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Helen Price Johnson makes history: Becomes first woman commissioner in Island County history

Helen Price Johnson and Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson listen to Commissioner Mac McDowell during the Island County Council of Governments meeting Wednesday. - Brian Kelly / The Record
Helen Price Johnson and Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson listen to Commissioner Mac McDowell during the Island County Council of Governments meeting Wednesday.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

COUPEVILLE — Island County’s highest and sturdiest glass ceiling was shattered this week when Helen Price Johnson was sworn in as Island County Commissioner for District 1.

In a jubilant ceremony Tuesday, Price Johnson became the first woman member of the Island County Board of Commissioners in the county’s 155-year history. She’ll represent the South End.

While county voters for years have supported women candidates for state office, and women have been prominent in other county posts, no women have previously been elected to the county commission since it’s inception in 1853, although they’ve tried.

“I’m not sure why it took so long,” Price Johnson, of Clinton, said shortly after taking the oath of office from Island Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock. “But I’m glad we’ve finally done it, and that now we can move on.”

“I think I bring a fresh perspective,” Price Johnson said. “And it’s not just because of gender,” she added, referring to her years on the South Whidbey school board and other community involvement.

Price Johnson, 50, a Democrat, became the first woman member of the board of commissioners since the county was established. She defeated incumbent Republican Phil Bakke in November’s general election.

Bakke had been appointed to the post, so Price Johnson was sworn in soon after the election results were certified Tuesday.

In January, another woman will join the board of commissioners. Democrat Angie Homola defeated longtime incumbent Republican Mac McDowell for the District 2 seat. The race, decided by a mere 60 votes, is subject to a hand recount on Dec. 1.

That leaves John Dean the only remaining male member of the group as of January. Democrats will hold every seat, another first in the county’s history.

“When two women join the board of Island County Commissioners, Island County will never be the same again,” predicted Marshall Goldberg, chairman of the county Democratic Party.

Price Johnson said she looks forward to working with Homola, but added that she, McDowell and Dean still have a lot of work to do before January. Much work will revolve around the budget, as the county is facing a $2 million budget hole and layoffs that will mean the elimination of 25 county jobs.

“They’ve been very congenial with me,” Price Johnson said of her male counterparts. She added that she wanted to thank Phil Bakke for his many years of service to Island County.

An upbeat crowd of more than 130 friends, family and well-wishers jammed Hancock’s courtroom for the swearing-in. Many still wore Price Johnson campaign buttons.

The crowd overflowed the spectator area and spilled into the jury box.

“Has the jury reached a verdict?” Hancock joked as he took his seat. After some brief remarks about how government is most involved and works best on the local level, he added: “To show we all make mistakes, I left the oaths of office in my chambers. Excuse me.”

The delay was welcomed by those still 20-deep outside the Law and Justice Building who were trying to get past the metal detector at the door.

Cheers greeted each person who managed to get through without setting off the beeper.

“I think they ought to take their shoes off, too,” joked one man who was already past the detector.

“Don’t go there,” chided someone waiting on the other side.

“I’m not pulling this shift again,” said Ron Roberts, manager of Olympic Security, who was manning the detector by himself. “We weren’t warned about this, or we would have brought in another person. Better tell the judge he’s going to have to hold off.”

Bakke, meanwhile, was across the street, cleaning out his office.

“Freedom!” Bakke shouted with a laugh as a reporter poked a head inside.

The room was stark in its emptiness; everything had been taken from the walls; the shelves and desktops, clean and clear. It looked more like a vacant prison cell, with a phone, than a commissioner’s office.

Every countertop was bare, except for one where a wire basket sat, holding a booklet entitled “The Appearance of Fairness Doctrine in Washington State.”

Bakke pulled a card out of the top desk drawer with the word “Helen” written in his handwriting and placed it on the desktop. He picked up a shrink-wrapped case of big plastic bottles of diet Lipton green tea from a cabinet, and walked out.

Back in the courtroom, Price Johnson raised her right hand as Hancock administered the oath of office.

“I do,” she said when the judge had finished. There was a standing ovation from the crowd that lasted more than a minute.

“My kids are really excited about this,” Price Johnson had said before the ceremony. “They told me they’re very proud of their mom.”

“They were a big reason why I decided to run,” she added. “We have to work for our children and grandchildren.”

Price Johnson ran as an outsider, frequently noting at campaign appearances how she wouldn’t fit into the “good old boy” culture that some see as prevalent in the county seat in Coupeville.

Other issues in the race included the county budget, affordable housing, pollution in Holmes Harbor and Bakke’s vow of “no new taxes.”

Bakke, 38, ran largely on his bureaucratic experience in Coupeville, where he served for 12 years as head of the county planning department before he was appointed to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Republican Mike Shelton.

Price Johnson has been a member of the South Whidbey school board since 2001 and was president of the board from 2003 through 2005.

She touted her wide-ranging involvement in the community and her small business background experience with Price/Johnson Construction, the home-building company she owns with her husband, Dave.

She dominated in the four-way primary race in August, collecting 46 percent of the vote over Bakke, Republican Reece Rose and no-party candidate Curt Gordon.

Bakke, by contrast, struggled for the second spot on the November ballot. He finally advanced after edging Gordon by 52 votes to land on the ballot.

In the courtroom, the crowd was wildly enthusiastic about Price Johnson joining the commission.

“As a young woman, it’s wonderful to see a woman taking an active role in county government,” said Courtney Jones.

Fresh off her victory as campaign manager for Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, who was in the crowd, Jones said a change is in the wind.

“The good old boy politics in the county seem to be a thing of the past,” she said.

Haugen said she was delighted to be on hand.

“The first woman sworn in as county commissioner; this is a historic day on many levels,” she said.

“There were rumors she might be interested in running,” said fellow commissioner Dean. “With her background as businesswoman and work on the school board, she’ll be good in this role; she has the right personality.”

Dean said his only advice would be for Price Johnson to take three months to learn how the organization works.

“It takes time to become acclimated to this job, so the staff and department heads are the ones she can rely on. They’re all extremely good people,” Dean added.

County assessor and fellow Democrat Dave Mattens agreed, saying Price Johnson is a “people person” and that’s what the county needed.

“As I learned more about her, I became encouraged by the possibilities that Helen could bring to the county,” he said.

Price Johnson’s father, Charlton Price, said that no one in the family had ever served as a paid elected official before.

Price watched as his daughter came into the courtroom and immediately began to work the crowd, thanking her friends and supporters.

“Wow, look at all the people in this room,” he said.

“Helen got her real DNA from her mother, Virginia, and there’s a lot of her there,” Price said. “She has integrity, stamina and a sense of responsibility to the community that will serve her and the county very well.”

The chairman of the Whidbey Island Democratic Club said she wouldn’t have missed the day for anything.

“My grandson went to South Whidbey High School and I had the chance to see Helen in action as a school board member,” Shirley Bennett recalled.

“I was impressed with her ability to express herself,” she said. “When I heard she was running, I knew this was a person I could support. I was thrilled.”

Bennett said she hasn’t offered any advice but if asked, she’d keep it simple.

“I’d tell her to keep on doing what she’s been doing and everything will work out fine,” she said.

Ron Wilkinson was so taken with the candidate, he hosted a coffee meeting for her.

“Her background is good; she knows business and helped the school board get itself out of a financial mess,” he said. “The one thing I found was that she has the ability to be a good listener, something county government has needed for a long time.”

After the ceremony, most of the crowd went across the street for a reception and more talk with Price Johnson about county history and destiny.

What’s her next move?

“My first meeting’s tomorrow morning,” Price Johnson said. “Tonight, I’m off to my daughter’s soccer banquet.”

The morning after her swearing-in, Price Johnson attended her first Island County Council of Governments meeting as a county commissioner.

It was a meaty agenda. The council, which includes elected officials from Langley, Coupeville, Oak Harbor, Island County and the South Whidbey and Coupeville port districts, discussed how it would allocate rural county economic development funds for 2008, but noted that enough funds weren’t available for the council to meet the commitments it had already made. Next up was a briefing from state lawmakers on the next legislative session.

Wednesday afternoon, Price Johnson attended her first commissioners’ meeting, where commissioners discussed how to handle the $2 million gap in next year’s county budget.

Price Johnson fit easily into the collegial feel on the board of commissioners.

As they waited for McDowell to return from a dentist’s appointment, Dean reminded Price Johnson that they would have to speak carefully when talking about the budget.

“We won’t say anything like, ‘It’s like pulling teeth,’” Dean joked.

She looked down at the 2009 budget on the desk in front of her, which filled a white binder almost four inches thick.

“I thought I’d just speed read,” she quipped to Dean.

“Good luck,” he said.

Price Johnson took an active part in the budget discussions, from the use of fees to maintain existing programs, to cuts that were necessary due to next year’s budget deficit.

She raised concerns about the increase in building fees when talk turned to the county planning department, but acknowledged some fees would need to be increased.

“It does make sense to cover the cost of the yellow signs,” she said.

Commissioners tentatively decided to limit layoffs next year to 25 positions, and work on the budget will continue on Dec. 1 when the county holds a hearing and adopts next year’s spending plan.

Roy Jacobson can be reached at 221-5300 or rjacobson@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

Record writers Brian Kelly and Jeff VanDerford contributed to this story.

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