Village by the Sea change: Two new council members ready to make impact

At a crux in Langley’s history, between an economic downturn and ongoing plans to turn the Village by the Sea into a booming town, the city council will see two new members added to its ranks this November.

Margot Jerome and Thomas Gill are running unopposed in their bids for Positions 2 and 5. Joining them is Councilwoman Rene Neff, an incumbent of eight years, for Position 1. All three promised to listen to Langley’s 1,200 residents and guide South Whidbey’s only incorporated city into a new era of prosperity.

Thomas Gill 

Gill, 30, is no stranger to Langley’s political scene. He’s pursued council seats several times already, in a past election and by appointment. Having no challenger this November guarantees him his long sought after position and the opportunity he’s been hoping for — the chance to serve the city where he was raised as a councilman.

“Giving back to the community is the important part to me,” he said.

Gill isn’t new to public service, however, having been a member of the Planning Advisory Board since 2010 and serving as chairman since 2011. In that capacity, he worked on a variety of ordinances, from regulations guiding South Whidbey Harbor’s expansion to rules surrounding Langley’s nightlife and landscaping.

“We actually get to make policy,” said Gill of his work on the planning board.

As an advisory group, the planning board drafts policy but does not adopt it. That authority is reserved for the city council.

One recent item the planning board successfully oversaw was a rezoning of the Edgecliff neighborhood, a measure that limits growth in a residential zone rife with critical areas like a bluff and wetlands.

The city council approved the rezone Oct. 7.

Gill said he would like to see sewer lines come to that very neighborhood. It’s been a controversial topic and Gill said he agrees the benefit of past proposals did not outweigh the hefty costs of installation.

“It was unfair to make everyone pay for it and not everyone could use it,” Gill said.

But the aspiring city lawmaker hopes to have another look at the issue and see if a more affordable solution can be identified.

At the top of his priorities is reducing water utility costs. Gill said the city could lower charges by abandoning U.S. Department of Agriculture grants or by creating a water utility district, which could serve residences beyond Langley city limits.

Sparking business growth is on the minds of many city leaders, and Gill is no exception. He wants to promote Langley’s infrastructure of high-speed Internet and simplify the city’s business rules in hopes of enticing businesses to relocate to the Village by the Sea.

“What bothers me is that we’ve stagnated,” Gill said.

At odds with that desire, he said, is the lack of affordable housing. One possible solution is an increase in housing, he said, not necessarily a strategic development of low-income housing.

“I can’t even find a place to live in the city (downtown) — it’s all too expensive,” Gill said.

Margot Jerome 

After 15 years in Langley, Jerome is ready to jump into the political realm.

The first-time candidate said she finally answered the call to serve, though it took being asked a couple of times. Originally, she laughed at the idea.

“It’s a thankless job and we all have to take our turn,” she said.

A recent stint in a graduate school program for business management and leadership changed her opinion. Taking those classes, she said, taught her how to govern.

“I discovered servant leadership,” Jerome said.

She is adamant that she does not have an agenda or list of things to accomplish. Her plan is to listen to Langley’s residents and learn what they want and expect from the City Council.

“We can create agenda together,” she said.

Jerome’s surname may be familiar on South Whidbey. Her husband, Chris Jerome, is a longtime commissioner for the Port of South Whidbey. Specifically, he represents the Langley area for the port district.

The city and port district have established close ties recently through their partnership with the South Whidbey Harbor expansion project, but Jerome said she will be sure there is no blurring of the lines.

“I won’t be a conduit for the city and port,” she said.

A former travel agent, Jerome went back to school to find a focus. She found it in business management and leadership and now wants to bring those skills to Langley.

“Leading has more to do with listening than talking or directing,” Jerome said.

Since filing for Position 2, Jerome has attended most of Langley’s council meetings and helped organize the recent Langley Economic Forum. Bringing more than 75 people to the first event and hearing people’s ideas on how to jump-start business growth in Langley was the type of communication Jerome said she wants more of.

“I love pulling people together,” she said. “You build trust and relationships.”

Later, she added: “The right answer is always built by support.”

Rene Neff 

Seeking her third term, Neff is looking to continue the work she and the city council have established the past eight years.

“I’m starting to hit my stride,” she said. “I see the town moving in the right direction.”

Neff and Jerome were two of the main people driving the Langley Economic Forum. It was sparked by hearing her daughter remark on Langley’s partial attractiveness to young families such as hers, but was missing a vitality to it.

“For years, we’ve been waiting for something to come save us,” she said.

That type of sentiment moved Neff to ask people how they would change Langley or what they would like from the city. She wanted to be ahead of any changes and find ways to shape the city to its residents’ satisfaction. That means connecting with residents and businesses and steering Langley to be “more robust.”

As a resident of 25 years, Neff said Langley has changed dramatically. Since her time on the city council, she has been through four administrations, the most recent being one of her appointees — Mayor Fred McCarthy.

Neff touted her history of supporting citizens’ concerns, such as late-night noise on Second Street, supporting Langley Main Street Association with city funds and working on economic development through a now-defunct merchants’ group and the city council.

She was instrumental in enticing Island Shakespeare Festival to move from Clinton to Langley, where it was housed in a massive tent during its first year.

The great challenge ahead, said Neff, is filling empty retail space. Landmark sites — the former Edgecliff Restaurant, Porter Building, Dog House Tavern, Mike’s Place — are all empty. She wants to identify ways to foster development there by bringing in places of interaction and commerce.

Neff has a stake in bringing more business to the city. She owns Brackenwood Gallery, on the same intersection as Dog House Tavern and Mike’s Place.

“I feel like I’m sort of a catalyst to move this place forward,” she said.

She proposed that attracting a business to Langley’s light industrial zone on Coles Road could be the type of growth that sparks the city’s development.

“It’s like a petri dish waiting for a few good cells to populate it,” she said.

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