Politics split commissioner candidates
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
October 5, 2010 · Updated 4:00 PM
Politically and philosophically, there’s a chasm dividing the two candidates running for the Island County District 3 commissioner position.
Commissioner John Dean, a Camano Island resident, is a moderate Democrat and, as the incumbent, an insider in county politics.
Kelly Emerson, a Camano Island resident challenging Dean, is a Republican and one of the very earliest members of the Tea Party. She is the outsider who’s never held an elected position.
Still, neither candidate fits the stereotypes neatly.
Emerson, as an electrician, is a member and beneficiary of a liberal-leaning union. She doesn’t hesitate to spread the blame to former Republican county commissioners for spending and taxes that she sees as excessive. In fact, she hasn’t always been a Republican.
“I’ve been a Democrat as many years as I’ve been a Republican,” she said.
Dean has criticized Emerson’s ideas, claiming “her motivation is to overthrow government.” Yet Emerson said she feels that some level of county government is necessary, as is some quality-of-life spending for things like parks.
“I think we should have parks. I do,” she said, but added that the county does seem to have an awful lot of parkland.
On the other side, Emerson has criticized Dean for cutting funding to the sheriff’s office. But the truth is that Dean has supported law enforcement more than any other commissioner in recent memory. He and Commissioner Helen Price Johnson teamed up against outgoing Republican Commissioner Mac McDowell to support the sheriff and prevent deputies from being cut, at least temporarily. Dean was the lone commissioner to support the sheriff’s plan to save a deputy from a layoff by replacing the Emergency Management director with a deputy. The overall percentage of the budget that law and justice departments receive has increased over his tenure, even with the cuts.
“What’s left in the budget are our priorities,” he said.
Dean has been an affable consensus builder during his time in office and has proven he works well with others. For the first two years of his term, he was the lone Democrat but didn’t really stick out on the board. Now he is one of three Democrats who’ve had to cut a quarter of the current expense fund. He compliments everyone he has worked with.
“Angie’s just like Mac,” he said, referring to Commissioner Angie Homola, a Democrat, and former Republican Commissioner Mac McDowell. He said they both dig deep into every issue that comes before them.
Emerson said she’s spent a career being the only woman on job sites, so she doesn’t foresee having a problem standing up for herself if she becomes the new Republican commissioner among Democrats. If she is successful, all the commissioners will be women; Price Johnson became the first female commissioner in county history just two years ago.
Taxes at root of differences
Dean received criticism from the left and right over Proposition 1, the measure that would have raised property taxes in order to prevent $2 million in cuts next year. It failed miserably in the primary election. Conservatives complained that he wanted to increase taxes, while liberals faulted him and others for a lackluster effort of promoting it.
But all along, Dean has been philosophical about the issue. He said it’s not his place to support or denounce the measure, but he voted to put it on the ballot solely to give the voters a choice.
“We just didn’t want to take government down without asking the voters,” he said, adding that the next year’s budget cuts will be devastating and he wants to help “hold the courthouse together.”
Emerson, however, was a strong opponent of Proposition 1 and even helped write the official statement against it. She believes that the county should live within its means during the current economic doldrums. She feels there’s probably places in county government left to cut and hopes to start implementing performance audits in county offices. She admits such audits can be expensive, but she said the county can shop around for a good deal.
Emerson is short on details when it comes to the budget. She said the commissioners should approach the budget by first deciding what to fund; she said public safety and law enforcement should be the top priority. Yet she admits she hasn’t studied the budget and has no proposals of her own that would help with the financial crisis.
“I’m not being paid to do that yet,” she said.
Emerson notes that the county ties as having the third highest sales tax rate in the state, though she doesn’t emphasize that the property tax rate for the county’s current expense fund is the lowest in the state. She believes that the high sales tax rate hurts businesses because shoppers go to counties with lower rates. She proposes to rescind the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase that funds mental health services in the community; she claims the programs are failing. Dean and two Republican commissioners passed the tax increase in 2007.
Dean, however, pointed out that the services funded by the money helps keep mentally ill people out of emergency rooms and jails, which saves the community a lot of money.
Clean water tax a political issue
Recently, Emerson blasted the commissioners for moving toward creating a clean water utility district, which would come with a new fee for property owners. The commissioners haven’t made a decision on the matter, but they did decide to spend $20,000 on a legal firm to create a draft ordinance, as well as complete other legal work.
Emerson said Dean and the other commissioners are trying to circumvent the will of the people by raising taxes after Proposition 1 went down in flames.
“The county commissioners have to follow what the majority of people want,” she said.
She also feels the county went too far in implementing a septic tank inspection program, which was mandated by state law. She said the county could be much less stringent with the rules. She simply doesn’t believe the county’s data about water pollution.
“They’ve tried and tried and tried to justify the need,” she said.
Dean, however, hasn’t backed down. He points out that the commissioners are talking about an annual, $23-per-parcel fee in order to fund the current septic program and surface water monitoring, as well as restore the hydrogeologist position. If it was adopted, it would replace the dreaded $62 septic inspection fee.
Dean said there are major problems with the water in the county. The county’s surface water testing effort has found that 76 percent of the watersheds tested exceed the state’s fecal coliform standard. The state forced the county to create the Holmes Harbor Shellfish Protection District several years ago because of pollution. And wells on Camano Island are failing because of saltwater intrusion.
“I just don’t think we can put our heads in the sand and ignore the very real problems with our water quality and availability,” Dean said. “I’m willing to put my political career on the line over it.”
Residence: 30-year resident of Camano Island.
Education: BA in humanities from St. Patrick College Seminary, Calif.
Family: Wife, Julie, and two adult children.
Career: Current county commissioner, 26-year career in community journalism.
Residence: 3-year resident of Camano Island.
Education: International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers apprenticeship.
Family: Husband, Kenneth.
Career: Electrician, project estimator, project manager. Currently not employed.Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.