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South End voters forums finish with a flourish

Voters forums on the South End finished with a feisty flourish this week, with Port of South Whidbey candidate Ed Jenkins accusing Langley officials of running an "inbred" monarchy that stifles dissent.

Candidates for four local South End offices met the voters in Langley and Clinton on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in the last scheduled political forums before the Nov. 3 General Election.

In Langley, two candidates for Langley City Council, a target of Jenkins' verbal arrows, and four candidates for two South Whidbey school board positions spoke at South Whidbey Elementary School on Tuesday night.

On Wednesday night at Clinton Community Hall, the school board hopefuls were joined by Jenkins and two other candidates for the Clinton position on the Port of South Whidbey recently vacated by Lynae Slinden.

Before a crowd of roughly 40 at Clinton, Jenkins professed his love for Langley. For city officials, not so much.

"What I hear consistently is that nothing really gets done. Things are in an endless committee," Jenkins said. "And if you're not part of the monarchy that runs the city, like a revolving door, then you're out in the cold. Everybody is afraid to speak up, so they kind of run things by intimidation."

"What are we going to do to keep people here, and coming back, and utilizing Langley?" Jenkins asked. "We need to get people in there that are not afraid, aren't intimidated, aren't part of this inbred roundtable of people filling in the same spots with the same things and everybody hanging onto power like it's their life."

Jenkins' harsh words for the city did not seem off-the-cuff. They echoed comments he made in a position paper that he distributed at the meeting, which criticized the city for "blunders that seem to come so naturally to the Langley monarchy." The paper was titled "Candidate Ed Jenkins tells it like he sees it."

His opponents for the Position 3 seat on the port board — Curt Gordon and Mona Newbauer — stayed out of the fray, though Gordon offered a simple assessment afterward.

"Whoa. That was interesting," he said, drawing laughs from the audience.

For the most part, the three port candidates stuck to the economy issue that has dominated the campaign.

Gordon vowed to work on transportation issues as a port commissioner, and help local businesses become sustainable. He promised to work to improve the business climate across the South End.

Newbauer pointed to her background as a small business owner in Langley, and her skills at working cooperatively with others.

Jenkins, however, decried the calls for greater partnerships. He noted he wasn't a "perennial candidate" — a not-so-subtle dig at Gordon, a former park board member who ran unsuccessfully last year for county commissioner — and wondered aloud if his opponents were indebted to their supporters because they had raised money for campaign signs. He pushed himself as an outsider to the status quo, and promised to be the voice for voters who don't live in Langley.

"We have a city that has a problem with businesses, keeping businesses and promoting business. And not screwing things up when they do anything at all," he added.

A quieter start

The forum began on a much more congenial note, with candidates for two positions on the South Whidbey School Board praising others in the race and the work done every day in South End classrooms.

In the race for Position 4 on the board, Leigh Anderson is seeking to retain her seat against a challenge by Leo Langer IV.

Jill Engstrom, who, like Anderson, was appointed to her seat on the board, is running for the Position 5 seat against Tom Fisher.

“I really believe that public education is one of the most important things that we can do as a society,” Anderson said.

“If we don’t do a good job of teaching our kids, there’s a lot of other things we can’t do.”

If voters keep her on the school board, Anderson said she would focus on improving students’ math achievement, technology in the classrooms, and other improvements on teaching and learning.

“I would like to see us build a stronger job skills program,” she added. “Not all kids necessarily want to go to college, and it would be great if they graduated with something that they could get a job with.”

Langer told voters it would be an honor to serve as a school board member.

“I feel we have an absolutely amazing staff,” he said. “I believe I know and understand the pulse of our employees and the families on the South End. And I am completely approachable."

Engstrom stressed accountability. Communication is one area for improvement, she said, but there were others.

"We need to improve our transparency," she said.

Fisher underscored the importance of the curriculum, and noted that students need to learn a broad range of skills.

He also said the district made a rushed judgement to close Langley Middle School, but added that the district's financial challenges should not jeopardize the quality of education it offers to students.

On one of the district's earlier controversies - high school visits by military recruiters - the candidates each agreed that military recruiters should have the same access given to college officials and other businesses.

Back in langley

In Langley on Tuesday, city council Position 2 incumbent Russell Sparkman and challenger Thomas Gill spoke and fielded questions from a sparse crowd.

Sparkman, appointed last year to fill the unexpired term of Neil Colburn, is seeking his first full four-year term on the council.

Gill, a political newcomer, is a South Whidbey native and 2001 graduate of South Whidbey High School.

Sparkman described himself as an "accidental politician" who was encouraged to join the five-member city council after having served on the city's Planning Advisory Board.

He said he became taken with the governmental process, and "I'd like to build on that invaluable experience."

Gill, a computer technician at Whidbey Telecom, said Langley "has gotten a bad rap" as being a city of exclusion.

"Id like it to be an open and friendly place for people to be, work and play," he said. "I don't see that we're working on that right now."

Gill said he's currently living with his parents, "because I can't find affordable housing in Langley." He suggested that vacant downtown buildings might be converted into temporary or transitional housing.

"That area needs to be multi-use, in building, living and working," he said.

Sparkman said he doubted such a use of vacant buildings "would be a viable option."

Sparkman, a former dive-boat skipper who runs an Internet media consulting company from his home, said the key to growth in Langley is "to create better than living-wage jobs so people can afford to live here."

He said high-tech telecommuting may be the way to go, noting that at least five families in his neighborhood are doing just that, avoiding daily off-island travel.

"We need to incubate those kinds of businesses," Sparkman said.

Gill said Langley's tax base is "too small for the big ideas the city has."

"We need to expand the population," he said. "Unless Langley grows, we're going to have an island like Mercer Island, nothing but big houses and urban sprawl."

Meanwhile, Gill said, the city should live within its means in these difficult economic times, and avoid raising fees "in one fell swoop," as he said was done last spring with the stormwater rate schedule.

Sparkman said the stormwater rate hike was unavoidable. "We have to make the hard choices," he said of the city council.

Both candidates urged that Langley Middle School, which the school district plans to close in 2011, be retained for purposes of art, culture and education.

Both candidates said the students and faculty of the school will be missed, both by residents and businesses.

"It would be nice to turn a lemon into lemonade," Sparkman said.

Gill said he would go further, for example opening the school's three gymnasiums to public use.

"We have a big problem of nothing to do," he said. "This would give us something to do."

Both candidates urged continued cooperation between the city and the port district for smooth development of Langley Marina.

"I'd like to see that partnership continue," Sparkman said.

As for the future, Gill said affordable housing and a diverse population is the key.

"Let's keep the city growing, and keep life flowing," he said.

Langley City Council members hold staggered four-year terms. The positions are unpaid, but members receive $50 per month for expenses.

Council members Rene Neff and Robert Gilman are also on the November ballot, but are unopposed.

Tuesday's forum was sponsored by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters; Wednesday's was sponsored by the Clinton Progressive Association and the Clinton Chamber of Commerce.

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