and hosts speakers of all political walks.

Past presenters have ranged from county commissioners and department heads — regardless of party — to a Superior Court judge and members of the military, said Rufus Rose, the moderator and one of the group’s founders.

“The only real rule is you have to be reasonably polite,” Rose said.

The crowd of about 40 people adhered to the rule very well, despite the direct approach Johnson took in dealing with the complaints of a few critics, some of whom may have been in the room.

In fact, the new commissioner appeared to be fairly well received. One man, South Whidbey resident Chuck Leavitt, even credited Johnson with being one of the best speakers the group has had in years.

“I think we picked a winner, ladies and gentlemen,” Leavitt said. “In the words of the Navy, Bravo Zulu.”

Johnson covered a number of topics during her speech but seemed to spend much of her time on the defensive, justifying her reasons for making various decisions since taking office and even explaining her silence on select issues this past December, such as curbside recycling and proposed shooting rules.

She also addressed the more recent “hubbub” that arose out of conflict between the board of commissioners’ public meeting notice practices and the Old Goats’ policy regarding attendance.

Although technically not a club, as the lunch group has no bylaws or membership dues, attendance is by invitation only.

However, that policy was disregarded when a special meeting notice was released to the public and the media, prior to the luncheon, when it was learned that Emerson also planned to attend the event.

Emerson later decided not to go and the notice was rescinded but not before many expressed outrage that the notice had been released without any consultation of the Old Goats group.

“It has me so goddamn mad I can’t even see straight,” said a still-fuming Rose, in an interview Monday.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, chairwoman of the board, took the brunt of the blame during the luncheon as it was her signature on the notice. She and the rest of the board were blasted for being unfamiliar with the state’s Open Public Meeting Act and the rules regarding a quorum.

Johnson also fielded complaints about inconsistencies in the acceptance of public comment during Monday and Wednesday meetings, to which the commissioner acknowledged recent problems.

“You should be able to look at the agenda and know … it should be very clear to citizens what to expect,” Johnson said.

But despite some of the charged issues discussed, overall, Johnson addressed what seemed to be a good-natured crowd, even if some said they still disagreed with a few of her positions.

“I’m one of those conservatives that you referenced,” said John Merrill, an Oak Harbor resident. “I think I’m right, of course I know I am.”

His comment earned healthy laughter from the crowd but not nearly as much as his next statement.

“I know that unless you do it my way, it won’t be done correctly so you have a problem and I don’t,” Merrill said. “I can see you and I are going to have to discuss this problem from my perspective.”

Rose agreed that the luncheon was a success. A newly elected commissioner attended the meeting and a group of voters had the opportunity to learn a little more about her.

“I don’t know if it’s the best meeting we’ve ever had but it was pretty damn good,” Rose said.

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