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Commissioner silent after conflict-of-interest claim

Concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest, Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson has decided to go mum about the raging dispute in Diking District 1.

The reason? Her family’s construction company is building a house for one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed this month against the diking district and the county. Diking district commissioners pointed to the project as a conflict of interest for the South End commissioner after she sided with the district’s critics just before the lawsuit was filed.

Price Johnson said there is no conflict.

“Though I do not see any actual conflict of interest,” she said in a statement released late Friday,

“I believe it would be prudent to avoid even the appearance of a conflict, and to exercise an abundance of caution.”

Price Johnson said she would no longer comment on or make decisions concerning the diking district while the lawsuit is pending.

The commissioner said Monday that she reached her decision after reviewing documents and consulting with Island County Prosecuting Attorney Greg Banks.

“It’s better to excuse myself,” she said.

The development came after Price Johnson had fired off a letter to diking commissioners earlier this month, all but telling them to get their house in order.

Meanwhile, diking commissioner John Shepard ramped up his campaign against fellow commissioners Steve Arnold and Ray Gabelein.

In e-mails to the state Attorney General’s Office, Shepard accused Arnold and Gabelein of “self dealing and misuse of public funds” and called for an investigation into their “corruption.”

Arnold and Gabelein continue to deny Shepard’s long-simmering accusations, and maintain Shepard, recently named to the board of

commissioners, doesn’t fully understand the workings of the district.

Those are the latest wrinkles in the contentious saga of the drainage district surrounding Deer Lagoon. The dispute was ignited by the installation late last year of a new pump to handle increased stormwater runoff.

Some residents of the district contend assessments for the $430,000 pump project are inequitable, and that the project was pushed through by the diking commissioners, the county and Useless Bay Golf & Country Club without proper notification to residents.

The subject of a possible conflict of interest regarding Price Johnson was raised in an Oct. 21 letter to her signed by Arnold, chairman of the diking commission.

Arnold was responding to Price Johnson’s own pointed letter to the diking commissioners dated Oct. 5.

Reacting to a river of complaints from disgruntled diking district residents, Price Johnson scolded the commissioners to work with state agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers to determine the correct water level for the wetlands.

“The actions of your commission have promoted unnecessary removal of surface water,” Price Johnson wrote. “It is in the public interest that better protection be afforded this precious resource.”

“It is essential that all of us strive to be good stewards of the land,” she added.

In his reply, an irritated Arnold said the diking district was following state and federal permit requirements to the letter in regard to the pumping of water.

He also questioned Price Johnson’s authority to intervene in the business of the diking district, a separate governmental entity, and demanded that she produce proof that the district is mishandling management of the wetlands, and that improprieties have occurred.

Arnold also brought up the issue of a conflict of interest, noting the county commissioner’s family firm, Price Johnson Construction, is the contractor for Robert and Judith Windquist’s house at Sunlight Beach.

Judith Windquist is listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed Oct. 9 in Island County Superior Court by Citizens In Support of Useless Bay Community (CSUBC), a group of property owners within the diking district. Windquist is a director of CSUBC.

The suit demands, among other things, that collection of assessments for the pump be halted until the questions raised in the lawsuit are resolved.

As for Shepard’s latest salvo: In correspondence with Timothy Ford, assistant state attorney general for government accountability, he requested that Ford look into a conservation easement Gabelein negotiated with the nonprofit Whidbey Camano Land Trust.

Late last year, Gabelein and his family turned over 54 acres of farm land next to Dear Lagoon to the land trust, safeguarding it from future development.

Shepard also wrote Ford that diking commissioners have violated state election laws by failing to maintain correct assessment rolls and by inadequate notification to voters.

Gabelein and Arnold have for months challenged Shepard to prove his allegations.

Since he joined the board this year, Shepard and CSUBC have relentlessly pushed for ways to discredit Gabelein and Arnold, digging through past election records and other district documents that involve the county and the country club.

Shepard’s wife, Coyla, is a director of CSUBC.

In his letter to Price Johnson, Arnold rebutted point by point the contention that the district was mishandling the wetlands. And he noted that the Shepards and several other members of CSUBC are relative newcomers to the district and not familiar with its history.

“We have gone above and beyond researching the wetland area, learning its history, the nature of the flooded areas and the best and most effective ways of preventing flooding while preserving eco-wetland and water habitat,” Arnold wrote.

Arnold and Gabelein say the new pump is necessary during peak storm periods because of increased runoff caused by recent development and a swelling population in the area.

But Arnold said in his letter to Price Johnson that the water level in the ditch is the same now as it was before the pump was installed, and that the new pump itself hasn’t been turned on since March.

“We have openly and honestly looked at all avenues that would best serve Diking District 1,” Arnold wrote.

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