Citizens: Don’t punish town for exercising free speech

Valentine’s Day was anything but sweet at an Island County commissioners’ meeting this past Tuesday following comments about a proposed increase in Navy EA-18G Growler landing practices at Outlying Field Coupeville.

Three Coupeville residents said during public comment that they were displeased that two commissioners denied a Coupeville economic development grant because of perceived “anti-Navy” discussions of Coupeville officials and residents.

The residents said they were referring to a Whidbey News-Times article reporting that commissioners Jill Johnson and Rick Hannold took offense at recent Coupeville council member comments regarding the Navy’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, or DEIS, for the proposed jet flight increase.

Hannold had also questioned Coupeville Mayor Molly Hughes’ decision to conduct independent testing of water wells that the Navy is also checking for possible contamination from harmful firefighting foam.

Christie Sears said she is dismayed that government officials, who typically promote active participation in government affairs, would punish people for doing just that. Sears, who serves on the Coupeville School Board, said she was speaking as a private citizen and is unaffiliated with any group on either side of the jet issue.

“With your stated reasons for rejecting this grant, it appears that some citizens who do actively participate now find their community punished because their views differ from your personal views,” Sears said.

“Are you really promoting active participation or threatening repercussions if the participation is not to your liking?”

The $600,000 grant from the rural county economic development funds would improve a 3.9 acre community space in the town center.

Lori Taylor, who represents Coupeville Community Allies, also addressed the board, expressing her disappointment “for the threat of retaliatory action, not only to the town, but to the members of the council who serve on nonprofit organizations.”

“In addition to the economic impact of your decisions on our community, we believe these comments have a chilling effect on the DEIS process and make citizens and organizations question whether it is safe to participate in the only public input period they have,” Taylor told the commissioners.

The Navy is taking public comment on the DEIS until Feb. 24.

Referring to a recent Coupeville council workshop, during which members discussed the possible economic impact of increased jet noise over the rural Coupeville lifestyle, Johnson said that elected officials should have anticipated that their public comments would have consequences.

Johnson said she’s received many messages from business leaders in Oak Harbor who expressed fear and concern over the perceived negative stance on the Navy by Central Whidbey. Some Coupeville officials have said they are willing to support some increase in jet activity, but not the 50- to 80-percent increase proposals.

Port of Coupeville Commissioners also stated in a letter to the Navy that they don’t want flight increases over 20 percent at OLF Coupeville.

“What it sounds like to business owners in Oak Harbor is; ‘We don’t want them at all,’” Johnson said.

Even prior to the recent round of rancor, Johnson said that she wasn’t planning to support moving Coupeville’s economic grant to a full vote of the board of commissioners.

“I wasn’t going to vote for it anyway,” she said. “There’s just not any interest in moving that grant forward.”

Commissioner Rick Hannold reiterated his dismay over Coupeville spending tax dollars to duplicate the Navy’s water testing.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, who represents South Whidbey, said she wanted everyone to be able to speak freely and without fear.

“We are called to make sure our (comments ) don’t have the chilling effect on each other’s freedom of speech rights,” Price Johnson said. “I would hope we won’t use tax dollars to stifle conversations or public comment.”

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