Housing, jet noise key issues for commissioner candidates

Two Oak Harbor residents with very different backgrounds and personalities are vying for a seat on the Island County Board of Commissioners.

Jill Johnson is the incumbent Republican commissioner. She is an Oak Harbor native, former political fundraiser and past Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce director. She has an in-depth knowledge of county government, and strong opinions; she rarely pulls her punches and is known to get a little hot under the collar over issues she feels passionate about.

John Fowkes is the Democratic challenger. He and his wife used to own a magic store in downtown Oak Harbor, but he later got into the business of buying, fixing up and selling mobile homes. He’s a political newcomer with much to learn about how the county works. He’s deeply involved in the theater scene, soft-spoken at candidate forums and describes himself as having a calm, inclusive leadership style.

Johnson and Fowkes agree on some of the biggest challenges facing Island County but offer different ideas about what solutions might be.

When it comes to priorities, at the top of both candidates’ lists is affordable housing. They agree that a lack of affordable housing is at a crisis point on Whidbey Island, making it difficult for working families to find places to live.

Johnson recently teamed up with Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns to create a task force dedicated to finding real, workable solutions to the housing problem.

Johnson said an unintended result of the state Growth Management Act is that development was pushed into urban areas, where it’s more expensive to live. The key is simply more inventory, Johnson said, adding the county might be able to help by zoning areas outside of city limits to allow more density or multi-family development.

As someone who deals in mobile homes, Fowkes said he knows about affordable housing first hand; he’s helped older couples who were facing homelessness due to no fault of their own. Fowkes said people saw the impending problem for years, but elected officials did nothing. He said he likes the idea of creating tax incentives to encourage affordable housing.

Fowkes said developers won’t be able to keep up with the housing demand as long as Island County’s Planning Department is so slow in issuing permits. The problem, he said, is the revolving door in the Planning Department, which in turn means slower permit processing.

“We need to look deep and see what’s causing people to not want to stay,” he said.

Fowkes said he’s talked to current and former employees in the Planning Department and heard that there’s an unhealthy atmosphere that permits bullying. He said “work with dignity” training could help. Fowkes added incentives for employees to stay could help. Perhaps employees could receive more training the longer they stay, he suggested.

He said the county could institute a fee for anyone wanting a permit expedited.

Another important issue, said Johnson, is mental health. She said it’s a critical problem in the state. Dealing with people in crisis inevitably falls on counties, and specifically law enforcement. Jails are not the right place for people suffering from serious mental health issues, she said.

“When you have parents saying, ‘put my child in jail,’ you’ve got a problem,” she said.

A solution needs to come from the state, she said.

Johnson said she is involved in a state board that’s working on the issue. Her role, she said, is in telling the county’s story.

Fowkes agrees the state’s response to mental health problems isn’t adequate. He said the issue should be a priority when it comes to the county budget. The county needs to help find a way to keep people in mental health crises in the community, where they have a support system, instead of sending them to other places, he added.

When it comes to the often contentious issue of Navy jet noise at Outlying Field Coupeville, Johnson has made her opinion very clear — she’s completely in support of the Navy and believes the touch-and-go field needs to stay and practices continue.

As a member of the Island County Board of Health, Johnson introduced the motion to prevent the board from pursuing any study of looking at the possible health impacts of jet noise on health. Such a study was requested by members of Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, or COER, a citizens’ group opposed to landing practices at OLF Coupeville.

Johnson said members of COER have made it very clear to her that their real motive is to shut down Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

“When it became a zero-sum game, any conversations about compromise stopped for me,” Johnson said.

Fowkes, however, said the Navy isn’t going anywhere and believes the noise issue will resolve itself as the Growlers are eventually phased out. Still, the commissioners’ job is to listen to people and facilitate a dialogue between people on both sides of an issue, Fowkes said.

In fact, he charged, Johnson’s “snippy and unprofessional” response to the jet noise issue and other controversies shows that she doesn’t have the right temperament for the job.

“She’s not an appropriate person to be a commissioner,” Fowkes said.

Johnson concedes that she gets passionate about the issues she cares most about. She said she’s working on toning it down a little.

“I can get a little hot sometimes when I really think something is right and I fight for it,” she said.