Stark contrast in battle over District 2 seat
October 25, 2008 · Updated 12:45 PM
Two candidates with a very different vision of where the county has been, and is going, are battling for the District 2 position on the Island County Board of Commissioners.
So far, most of the punches have been thrown by Angie Homola, the scrappy newcomer to county politics. The Oak Harbor Democrat is taking her first shot at elected office, and is hoping to unseat Republican Commissioner Mac McDowell, the incumbent who has held the position for 16 years.
“I will serve the needs of the greater public, not the pockets of the few. I will provide leadership to support the needs of our greater public with a vision of where we want to go as a community, and to make those goals a reality,” Homola said.
County commissioners set policy, hold public hearings, adopt ordinances and pass an annual budget. Commissioners are paid an annual salary of $74,758, plus benefits and an $800-a-month car allowance.
Homola, an architect who moved to Whidbey in 1997 when her husband came here as a Navy pilot, made a strong showing against McDowell in the August primary, picking up 43 percent of the vote in an area that historically has tilted strongly to the right.
She has grown increasingly critical of McDowell as the campaign comes to a close, recently accusing the incumbent of a “record of broken trust.” Homola has leveled charges that range from saying McDowell has used “strong-arm tactics” to keep members of the committee for Ebey’s Landing reserve in line, and “gerrymandering” district boundaries in 2001 to keep his two waterfront “Mac mansions” in his district.
Most of her campaign, however, has centered on improvements within the planning department. A primary focus of Homola’s campaign has been improving county communication with the public, particularly on land-use matters. Public notification must be effective, she said.
“We need transparency in government so government can remain accountable,” Homola said. “The first priority is probably to provide effective public notification and encourage public participation. Public participation assures accountability and fairness.”
Homola said she became interested in running for commissioner after she became involved in the fight against the expansion of Oak Harbor’s urban-growth area. She raised concerns at the time that the potential increase in impervious surfaces — roads, parking lots, roofs — from new development on the edge of Oak Harbor would mean polluted stormwater would flow into sensitive north-end estuaries, and particularly Swan Lake.
Homola, 49, looks back on her activist efforts with pride, and said that that experience will help her on the board of commissioners.
“I think that my efforts to work as an activist are to bring balance. What‘s there now tends to be way on one side. I‘ve brought in the concerns of many people,” she said. “I think I have brought balance to the table and to work in a conciliatory way to meet the needs of everyone.”
“I will serve the needs of the greater public, not the pockets of the few,” Homola added. “I will provide leadership to support the needs of our greater public with a vision of where we want to go as a community, and to make those goals a reality.”
During the campaign, she has targeted McDowell over the “accident potential zone,” or APZ, near Naval Air Station Whidbey Island that put land-use restrictions on 1,178 properties. Homola said the county failed to adequately inform the public about what proposed regulations would mean for property owners.
The regulations “grandfathered” existing buildings, activities and uses, but prohibited new schools, churches, day cares, bed-and-breakfasts, campgrounds and other similar uses from being built in the zone where Navy aircraft might crash.
“I would have voted differently over the APZ and differently over the wetlands ordinance,” she said, adding that she would have closed the loopholes in the recently adopted regulations.
“The problem is, his job, as I see it, is to write loopholes in our regulations that pave the way for development,” she said of McDowell.
And she vowed to give a fresh look at recently adopted rules that restrict development on properties that have wetlands.
“I think it needs to be revisited,” she said, adding that it lacked a wetlands banking program and has other problems. “I think we can do a better job.”
Her vision for the future, Homola said, is a sustainable, healthier Island County that still provides the current quality of life for residents but maintains its rural character while providing business opportunities that are appropriate, given the constraints of Whidbey and Camano islands.
It’s a stark difference from that of her opponent, she said.
“I think he has become someone who is serving in a manner that is benefitting a few financially in the community over the needs of the greater public,” Homola said.
The county has been too focused on growth as a source of revenue, she said.
“His whole basis for our financial security ... is based almost solely on growth, which is fiscally reckless. We’re experiencing that now. What we’re having is new construction to fill the coffers; when the new construction stops, we don’t have anything filling the coffers any more.
“Placing our whole future on rampant and uncontrolled growth is not a wise financial plan. We must find alternative ways of bringing in revenue here that are appropriate to our island’s limits,” she said.
Homola said that means adopting growth parameters that are sustainable, and a population target that can be supported with water, emergency services and other vital needs.
McDowell, 62, said the tone of the debate had not changed his reelection bid. He said his campaign has kept it clean.
“I choose to run an above-board, positive campaign. There’s not one thing out there as far as I know from anybody; anything negative.
“It’s just not out there; it just doesn’t exist. I just have never run my campaigns that way.”
He said he hasn’t given much thought to the missives fired his way during the campaign. When someone handed him a flier from the Homola campaign just before a recent forum, he read only a line or two before crumpling up the paper in his hand.
“It doesn’t bother me because I know it’s not true,” McDowell said.
“I have no idea whose pockets I’m supposed to be enriching.”
He said Homola has frequently, intentionally or unintentionally, disregarded the facts on issues she has raised. The “gerrymandering” claim is one such example, he said.
“Angie has plenty of times been to the county with public records requests, including our office. She knows how to get access to the records.
“The record is very clear on this,” he said, adding that the county auditor and the county’s central services department led the effort to redraw commissioner districts after the 2000 Census.
The auditor provided three options, and each one included moving McDowell’s land at Polnell on North Whidbey into his district.
McDowell said there were not two homes on his Polnell property at the time of redistricting, just a 1,200-square-foot getaway home — two bedrooms, one bath — that could hardly have been considered a mansion.
“People will make up their minds about what kind of personality they want as county commissioner,” he said. “Mine is one of competence, and someone who doesn’t get easily excited. And when I do research on something, I do it correctly. Versus somebody who at best doesn’t know how to research something thoroughly or accurately, or worse, is incorrectly reporting the facts.”
She has also misrepresented his “soldiers should follow orders” comments on the Ebey’s Landing committee, McDowell said, and has been portraying a statement he made to the Whidbey News-Times as something he said to volunteers on the committee.
That’s not the case, he said.
“It was my point that if an employee or someone working as an agent for the county cannot accept the advice of the county prosecutor, whose job it is to protect the county, then they should probably not stay on as an employee or a volunteer.
“When you get to the point that you’re so far over that you can’t accept anybody’s opinion other than your own ... your one choice left is really to quit. What else are you going to do? I don’t see that you have a lot of options left,” McDowell said.
“People just need to decide on the vote what kind of personality they want. High-energy words versus just stating the facts,” he said.
McDowell said that though the county received much criticism on the pace of its growth planning, it was the first county to get both a comprehensive plan finished along with a new set of development regulations that fit with the long-range plan.
“We got a lot of criticism for taking so long, but the truth is we were the first to finish,” he said.
And he praised the work done to help farmers through the county’s recent rewrite of its agriculture rules.
“We are learning balance. The same thing can be said for our wetlands ordinance,” he said.
State agencies support the rules, and the builders that have to deal with the rules do, too.
“Somehow we’ve learned how to do balance in this county. To me, that’s a huge thing.”
He said total agreement, however, was out of reach, mentioning the environmental activist group that bird-dogs the county on land-use issues.
“Can we balance with WEAN? Never, I don’t think so.
“They said during the wetlands ordinance, before they had even read it, ‘We haven’t seen it yet, but we’re pretty sure we’re going to sue.’ There is no working with a group like that,” he said. “But for everybody else, we’ve learned how to do balance, and I think that’s a huge accomplishment.”
WEAN, the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, is challenging the wetlands rules in court. Rewriting the wetlands rules would be a mistake, McDowell said.
“I think it’s an ideal ordinance. Look at the agencies that have said it’s good, look at the side that has to live with it. Why would I want to change it?”
It’s a better approach, he added, than the set of rules originally suggested by the state. Island County hired its own scientists and completed its own studies as the basis for the new regulations, which will be applied differently to different properties because each parcel has different conditions.
“Ours fits the land better. Ours is designed to fit a piece of property; it’s not just a generic, one-size-fits-all,” McDowell said, adding that it could become a model for other jurisdictions.
“I think we have some good stuff here that I think, given time, other counties will adopt,” he said.
McDowell, a former Navy pilot who became a civil engineer near the close of his military career, also disputes the claim the county is besieged by runaway development.
“To me, development is the creation of new lots,” he said, adding that the county hit its high point in the 1960s and ’70s, when 400 to 600 new lots were created every year. That number dropped into the mid-200s in the 1980s, McDowell said.
“And it’s now down to 65, and most of those are mom-and-pop short plats. That’s where development has gone. It has dropped tremendously.
“To say that I’m a developer and encourage development, that’s just not true,” he said. “I will protect everybody’s right to use their existing lot as they see fit, and I believe in property rights. Subdividing is not a property right.”
On the APZ issue, McDowell said the county would be rightly criticized if it allowed the development of a high-density use within the zone, such as a school, and a crash occurred.
The work to protect the Navy base from encroachment is vital to keeping the air station off federal closure lists in the future. With more than 10,000 jobs, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is crucial to the county’s economy.
McDowell said he has fought to keep jobs here — he has been instrumental in keeping the Navy base from closing, in part because of his extensive contacts back east on military matters — and said he has been bringing more work here.
“I’ve been able to convince business to come here,” he said.
The incumbent acknowledged his reputation as being fiscally conservative, but he noted with pride his effort to start a visiting nursing program, and the tax increase that created funds for addressing mental-health issues such as drug addiction and alcoholism.
“Everybody says McDowell won’t spend a dime,” he said. “I went along and very much supported the mental health initiative, which was a brand-new tax.”
“I’m just not blind, saying we’re going to cut, cut, cut or not spend. I’m very cognizant of the issues throughout the county, and I react accordingly.”
McDowell said he is proud of his record, which includes a new and renovated county campus in Coupeville, more deputies on patrol and the addition of thousands of acres of recreational land to public ownership.
“All those things done without any new taxes is a huge accomplishment,” he said.