District 2 county commissioner race offers choices

For the District 2 seat on the Board of Island County Commissioners, voters have a choice between the experienced and outspoken incumbent, a community volunteer who wants to improve the lives of citizens, a self-made business owner who champions service workers and the president of the Oak Harbor Main Street Association.

Come Aug. 4, the four candidates will be winnowed down to two in the primary election.

Commissioner Jill Johnson is seeking reelection and is being challenged by Democrats Chris Reed and Fe Mischo and Republican Dan Evans.

Johnson has spent her past two terms focusing on behavioral health and helping to stabilize the county’s budget.

“I’m one of the leaders in behavioral health,” said Johnson, who considers her successful efforts in helping to get the future Behavioral Health Stabilization Facility built in Oak Harbor to be one of her biggest accomplishments as a commissioner.

Johnson is the chairperson of the North Sound Behavioral Health Administrative Services Organization and the regional mental health board.

She cites her work in setting up a state task force working with the health care authority to help the state determine where to make investments for behavioral health.

Johnson acknowledged that behavioral health problems, a lack of affordable housing and homelessness, some of the biggest issues facing Island County, often go hand in hand. The county runs a Housing Support Center that has helped hundreds of families find affordable housing, but the county is limited in its ability to create or even incentivize new housing.

“It’s not easy for counties,” Johnson said. “Cities carry the bulk of that responsibility.”

Trying to keep the people and the economy alive during the COVID-19 pandemic have been parallel goals of Johnson’s. She has voiced frustration with what she sees as inconsistencies with the state’s response — including the mask requirement before cases surged — but she and other commissioners also expressed concerns with lack of effort from the Island County Economic Development Council and several chambers of commerce in helping businesses. She proposed that the county and city of Oak Harbor pool federal CARES Act funds to create a grant program to help small businesses on North Whidbey.

Johnson believes the county budget is going to be the biggest challenge of 2021 — due to the many impacts of the pandemic — and it will be helpful to have a commissioner who understands how to leverage the different funds. She cited her experience in building seven previous budgets. By now, she said, she knows where the county can be flexible in its budget and where it can constrict without having a lot of impact on services.

The pandemic has shown her there is a need to review disaster recovery plans, which have previously been focused on earthquake recovery and less on public health.

Lastly, Johnson cautions her opponents who have ideas specific to Oak Harbor to remember that the role of commissioner is to represent the district — which largely consists of Oak Harbor — and the citizens of Whidbey Island as a whole. She said there has also been some confusion among the candidates about the difference between county and city government.

“Although I think a lot of these ideas are great, it’s not the role of the county commissioner to set the city’s vision,” Johnson said.

After volunteering in the community for the past five years, Fe Mischo decided to run for county commissioner because she wasn’t seeing the change the population had been demanding in terms of the housing crisis.

She is a member of the Community Health Advisory Board, the District Parents Advisory Committee, Housing Project Network, Library Board, Autism Partnership of Island County and PFLAG. She is also the communications lead for the Save the Children Action Network, Seattle chapter.

She is hoping to bring her experiences of advocating at the state and national levels to a local level to support residents in need of workforce housing.

“A lot of our homeless population is because of lack of job access and not able to afford rent,” Mischo said. “And we’re seeing that as one of our biggest challenges.”

She named behavioral health as being another challenge in the community, suggesting “wraparound services” to help people struggling with their mental health such as preventative care and check-ins after care.

She has also advocated for resources and services to help lift people out of homelessness, something she experienced earlier in life. She credits the resources and services with saving her life.

If elected as county commissioner, Mischo said she wants to donate 15 percent of her pay to nonprofits like the North Whidbey Help House and Citizens Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse, which provide some of the services she believes have been hit hardest because of the pandemic.

Mischo said the county “opening up too soon” has been a concern of hers.

She has been impressed by the measures Langley has taken and hopes Oak Harbor may consider implementing something similar. County commissioners, however, do not set policy for the cities.

“I really think Langley has done a really good job,” Mischo said. “They have washing stations set up in their downtown. I think that’s definitely something we can bring.”

She said what is needed right now is strong, respectful leadership, not civil disobedience.

“One of the simplest things we can do to try and respect our residents is wearing masks,” Mischo said.

Lifetime Whidbey resident and a champion for the service industry worker, Chris Reed is hoping to bring to the table his own experiences of growing up less fortunate and building his business during the last recession. He owns Barnavit Industries, a commercial lawn care business.

After working a series of service jobs throughout his life, Reed figured the next logical step would be to fulfill his civic duties and run for county commissioner, a position he views as helping to serve the community.

Like many of his other opponents, Reed believes mental illness, drug addiction, the homelessness crisis and affordable housing to all be interconnected issues affecting each other. He said he supports more on-island treatment facilities for people suffering with addiction.

“I’m proud to be 10 years sober from opioid addiction, so I have experienced substance abuse and all of the mental health aspects that come attached to that,” Reed said.

It has been difficult for him and other service industry workers he knows to find housing they can afford on the island.

He supports working with the Navy to help “Whidbey move forward into the future with technological abilities and infrastructure capabilities.” This may include partnering with the Navy to free up land for affordable housing.

“We need to incentivize builders to build homes that people can afford,” he said. Reed added the county should rely less on “tourism funds” and should place a higher priority on green energy.

“My idea is to turn Island County into a green energy mecca where we can develop green power with all our abundant wind,” Reed said.

Reed said county commissioner meetings should be held at a more accessible time for the public to attend, such as Saturday afternoons. He referred to the county’s website as a nightmare and said the county needs to have a social media account to better disseminate information.

“The county should be way more prevalent in the digital realm,” Reed said.

Evans, president and interim executive director of the Oak Harbor Main Street Association, was contacted repeatedly by reporters but has either not returned calls or promised to call back and then failed to do so.

According to his campaign website, he supports law enforcement, economic growth and access to health care. He spoke out against a low-income housing development proposed for downtown Oak Harbor, which was a city project decided by city council members. The Main Street Association successfully filed a land use petition in superior court against the project, although the judge’s decision is being appealed.

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