Diversity a big issue in Langley council race

Growth, diversity and identity in this seaside city of 1,100 dominate the debate in the only contested race for the five-member Langley City Council.

Incumbent Russell Sparkman is being challenged by political newcomer Thomas Gill in the Position 3 contest in Tuesday’s General Election.

City council members Rene Neff and Robert Gilman are also on the ballot for re-election, but both are unopposed.

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

Sparkman, 50, an Internet media consultant appointed last year to fill the unexpired term of Neil Colburn, is seeking his first full term on the council.

“Langley seems to me to have suffered an identity crisis during the years,” Sparkman said. “I’ve never quite understood why, since I think Langley is one of the coolest places on the planet.”

Gill, 25, a Whidbey Telecom tech-support agent, is a South Whidbey native, and a 2001 graduate of South Whidbey High School.

“I’m deeply concerned with the direction Whidbey Island is taking,” Gill said. “In my years of college, leaving and returning to the island, I have seen many things occur that I don’t understand.”

Both candidates have strong opinions about the future of the Village by the Sea.

Thomas Gill

Despite his political inexperience, Gill said he’s running for city council because he loves Langley and wants to help shape its path.

He said Langley should “act like a city” and encourage a mixed-use approach to land to increase the population and widen the tax base. This should be done without extending the city’s boundaries, so as to preserve the rest of the South End’s rural character, he added.

Gill said he has become disturbed by the number of housing developments in previously rural areas outside the city.

“Why does the city insist on an inefficient use of land?” Gill said. “If Langley doesn’t become a denser city, the entirety of Whidbey is destined to become a Mercer Island, and we’re less than 30 years from that happening.”

He said he would think outside the box to try to bring more competition to the city, to polish its image and to make it a destination for other South End residents.

“Langley is not really liked by South Whidbey at large,” he said. “They don’t feel like Langley has anything to offer.”

Gill said it’s important for the city to attract other islanders, because tourism may dry up if the poor economy continues.

“The locals are here, they’re valuable, and we need to make them feel as such,” he said.

As for development, Gill said that “for the most part, Langley is finally getting it right.” But he added: “I would like to see more efficient use for the land that is allowed to develop.”

Gill also said he supports continued cooperation between the city and the Port of South Whidbey in the development of Langley Marina, and that Langley Middle School, to be closed by the South Whidbey School District in 2011, should be utilized to the city’s educational, recreational and cultural advantage.

Gill, who is single, is working toward a college degree in computer engineering. He said he’s currently living with his parents “because

I can’t find affordable housing in Langley.”

He said his biggest peeve regarding the city is “the lack of pedestrian-vehicle separation.”

“Most of the city doesn’t have sidewalks, something that is essential to being a pedestrian-friendly city,” he said.

“Langley needs to start growing again,” Gill said. “The current stagnation has been bad for the city and the island.”

Russell Sparkman

Sparkman has lived on South Whidbey since 2001 and in Langley since 2002.

He has been self-employed or the head of his own corporation since 1993, and currently operates his Internet consulting company Fusionspark Media from his home.

He spent eight years in Japan, where he published books on digital photography and did consulting work for corporations.

He and his wife Noriko have two children, Guy, 14, and Maia, 13.

Sparkman refers to himself as “an accidental politician.”

He studied political science in college, and got his first taste of public life when he joined Langely’s Planning Advisory Board, which led to his appointment to the city council.

He has chaired the economic development committee of the comprehensive plan process, and the mayor’s Council on Economic Health.

“I have extensive background and experience in helping to govern Langley,” he said. “I am running so that I may continue that work.”

Sparkman said the roots of the city’s economic problems stem from its dependence on tourism, which is prone to ups and downs.

“The cyclical vagaries of a tourism-based economy inevitably give rise to the ‘who are we, what are we about’ questions we hear, especially when businesses close during slow times,” he said.

He said the key to the city’s future is economic diversity. He said he would emphasize Langley’s strong arts, culture and educational components.

And by doing that, the city would attract “the tech-savvy workers and entrepreneurs who represent our best hope for bringing families with school-aged children to our community, within our existing built environment.”

He agrees with Gill that the city should continue to work with the Port of South Whidbey to develop Langley Marina, including the construction of a new underwater park to attract divers from throughout the nation, and perhaps the world.

He also supports the continued use of LMS for arts, culture and education.

Sparkman said the city is taking land-use planning in the right direction.

“There’s a well-thought-out, innovative approach that’s been in development since the comprehensive-plan update that began in 2006,” he said. “The recent approval of plans for the Wharf Street area is a testament that these approaches can and do work well for our community.”

He said if re-elected, he will “continue the work that I began for the city almost four years ago.”

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