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Candidates toss barbs at Oak Harbor forum

Rep. Barbara Bailey and challenger Tom Riggs face the audience at the League of Women Voters forum. - Nathan Whalen/News-Times
Rep. Barbara Bailey and challenger Tom Riggs face the audience at the League of Women Voters forum.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/News-Times

Candidates largely focused on issues and experience — and lobbed a few barbs — during a League of Women Voters’ forum Thursday night in Oak Harbor.

The candidates for Island County offices and a couple of seats in the state legislature successfully distinguished themselves from their opponents during the two-hour, question-and-answer session.

In one of most feisty of the debates, Mary Engle, the Republican candidate for assessor, came out swinging against her boss, Democratic incumbent Dave Mattens. She claimed there’s a lack of accountability, training, communication and oversight in the office.

In response to a question, Engle even admitted to making errors in her work as an appraiser in the office, but said such errors are inevitable without oversight.

“The inconsistencies come because nobody is checking my work,” she said, explaining that the managers in the office aren’t going out in the field to scrutinize the work done. “We needs checks and balances.”

But Mattens was clearly prepared for the attack. During his opening statement, he asked staff members from the office who support him to stand up. Six people got to their feet. He went on to stress his “unique blend” of management experience, service to the nation and technical know-how. He discussed the new software he helped bring to the office, which replaced a hopelessly outdated system.

But Engle countered that the office needs more than just new software to run effectively.

“The incumbent seems to think technology will fix everything, and it won’t,” she said, adding that the staff needs to be held accountable for mistakes.

In another exchange, an audience member asked Mattens why he didn’t more strongly reprimand Engle when she allegedly used her position to pressure a landowner to sign a lease with her farmer husband last year.

“My management style is that I like to lift people up,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to ruin her career.

Engle denied that she did anything inappropriate, denied that she received a verbal reprimand and accused Mattens of breaking state law by not requiring documentation from the landowner. But she added that if Mattens’ allegations were true, she should have been fired on the spot.

Both candidates called extreme

In another hot race, Democratic Commissioner John Dean tried to paint his opponent, Republican Kelly Emerson, as a Tea Party extremist who wants to pull apart government, but Emerson didn’t flinch. She shot back, criticizing Dean for promoting failed “experimental social programs” as well as “big-government ideas and Utopian-chasing dreams.”

In response to a question from the audience, Emerson said she would not want the county to pursue any grants. She pointed out that grant money is not free, but that “someone pays for them.”

Dean countered that grant funding in many departments is crucial to Island County government.

“That would close the doors completely in Island County,” he said.

Emerson explained that she wants to cut the county’s sales tax, which she said would improve business. She said she wants to get rid of the Conservations Future fund, a land preservation program for protection of threatened areas supported by a small property tax.

But Dean pointed out that the programs she labeled as “experimental social programs” were adopted when the majority of the board of commissioners were Republicans.

Emerson criticized Dean for ignoring the will of the voters by taking a step towards a Clean Water Utility tax right after property-tax-increasing Proposition 1 was soundly defeated. She said there’s no proof that septic tanks have contaminated water; as an example, she suggested a neighbor’s water was contaminated by visiting snow geese.

“We’re never going to have all water sources brought up to a drinkable level,” she said, earning boos from the audience.

Coroner responds to challenge

The two candidates for coroner also had a lively debate. Paul Thompson, a doctor, repeated his argument that he would do a better job than incumbent Coroner Robert Bishop because he has a medical degree, while Bishop is a veterinarian. He said he could save taxpayer money by decreasing the need for expensive autopsies, since he would be better at determining the cause of death.

But Bishop countered that he’s no longer just a veterinarian, but a professional coroner with 16 years of experience. He has completed more than 40 courses in death investigation. He was the first Board Certified Medicolegal Death Investigator in Washington, and one of just 136 in the country. He stressed that he’s never asked for a funding increase.

“I defy you to find an autopsy that wasn’t warranted over the last 16 years,” he said.

Thompson argued that 16 years in office is precisely the reason the voters need someone new to “safeguard against entrenchment, cronyism and a sense of entitlement.”

Bailey’s foe demands change

In a race for the state legislature, incumbent Rep. Barbara Bailey (R-Oak Harbor) was in the unusual position of promoting the status quo, while Democratic challenger Tom Riggs of Camano Island discussed his ideas for change in detail. Riggs said he wants to get rid of the state business-and-occupation tax and implement comprehensive reforms to the state’s tax system, which he said unfairly burdens low income people over the wealthy, allows giant tax breaks for out-of-state business and is too complicated. He suggested a state income tax, or perhaps a “fair” sales tax, would solve the problem.

“It’s not about soaking the rich, it’s about getting them closer to paying their fair share,” he said.

Bailey, however, admitted that the tax system should be changed, but said now is not the right time.

“The time to change the tax system is when the economy is good,” she said.

Riggs proposed creating jobs by promoting clean-energy businesses. He explained that a company that runs a coal plant in the state receives a $10 million tax subsidy from the state, even though the electricity goes to California and the profits go to Canada. The only thing the state gets from the deal, he said, is pollution. He said the money could instead be used to subsidize clean-energy jobs.

Bailey countered that now is not the right time to change the rules for businesses. She said they need consistency and predictability from the government.

In the other state race, Norma Smith (R-Clinton) and Democratic challenger Laura Lewis of Camano Island politely sparred over Smith’s voting record. Lewis criticized her opponent for voting against a hospital safety net bill, education, enhanced 911 and other important programs.

Smith countered that she is proud of her voting record, and that the explanations for some of her votes are complex. For example, she said she voted against the enhanced 911 bill because it created a new tax to fund it, while she said such “core functions” should be funded directly.

Two Fortunes miss forum

Ana Maria Nunez, the Democratic candidate for treasurer, earned the loudest applause of the night when she described her education, and then criticized her challenger for not showing up. Oak Harbor resident Shane Fortune, a Republican, is running for treasurer. His wife, Carol Ann Fortune, is running for the county clerk position. They both declined to participate in the forums.

Nunez, who’s been chief deputy treasurer for five years, has a bachelor’s degree in biology, a bachelor’s in business administration in accounting and a master’s degree in accounting and financial management. She’s a certified public accountant. She suggested that it’s “very telling” that Fortune didn’t participate.

“Does he feel the taxpayers are not important enough to sit here and answer questions for 20 minutes?” she asked.

Neither candidate for clerk appeared. Debra Van Pelt, a Democrat and a clerk in the office, was out of town at her son’s wedding. A member of her campaign committee read a statement on her behalf.

“I am the only candidate with the experience to roll up my sleeves and work side by side with my staff,” she said.

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