Diking District 1 opponents win majority on board | UPDATE

COUPEVILLE — The critics of Diking District 1’s controversial pump project will soon be in control of the district’s board of commissioners.

Tom Kraft has an insurmountable lead in votes, 232-105, over incumbent Diking Commissioner Ray Gabelein for a seat on the three-member board.

Island County officials wrapped up their tally of ballots in Tuesday’s diking district election Wednesday.

“I look forward to working hard to make the workings of Diking District 1 transparent and responsive to the needs of our district,” Kraft said.

“I sincerely look to be responsive to everyone’s best interests, and that we operate not only to the letter of the law, but also to the spirit of the law.”

Officials will finalize the election Feb. 16. The elections office will count any valid ballots that are received before the certification date, and also decide the fate of a single ballot where the signature of the voter did not match the one on file with the state. Officials hoped to contact that voter late Wednesday.

Kraft, a Seattle resident, is one of the opponents of the assessment process used by the diking district to pay for a controversial $430,000 pump that is used to regulate water levels in drainage ditches that feed wetlands near Useless Bay.

Some of the residents of the diking district, including Kraft, are suing the district in Island County Superior Court to have the assessments overturned. Critics say the assessments were unfairly calculated, and that owners of expensive beachfront homes are paying more for the pump than other residents because the assessments are based on property value.

Gabelein, one of two board members who supported the pump project, said the pump has kept properties from flooding within the district. He has been on the diking board since 2004, and this election was the first time he’s had an opponent for a seat on the board.

Diking Commissioner John Shepard, who has also opposed the assessments to pay for the pump and has participated in legal action against the district, watched the vote tally in Coupeville on Wednesday.

He traded concerned glances with a fellow district resident as Island County Auditor Sheilah Crider and other election workers reviewed questionable ballots — many from off-island property owners who could vote in the election — and rejected more than two dozen of them.

At the end, Shepard said he was happy with the results, which had given Kraft 67 percent of the vote.

“I’m very pleased with the outcome,” Shepard said. “I think the public has made an excellent choice.”

Shepard couldn’t say what would happen with the controversial pump, installed in December 2008.

“I’m not certain; that will have to be decided by the commissioners at their meeting,” he said.

A total of 29 ballots were rejected, many because the names of the voters did not match the list of local voters or the names of people who own property in the district.

Two ballots from the estate of Eva Mae Gabelein were also set aside.

Crider noted that “personal representatives” of property owners were not eligible to vote.

“A trust may not vote,” she said.

Two ballots that were postmarked after the election date were also rejected.

Gabelein said he hoped critics of the district would drop their lawsuit.

“I wish the district the best and I have no regrets,” Gabelein said.

In hindsight, Gabelein would have tried to convince more residents to come to the diking district when the controversial pump project was discussed years ago, he said.

“Today, I would vote for the pump project just as I did then,” Gabelein said.

“I’m hoping the lawsuit that Kraft and Shepard and others have against the district goes away,” Gabelein said, adding that it didn’t make sense for neighbors to be suing neighbors over the dispute.

Gabelein, who has spent the past 30 years as a civic and community volunteer, said he was ready to take a pause before considering his next volunteer work.

“I might just take a break from that for a couple of years,” he said, but noted he would still watch the diking district’s operations, though from the sidelines.

“Being a conservative Republican on South Whidbey is the definition of an endangered species,” he added.