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Candidates trade accusations

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, center, answers a question at a candidates forum in Oak Harbor recently. Listening are his challenger, Kelly Barlean, and the moderator from the North Whidbey chapter of the League of Women Voters. - Rick Levin
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, center, answers a question at a candidates forum in Oak Harbor recently. Listening are his challenger, Kelly Barlean, and the moderator from the North Whidbey chapter of the League of Women Voters.
— image credit: Rick Levin

Tempers flared and accusations flew at a candidates forum last Thursday in Oak Harbor, as voters were treated to a surprising display of attack-style politics.

The event leads up to the last Whidbey Island forum, which will be tomorrow night at Trinity Lutheran Church, Freeland.

Though the forum included candidates from all major district and county races, it was debates between Island County treasurer and county prosecutor candidates that caused the most commotion for the approximately 100 people attending.

Incumbent Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, apparently fed up with challenger Kelly Barlean's swipes at his record, dropped a bomb when he revealed a trial transcript in which a judge chastised Barlean for his "disgusting and unprofessional" conduct during a murder trial.

Banks said he decided to reveal the information because Barlean had chosen to make character an issue in the campaign.

"Ethics is important," Banks said.

The transcript, which comes out of a 1996 murder trial, shows Barlean may have intentionally withheld information about a plea deal from his client, the defendant, to provide a loophole out of a conviction. The presiding judge, who was highly critical of Barlean's tactic, was Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Gerald Knight.

Banks said he had never seen an attorney "dressed down" in court by a judge, much less one as highly regarded as Knight. He said the incident speaks volumes about Barlean's integrity as a prosecutor and public official.

Barlean told the crowd that Banks was lying. In accusing Banks of falsifying the record, Barlean seemed to be referring to a separate matter in which he was criticized by Knight for taking on a murder trial with only two years of experience at the time.

"I question the wisdom of an attorney, without any jury trial experience, starting out of the chute the first trial ... is a murder trial," Knight said.

Things didn't cool down much when the candidates for Island County treasurer took the microphone. Democratic challenger Linda Riffe immediately went after the record of treasurer Maxine Sauter. Riffe referred repeatedly to a series of state audit reports issued over the past eight years in which the county treasurer's office under Sauter has been found to lack financial controls.

Riffe said it was her research into the auditor's findings that led her to run for the treasurer's position.

"I was so concerned as a tax-paying citizen that I decided to put my career on hold," said Riffe, an Oak Harbor School District administrator who is on a leave of absence . "I can do better for the citizens of this county."

Sauter said she was shocked and amazed by what she was hearing. She reiterated a phrase that has become her mantra over the past few months: "Not a penny has gone missing in my office."

Sauter said she keeps a close watch on county funds. "Where this information is coming from is a shock to me. I'm very proud of my record."

Riffe said the county's risk manager, Betty Kemp, has said the county almost lost its bonding and insurance coverage because of the poor audit reports. At this, Sauter suggested someone from the audience call Kemp to straighten out what she said was misinformation.

Compared to the candidates for prosecutor and treasurer, the evening's other debates were downright civil, avoiding attacks and focusing on issues confronting county and state government.

Squaring off in the race for the District 3 Island County Commissioner seat were Democrat incumbent Bill Thorn and Republican Bill Byrd.

Thorn said his record as a commissioner over the past four years shows strong leadership in accomplishing such things as eliminating herbicide spray in the county's roadside maintenance program and expanding of the board of health. He also said he has worked hard to make county government more efficient.

"I've worked to keep a tight control on expenditures," Thorn said.

Byrd said he's running his campaign on four crucial issues: the budget, creating economic revitalization throughout the county, better transportation and public safety. He said overcoming budget shortfalls is high on his list of priorities.

"What's going to happen in the next two to three years is crucial," Byrd said. "It's not going to get easier, it's going to get harder."

Ultimately, Thorn stressed his experience as a commissioner, saying the past four years have prepared him for making tough decisions.

"I bring balance to the board of commissioners," he said. "It's a kinder, gentler place than it was four years ago."

Byrd said his experience in the military as well as in the business sector has provided him with essential leadership skills. He said he's ready to confront the budget crisis the county is currently facing, and to make hard decisions and cuts if necessary.

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