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Candidates trade jabs in District 1 commissioner's race

In the District 1 race for Island County Commissioner, history will be made this year.

What kind of history remains to be seen.

Two women are on the ballot, which creates the potential for the first woman ever to be elected to the board of commissioners in Island County.

A longtime county employee is hoping to become the first planning director to earn a seat on the board via the ballot box, and the first non-partisan candidate in memory adds to the mix.

Democrat Helen Price Johnson, no-party candidate Curt Gordon and conservative Republican Reece Rose have a common goal: To unseat incumbent Republican Phil Bakke.

Beyond that, the candidates couldn't be more diverse in their ideas.

County finances, affordable housing and property taxes are hot-button issues. But also some inherited South End controversies such as hunting and growth issues are on the minds of the commissioner hopefuls.

The challengers stress that county government lacks responsiveness, and claim that longtime county employee Bakke has lost touch with the pulse of the community.

Many South Enders view the seat as an open one. Bakke has only had the job for 11 months, after he was appointed to serve the remaining term of veteran Commissioner Mike Shelton.

Helen Price Johnson

Frustrated with a predominantly Republican board of Island County commissioners for the past two decades, Democrat Helen Price Johnson wants to tip the scale and join fellow Democrat John Dean on the three-member board.

"I have seen our community change a great deal, but I haven't seen the government change," Price Johnson said. "With John Dean on the board, there is a chance for progressive leadership."

If voters give her the job, she would also be the first woman to become Island County commissioner. A distinction not too surprising, considering that she comes from a long line of South Whidbey women who excelled in leadership positions.

But none of these reasons are what motivates Price Johnson to vie for the position.

It’s time some long-lingering problems get solved, she said. "I think we're heading the wrong way."

Johnson is running for office because she believes county government currently lacks transparency and responsiveness.

Price Johnson said Holmes Harbor’s public beach access has been closed for two years, and not much - beyond lots of talk - has been done to address the pollution and get the beach reopened. Freeland's sub-area plan was created three years ago, but still does not align with the county's comprehensive plan, she said.

The county is behind in addressing pressing community needs, she said.

"Goosefoot was ready to do some affordable housing, but the underlying county regulations weren't there," Price Johnson said.

The affordable-housing issue is important, especially in economically uncertain times.

"There is a misperception that affordable housing is needed only for people on welfare," she said. "In fact, of the hundred some vouchers handed out by the county housing authority, only about 10 percent went to welfare recipients. Our wage earners and seniors are struggling to meet our rising housing costs, and we need to address this issue head-on.

"The local food bank's customer use has increased to 18 percent of our population. Our community can pull together to meet these challenges," she said.

Shepherding in change is tough with a budget that many expect to be tight.

Saying that Island County will face budget restrictions, she said the county should take advantage of local experts and volunteers to come up with creative solutions.

"There is a teachable moment being missed. We have groups like the Beachwatchers and a great volunteer community. People want to do the right thing," she said. "That's how we have to address challenges."

If elected, Price Johnson said she is ready to tackle right away a few of the issues former commissioners have put on the back burner.

The controversy surrounding hunting on South Whidbey, specifically in Deer Lagoon, is one of them.

Hunting is an important aspect of recreation, Price Johnson said. But she has studied county documents and has come to the conclusion that Deer Lagoon is not the place for it.

"For Deer Lagoon, money was accepted for passive recreational use. At the school district, we are held accountable for the conditions on the money we spent," said Price Johnson, who is a longtime member of the South Whidbey School Board. “I haven't seen anything in my research that excuses the county of this.”

Another top priority is to strike a balance between economic sustainability and the environment. Business owners need all the help they can get nowadays.

“While our community’s natural treasures suffer from growth and sprawl, our county has spent millions of dollars and countless hours fighting the Growth Management Act,” she said.

Price Johnson said she is ready to lead and hit the ground running if elected.

She has studied county documents such as county's growth plan, the budget and has evaluated how they work within state guidelines. She also has identified problem areas within the operational structure of county government.

"I think the county is at a place where it needs to change its system. Interconnectiveness can be improved," she said. "Right now, county departments work in silos."

She points to her leadership on the South Whidbey School District school board, on which she has served since 2001, to demonstrate that she knows how to run a tight ship.

“We transformed a budget deficit into a $1 million surplus,” she said.

Price Johnson said that in her seven years on the board, she helped restore morale and fiscal leadership to the school district.

Price Johnson says she would be an advocate for small businesses. Before starting Price/Johnson Construction with husband Dave, she managed Jones' Department Store in Langley. Her bio includes a long list of volunteer jobs, from positions in the PTA and Habitat for Humanity, to work with the chambers of commerce, nutritional programs and more.

Her grandfather was the mayor of Langley, her grandmother a state lawmaker and her mother a longtime community activist.

"Community service is part of who I am," Price Johnson said.

Price Johnson, whose company builds custom homes, has to convince some South Enders who are leery of developers and builders that she can also represent their concerns.

Price Johnson said that’s not a problem. As a lifelong islander, she said, she knows what it means to develop responsibly, and in fact says that she teaches clients about the demands of the island environment.

It’s time leave the “old ways” behind and introduce the a new brand of county commissioner, she said.

"We as a community rely on our elected officials to look out for our best interest," Price Johnson said. "No one has ever accused me of being a 'good old boy.'"

Curt Gordon

As the only candidate without party affiliations, Curt Gordon is fighting an uphill battle. But that’s nothing the former Ironman competitor is worried about.

“I am in this to win,” Gordon said.

Campaigning without the support of a party has been tough, however, facing main party candidates that can easily outspend him on the campaign trail.

“It’s more difficult,” he said. "But I’ve taken on mounting tasks before,” Gordon said.

“People, not politics” is Gordon’s slogan, and thanks to the new primary system and his deep roots in the South Whidbey community, he has a chance of becoming the first no-party commissioner in recent memory.

The lifelong island resident said the focus needs to be diverted away from party lines to the people who live in the county.

It’s important that the next commissioner truly represents the people who live in the district, Gordon said. He is a prime candidate because he is deeply rooted in the community as a small-business owner, a father who raised his children in the local school district and a community volunteer, Gordon said.

“I don’t need the distractions of state or federal party lines. It’s about managing the county,” he said.

In addition, he has another simple reason.

“I don’t want to choose between my friends,” he said.

Gordon said he has seen the challenges the community is facing first-hand, and said the county lacks responsiveness.

“We are losing our middle class,” Gordon said. “Island County could be much more effective in curbing that.”

He said the reasons are simple; a lack of affordable housing and family-wage jobs. It’s a problem that he has been passionate about for more than a decade, but nothing has happened on the county level, he said.

“The only discussion is because the commissioners are up for election,” Gordon added.

Gordon would approach the affordable-housing problem by putting homes near transit routes.

Current rural density regulations are so strict they have driven up housing prices, which has resulted in an affordable-housing shortage that is forcing people off the island, he said.

Gordon said properties near roads, such as the island's two state highways, would offer higher-density zoning to promote affordable housing and more open space at the same time.

“I asked (county planning director) Jeff Tate about it, and he said nobody has ever tried this,” Gordon said.

“Creativity - that’s what is lacking in the commissioner office,” he added.

He would also promote a curbside recycling program for the county, and focus on the budget during his first months in office.

“We’re gonna have some real sticky budget issues,” he said, adding that the county has relied heavily on revenue from taxes generated by new construction, but that this source will run dry soon. Spending must be cut and priorities rearranged.

“My strong suit in any public service has always been the finances,” Gordon said.

“There is always a little bit of tightening that can be done in any budget. What we don’t have to raise is the tax cap.”

Gordon suggests that the county look at its fee structures, and allow departments to raise fees for services such as permits as an alternative source of income.

“Increase fees with inflation. That’s just good business,” he said.

His business experience is also what he says will be one of his biggest assets as a commissioner, and that's also what incumbent Bakke fails to bring to the job, he said.

“We hire good planners. We don’t need our county commissioner to be our planner,” Gordon said.

To prepare for the job he has met with the planning director, the undersheriff, Island Transit officials and has studied the comp plan, budget and the state’s Growth Management Act.

“A big part of being county commissioner is having the ability to react,” he added.

His two decades of involvement with the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District, as well as 13 years with Island County Conservation Futures, and, most recently, his stint as a representative on the Rural Transportation Board have given him some valuable insight in what it means to be a public official.

“I truly believe you can’t keep everybody happy,” he said.

However, Gordon said, there are ways to work together.

"I think on a personal level I can get compromises out of people, but I don’t compromise the interests of the community,” he said.

While he has many innovative ideas, Gordon said, in some areas there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

“We have a very involved wetlands ordinance designed by Mr. Dearborn. I think that’s fine,” he said.

Gordon has also looked at one of the long-running controversies on the South End: Hunting at Deer Lagoon.

“Currently, I believe hunting is legal, but we need to create a buffer, especially near the homes,” he said.

However, he said, he understands the concerns and a need for maintaining public safety.

“It’s my feeling if a user group, a viable steward, would wish to make improvements, the commissioners would be inclined to make it a public park,” Gordon said.

As an example, he pointed to the Friends of Camano Park.

“If it’s a public park, no firearms are allowed whatsoever.”

If elected, Gordon said he would step back from the management of his company, Island Asphalt, and said the company would not bid on county projects to avoid conflicts of interest.

Gordon added that for him the commissioner job isn’t a stepping stone to a bigger political career.

Gordon said the four-way battle has highlighted the district's attention on the race, and he credits himself that main-party candidates have had to campaign a little harder this time around.

“If I haven’t done anything else, I’ve brought them home,” Gordon said. “In 16 years, it’s been nothing but a beauty contest.”

Reece Rose

Rose has been the underdog in the four-way race.

Though Rose has been out-raised, and outspent, by every other candidate in the District 1 race, Rose's campaign has made up for its dollar disadvantage by raising the volume in the contest.

Rose has been especially critical of county spending.

"I think they are spending more quickly than they are collecting," she said. “And that is not a good thing."

"County government is truly huge in proportion,” she added, recalling the map she saw online of the county campus.

"It just seems outrageously huge to me," Rose said.

One example is the new auditor’s office.

“They were overcrowded in their old facility. But now it just seems like a tremendously large space."

Her warnings about the county’s budget have been staples of her campaign. In newspaper ads, Rose has warned the county is on the road to "financial ruin."

"Growth in government has been consistent over the past 20 years," she said. "We've had nothing but growth and increased spending and increased collections. It's not been a problem. But now when things slow a little bit, there wasn't the forward thinking in my opinion, to allow for ... an economic turnaround."

Rose noted the number of union contracts for county workers, their upcoming increases in benefits and pay.

“You don’t need a calculator. Anyone who can count on their fingers and toes can see that, two or three years out, there’s no money without a huge tax increase.”

Rose said a cut in spending was her solution, though she also said incoming revenues should bear a critical look.

She recalled a recent Republican forum, and didn’t like what she heard from the other Republican county commissioners; they disputed her claim that the budget situation was dire. Rose said they pointed to the impact of outside government funding on the county budget.

"Both [Mac] McDowell and Bakke said that my concerns were exaggerated because we were really grant-driven. And that bothers me terribly.

“I really believe that government needs to be close to the people. And when you start relying upon your state and federal funds and the strings that are attached to those grant monies, you're doing the exact opposite. You're taking control away locally and really putting it in the hands of the state and federal government,” she said. “You have county employees that are responding to mandates that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise."

When asked if the county should do without grant funding, Rose answered: "Absolutely."

"To me, there has to a direct public benefit to any grant that's accepted," she said. "Something tangible. Something you can see and feel."

Too often, the county has accepted money to complete studies, she said.

When asked why Republicans had allowed the budget to get out of whack - considering the board of commissioners has long-held a majority from her party - Rose refused to blame her party’s elected leaders in Coupeville.

“I don’t think it matters whether it’s Democrat or Republican that’s in control. All politicians talk small government. But somehow, we just keep on growing.”

“I saw the signatures on that budget,” Rose said, noting that a Democrat was the third vote to approve the county’s most recent budget.

“And that’s one of the things that’s always irritated me, that they work in such unison as a commission, when sometimes it would be good to tell the people the problems that exist by being the person that says, ‘Wait. This isn’t quite right. I’m not going to sign on to this.’

“Wouldn’t that be a nice change?” Rose asked.

Island County has a budget of roughly $73.8 million this year, up from $69 million in 2007, and a work force of more than 400 employees.

Rose said the budget needed more work before it was approved.

“We are in the hole,” she said, stressing that spending is currently outpacing incoming revenue. “To start out without having your budget balanced just doesn’t make good sense to me.”

"Reducing the spending means not taking on new programs that don't serve the public purpose," she explained.

Rose said she didn't know enough about the county's newest program - the mental health initiative approved by commissioners early last year - to say whether she supported the county's increase in sales taxes to fund the program.

"I don't know how the money has been spent or allocated."

"I know some good things have taken place. But I would like to very judiciously look over the health department budget and see if we couldn't provide better health service directly to people," Rose said.

"Without looking at how the money has been spent, I can't say whether it was a good decision or a bad decision."

If elected, Rose said the harsh tone of the campaign should not damage her relationship with the two remaining commissioners.

“I’d like to think that people don’t take issues personally,” she said. “Hopefully, they will sit down and look at the figures a little more carefully.”

Rose repeated her vow to serve only two terms if voters put her in office.

“I don’t believe in professional politics. I don’t like professional politicians; I think most especially, at county level,” Rose said.

“You should get in there, put in our two terms … and go back into the real world. The longer the people the stay in office, the easier it is to spend somebody else’s pocketbook,” she said.

Rose, a real estate agent, was born in Long Beach, Calif. and has been a Clinton resident since 1992. She ran for the District 1 position on the board of commissioner in 2004, but lost.

Rose, the former head of the Libertarian Party in Island County, also vowed to cut regulations.

"Every time we put a new regulation on the books, it adds to the cost of housing," she said. "At the same time, we've acknowledged that we don't have affordable housing."

She said the county's new wetlands regulations are "truly excessive."

Phil Bakke

Bakke has been an employee of Island County for 13 years. The former head of the county’s planning department, he was appointed to the board of commissioners last year when fellow Republican Shelton resigned to take a job in Olympia.

Bakke said he knew he was going to run for the seat when he was appointed.

“I dig public service. It’s a fascinating job, because it is so broad,” he said.

Though Rose has been negative about the current board in her campaign literature - deriding the collection as a reporter, engineer and appointed bureaucrat who "are either unwilling or unable to tackle needed spending cuts" - Bakke said the commissioners’ different skills have complemented each other.

"Reece, I think, runs every time the county commissioner job comes open. She tried to be appointed; she wasn't," he said.

Bakke said county government has moved beyond the stereotypes of the past, something he wants to see continue while on the board. He recalled how he led the “culture shift” in how the county has approached growth-planning issues.

“I was one of the drivers of that, being planning director,” Bakke said.

“And I wanted to be sure that the county continue down that direction, that path, because I think working together as a community, as opposed to working at odds in the community, is the way to get things done. And I think we’ve been doing that for the last 11 months.”

And on the criticism that much of his working life has been on the county’s payroll, Bakke said that was an advantage he had over his opponents.

“I think I’m, at least that I know of, the only county commissioner in Island County who has made it to the commissioner’s spot having had extensive county experience; who knows how the bureaucracy works from the inside, who has hired, fired and disciplined employees using the tools at hand for a public official.”

“When a department head comes and talks about things, or the union comes to talk about contracts … I bring that public sector perspective to it,” Bakke said, adding that makes him unique on the board.

“John and Mac bring a private sector perspective to it. As far as I know, I am the first commissioner who has been in office that brings that type of public sector perspective.

“Some of my opponents think that that’s a gross, grave disadvantage,” Bakke acknowledged. “From their perspective, I haven’t had to make payroll.

“In the traditional sense, I guess there’s some truth to that. But in reality, when you’re a department head, if you don’t meet your budget, it comes out of your own pocket. Unless you get some special dispensation from the board, which I’ve never asked for.”

Bakke agreed that county spending is an issue, and one he was well-suited to handle.

Bakke recalled reductions in past county budgets due to voter-approved initiatives - including a cutback in the planning department in 2002 - and said he was the right person to have in office should tight times return.

“I suspect, as we go into next year’s budget, there’s going be similar types of cutbacks needed. And I think, I know, that having gone through that, will give me a leg up in helping sort through and re-prioritize the things the county should fund,” he said.

"I believe in holding the line on the budget," Bakke added. "I own property in the county; I don't want to pay more property taxes, just like you don't want to. And the same goes for sales tax."

"I'm a fiscal conservative," he said. "I think in county government, that's what it's all about."

Bakke also pushed back strongly against criticism of the county's extensive work to rewrite its regulations covering development on environmentally sensitive lands.

The county's new regulations and related programs are being touted as "outstanding work" by state agencies and others, including the Washington Farm Bureau, Bakke said.

Though some are criticizing the county's rules for building on lands that have wetlands, Bakke said the county's extensive study on wetlands provided the needed science that led to development rules being relaxed on many properties. People who say the new rules are tougher don't know what they're talking about.

"It's very site-specific," he said, unlike the old code that had a one-size-fits-all approach.

"In the case of Island County, we're adapting the regulations to the situations that are on the ground."

The regulations are complex, "but it also helps prevent over-regulating," he said.

Bakke said his background in planning and development has helped the board of commissioners make better decisions. That's been vital this past year as the county has updated its critical-areas regulations.

"I believe in community planning; particularly in a community as unique as these two islands," he said.

Bakke said he wasn't surprised at the number of candidates in the race. He recalled Shelton's first shot at commissioner, when there were five candidates.

"It's not unusual. But I welcome the competition. Why not?"

Bakke said the position was largely viewed as an open seat after Shelton stepped down.

"I'm not going to profess to have all the answers," he added. "Maybe the public will think one of the other people would be better. I don't think so. If I did, I wouldn't be running."

"I'm going to trust the voters to make the right decision. What the outcome is going to be, who knows?" Bakke said.

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