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Whidbey candidates square off at first forum
FREELAND — At the first voters’ forum of the campaign season, many of the candidates for office shared a common theme.
They’re not looking for a career in politics.
Senate hopefuls and candidates for state representative and county commissioner alike stressed that they weren’t politicians in it for the long haul.
State Senate candidate Sarah Hart called herself a “common person”; commissioner candidate Reece Rose said she only wants to stay for two terms; and fellow commissioner hopeful Helen Price Johnson said public office was her way of giving back to the community.
And no-party commissioner candidate Curt Gordon scored a big laugh when he poked fun of his non-politician speech style.
“I know what I am not. I am not the smoothest speaker in the room,” he said.
By contrast, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen said she was a career politician and proud of it.
“I’m not ashamed of that,” Haugen said.
Voters got a first look at their candidates side-by-side during a forum Thursday sponsored by the League of Women Voters of South Whidbey.
About 100 South Enders filled the meeting place at Trinity Lutheran Church to standing room only to hear the candidates.
Haugen faces challengers Linda Haddon, an Oak Harbor Republican, and Sarah Hart of the newly formed America’s Third Party in the primary.
As expected, the challengers quickly focused on ferry problems on the Keystone-Port Townsend run.
Haddon said that the Legislature knew of the problems years ago. Plans were made, then changed, and five years later there is still no ferry solution.
Hart said the Port Townsend ferry landing has to be expanded for larger vessels, and she also floated the idea of using car barges on the route.
Haugen countered by defending her work and pointed at her powerful position as a senior senator and the chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
She said the Legislature has appropriated money for new vessels; ferries are being built for the run and are expected to hit the water in the fall of 2009.
Haugen added that a study will come out this fall that will examine how much transportation bang the state can get for its bucks.
“The greatest problem of the ferry system is funding,” Haugen said. “We can’t continue raising fares.”
The Legislature is working to provide solutions, she added.
“Under my leadership, we’re addressing a 20-year backlog in deferred maintenance,” she said.
Haddon said ferries aren’t the only problem. Deception Pass Bridge has to be overhauled or replaced in 12 years, and she fears that the Legislature won’t respond in time.
“Are we going to have the same crisis?” she asked.
Candidates fielded about a half dozen questions. One focused on what the candidates would do for Whidbey Island.
Haddon said her top priorities will be tax relief and transportation.
Hart said she would focus on bringing “interesting jobs” to the district.
“Why can’t we built windmills and solar panels on Whidbey Island?” Hart asked. “Let’s bring some jobs here.”
Haugen said she will continue work on improving the transportation system, and vowed to fight for better access to education.
“Education is huge for our county,” she said, adding that declining enrollment in local schools and limited access to higher education were troubling.
If the race for county commissioners were a box of chocolates, it would be safe to say that there is something — or somebody — for every taste.
Republican incumbent Phil Bakke pointed to his accomplishments in the 11 months he has been at the helm since he was appointed to serve the rest of commissioner Mike Shelton’s term.
Bakke recounted how commissioners created a human services program and moved the parks department into the planning department to make sure parks would be considered appropriately in the planning process, and he said he was committed to keeping neighborhoods in the county safe.
Experience and know-how are his strong suits, he said, pointing to his 13 years working for the county as a planner, department head and, most recently, commissioner.
Reece Rose, who ran unsuccessfully for the District 1 seat when it was last up for grabs, stressed her business experience. She also took issue with the county’s spending habits.
She said when she realized that the county commissioners approved a budget that foresaw only a 5-percent increase in revenues, but a 7-percent increase in spending, she knew the county had a problem.
Rose, who once headed the Libertarian Party in Island County, is considered the most conservative choice for commissioner.
Gordon said that while environmental and economic concerns are real, one of the biggest threats the county is facing is an aging population and a lack of affordable housing and living-wage jobs.
Gordon, who is running with no party affiliation, said he will represent the best interests of all county residents without the distractions of party influence or future political aspirations.
Helen Price Johnson, the Democratic challenger, said she would seek the balance between protecting the environment and allowing for growth and economic development.
The first question for commissioner candidates addressed the future of Whidbey’s water supply.
The candidates struggled a bit with their answers.
Gordon said it was difficult to keep track of the state of the county’s aquifer capacity because of the number of individual wells. He said bigger systems are better maintained.
Rose said that after speaking to the county’s hydrologist, she arrived at the conclusion that it was a matter of getting the water to the people.
“It’s a matter of technology more than anything else that we have water for ever and ever,” she said.
Price Johnson disagreed.
“One thing we know, it’s a finite amount,” she said. “We’re not secure in our water here.”
Bakke said the county has a model water program that has earned praise from the state. He said water quality is monitored constantly and the aquifers were doing fine.
With the economy in a slump and a fiscal crisis on the county’s horizon, it wasn’t long before the topic of property taxes came up.
One thing the candidates could agree on was that they didn’t like them.
Price Johnson said overhauling the county machine and having the departments work closer together may help to contain costs. She pressed for better technology to create fair property assessments.
Bakke said what many in the crowd wanted to say: “Property taxes. I am not a big fan of them.”
At the same time, Bakke added, the commissioners do not have much say about property taxes because they are a result of levies and assessments. The county has an elected assessor, as well.
He also acknowledged that people need “predictability.”
Gordon said one way to even the tax burden is to make sure that people who own land that’s designated as agricultural or forest land is actually being used as such, so the owners aren’t getting a tax break on land that’s not being used for farming or timber.
“We need to go through and make sure everybody pays what they should,” Gordon said.
The candidates also addressed what they believe would be the single biggest threat to Island County.
Bakke said it’s fiscal matters due to the economic downturn and the county’s already shallow tax base. Long-term, it is the balance of growth and keeping the rural character of the county, he added.
Gordon again stressed the importance of making it possible to bring young families to the island and, with that, a workforce that could attract business.
Rose said one of the biggest threats is too much regulation, which makes it too expensive or difficult for some businesses to thrive.
Price Johnson said an aging population was a concern, but it was also a big benefit for Whidbey. The people retiring to the island are world leaders in their field, and many problems of the island can be addressed by tapping into their expertise, she said.
The race for Island County Supreme Court judge could be decided in the primary, if one of the candidates receives 50 percent plus one vote by Aug. 19.
Judge Vickie Churchill and Coupeville defense attorney Craig Platt faced each other at the forum and were ready to win over the voters. No strangers to each other — she being the judge in many of his cases — they were facing off for the first time as competitors.
Churchill stressed the experience she has gathered in 12 years on the bench in Island County, and said she had the support of her fellow Island County Judge Alan Hancock, as well as 126 other judges in the state.
She pointed to the county’s drug court and advocacy programs that have made the county court system one of the best in the state.
“You don’t have to speculate what kind of judge I would be. My record speaks for itself,” she said.
Platt took issue with the way Island County handles the court schedule. Jailed defendants usually are up for their hearing before people who aren’t in custody. The schedule is not separated, which leads to long waiting times and security issues, Platt said.
He also said he would revamp courtroom technology, something Churchill said is already under way.
Platt, who as a defense attorney worked on some high-profile cases, including the vehicular homicide case of Randi Shelton, the woman who killed Karen Gervais Boone while driving under the influence, stressed that he could not address specific cases.
He was criticized for his legal strategy during the Shelton case that dragged it out for more than a year.
But he said people who think he wouldn’t be tough on crime are wrong.
“There are probably still some people behind bars in Micronesia who feel differently,” he said, alluding to his job as prosecutor in the Asian country.
Platt also stressed that he made it clear from the beginning that his campaign was not accepting donations.
“We’re basically blowing the college fund on this election,” he said.
Also at the forum were candidates for the 10th District in the state House of Representatives.
Incumbent Barbara Bailey is facing two Democratic challengers, Patricia Terry, a registered nurse from Camano Island, and Ann McDonald, a Coupeville port commissioner.
However, at the forum she only faced one. McDonald was unable to attend because she was caring for her 99-year-old mother.
Democratic challenger Tim Knue and incumbent Norma Smith also tackled questions.
The next forum is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 5 at Clinton Community Hall.
Michaela Marx Wheatley can be reached at 221-5300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.