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Commissioner candidates sound off at Clinton forum

A large crowd gathered at Clinton Community Hall this week for a forum featuring candidates for the District 1, Island County commissioner seat. - Jeff VanDerford / The Record
A large crowd gathered at Clinton Community Hall this week for a forum featuring candidates for the District 1, Island County commissioner seat.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / The Record

CLINTON — The Island County budget, property taxes and hunting topped the list of hot topics Tuesday as the four candidates for county commissioner — incumbent Phil Bakke and challengers Reece Rose, Helen Price Johnson and Curt Gordon — met at a forum hosted by the Clinton Progressive Association and the local chamber of commerce.

In their opening remarks, the four talked of their qualifications and background for the job.

Rose, a Republican who has run unsuccessfully for the District 1 seat before, echoed her strong campaign pledges to reform the budget. She voiced her concerns about property tax increases and the need to investigate the county's budget with an emphasis on spending habits. She said the county needs a business manager on the board to make sure people get the direct benefit from their tax dollars.

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 desires. He noted his 19 years of involvement with the parks district and his experience as a small business owner.

Bakke, a Republican, spoke of his long 13-year career working for the county as a planner, department head and, most recently, commissioner.

Price Johnson, the Democratic challenger, discussed her work on the South Whidbey school board and said she would seek a balance between the island's rural character and the need for growth and economic development.

Rose has made much in recent weeks about the county's financial footing, and has raised concern that the county is heading toward bankruptcy. Some residents at the forum wanted to know which county program should be dropped as a budget-cutting measure.

"All county programs are on the table," Rose said. "We need to determine which of them directly benefits taxpayers."

Price Johnson said public agencies spend too much money on consultants.

"We would be better off spending dollars to train county employees to do some of the consultant work," she said.

Gordon said there are no specific programs he'd cut, but would attempt to improve overall efficiency of county government.

"If all departments, for example, shared the same computer data base they could resolve problems more quickly," Gordon said.

Bakke countered by saying the county's financial situation isn't dire. It has a balanced budget for this year and next.

"Plus there are reserve funds to safeguard vital programs," he said.

Molly MacLeod-Roberts wanted the candidate's views on hunting in the Deer Lagoon area.

Bakke said the county can't really do much.

"When I was appointed 11 months ago ago, I discovered this issue was monumentally complicated," he said.

Bakke said he believes the Pierce County model might work.

"There, people on all sides of this issue have come together and created a panel to guide them," he added.

Price Johnson said hunting and fishing are important and she supports both, just not at Deer Lagoon.

"What I found studying the historical record shows that when the land agreement was made, it specifically stated no hunting would be allowed in that area," she said.

Gordon, however, countered that argument. He said hunting was never meant to be illegal.

"The agreement passed through the federal Department of Fish and Wildlife and hunting was not deemed incompatible with the property," he noted. "In the future, the Useless Bay Colony might consider developing parking and eventually the area could be designated a state park.

"My position is that it is not illegal to trespass and it is legal to hunt."

Rose said she is most concerned about public safety.

"Hunting is a tragedy waiting to happen," she said.

MacLeod-Roberts said later the candidates' answers were clear enough.

"I picked up a Price Johnson sticker on the way out," she said.

Dean Enell from Freeland asked each candidate for their views on big budget items that may impact property taxes next year: The $8.2 million marina project by the Port of South Whidbey, a new $15.2 million aquatic and recreation center planned by South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District, and the move to start a county public utility district to replace Puget Sound Energy. All three proposals are expected to land on the November ballot.

"I haven't seen any solid figures yet, but I'm uncomfortable with the numbers I have seen," Rose said of the proposals.

Bakke said it's clear that people need to know more. "I'm energized by the idea of a PUD, which sends a message to PSE: 'You might want to think twice before messing with South Whidbey,'" he said.

Bakke said community partnerships might be needed to build a pool but he didn't know enough about the marina to comment.

Price Johnson, too, said she hadn't heard enough to make a clear determination, but did say a PUD was a good idea.

"It looks like the pool will need some partnerships, with seniors and the school district, to become a reality," she said.

"I was involved last year with the port's comprehensive scheme and I know their commissioners believe it will further economic development," she added.

Gordon, however, said it's important to look beyond the purchase price.

"Long-term maintenance and operations costs are real considerations," he said. "You have to do your homework to see which project you think is more important."

Later, Enell said he was only partially satisfied with the answers.

"Granted, PSE hasn't released the value of their assets yet, but the pool and marina have been covered extensively," he said.

"I asked the question to see if they knew about the subjects or would hunker down and avoid them. None of them gave very definitive answers. Candidates for an important office are community leaders and they should be giving us guidance," Enell added.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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