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Island County commissioners lose battle for Navy lobbying trip

Commissioner Angie Homola uses a picture of her husband to demonstrate her ties to the Navy.  - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Commissioner Angie Homola uses a picture of her husband to demonstrate her ties to the Navy.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

Members of a task force dedicated to protecting Whidbey Island Naval Air Station have uninvited two Island County commissioners from a trip to the Pentagon following a turf war among commissioners over who will represent the base.

Both Island County commissioners Angie Homola and Kelly Emerson had planned on going to Washington, D.C. and have purchased plane tickets, but apparently now they won’t be allowed to go to the meetings with military big-wigs.

Homola said Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik called her early Tuesday afternoon to tell her that the task force members voted not to allow anyone outside of the group to attend their meetings with military officials. The main purpose of the trip is to influence the future siting of the P-8A Poseidon aircraft, which may not be headed to Whidbey as expected.

Homola said the task force’s decision was political and that there’s no Democrats on the task force.

“I’m disgusted and flabbergasted that a group of adult men, many of whom have served and fought for this country, would behave in this way,” she said. “We should be able to stand together as adults and work for the good of the community.”

The trouble began after Slowik inadvertently revealed last week that Commissioner Emerson, the new Republican on the board, was going to Washington, D.C. and was planning to attend the task force’s meetings at the Pentagon. Emerson made the plans without consulting or even notifying her fellow commissioners.

Emerson’s actions didn’t sit well with her Democratic colleagues, particularly Homola. She was also planning on going to the Pentagon and feels Emerson is usurping her role as the commissioner representing the base. Homola also claims Slowik has repeatedly snubbed her requests to accompany city officials in their lobbying efforts.

“I find it unpatriotic for local politicians to marginalize my role as a military spouse and a District 2 commissioner,” Homola said in an interview.

The commissioners had a showdown in their turf war during their regular meeting Monday afternoon, but it was resolved that they will both go to the Pentagon meetings. A number of people supporting Homola brought up the dueling trips during the public comment period and urged Emerson not to go, arguing that she’s not up to speed on the issues.

“If you want to shake things up, for goodness sake, do it here, not in Washington, D.C.,” Coupeville resident Lynn Peterson said. “Please stand down on this issue.”

Homola gave a speech promoting her Navy bona fides and offered a long list showcasing her involvements in the Navy community, from meetings with Navy brass to a trip aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln to her involvement in fundraisers benefiting Navy-related causes. But most of all, she emphasized that she is a Navy spouse and underscored the point by displaying framed pictures.

“Here’s my map, pictures of me and my husband,” Homola said in response to Emerson, who had given her a map of the commissioner districts to argue the base is in Emerson’s district.

Homola’s husband is a commander in the Navy and a P-3 pilot. He’s currently on active duty with Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 10 and is also attached to reserve squadron VP-69. His job is at the heart of the reason that Whidbey politicians are clamoring to go the Pentagon. The P-3 squadrons had been planning to transition to the new P-8A aircraft, but the plans were put in doubt when it was announced that the first wave of the new aircraft won’t be coming to NAS Whidbey.

Homola also pointed out that she took over former District 2 Commissioner Mac McDowell’s seat after beating him in an election. He represented Navy interests on the board and routinely traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with Pentagon officials. Ironically, McDowell is on the task force and will be going to the Pentagon.

Emerson strongly defends her right to represent the Navy base and feels that Homola is muscling in on her territory. Emerson represents District 3, which includes Camano Island and much of North Whidbey. She said the bulk of NAS Whidbey resides in her district, so she has dibs on representing the base.

“I should have the first right over the base,” Emerson said. “The majority of it is in my district.”

Emerson paid for her own trip, while Homola’s trip was planned and budgeted for last year. Emerson said she wasn’t trying to hide her trip to Washington, D.C from her fellow commissioners, but that she didn’t see any reason to tell them. Slowik let the cat out of the bag during a Council of Governments meeting last Wednesday after Homola pressed him to share his schedule so she could accompany city officials to their Pentagon meetings. During the COG meeting, Slowik insisted that he wasn’t in charge of his own schedule or Homola’s schedule, but afterward invited her to go along, according to Homola.

Emerson defended her ability to act independently from the board.

“I was elected as an individual, not as a unit with the other two,” Emerson said.

Moreover, Emerson said she was unaware that Homola had planned to go to the Pentagon or that she wanted to accompany city leaders. Homola was scheduled to go to a legislative conference for the National Association of Counties in the week before city leaders are headed to the nation’s capitol, but then Homola planned to make two Washington, D.C. trips — one to the counties’ conference on March 4 and another to the Pentagon on March 15. She’s traveling standby and staying at military lodging to keep costs at a minimum.

When it comes to her knowledge of the issues, Emerson said she planned to take a “crash course” and meet with Navy officials before the trip. And anyway, she talked to McDowell and he said the meetings are mainly about listening.

As far as her relationship with Oak Harbor officials, Homola said she will consider the “lack of communication and lack of courtesy” as accidents, but she’s worried that there’s an attempt to ostracize her for political purposes. She said she let Slowik know a number of times that she wanted to accompany city officials to their Pentagon meetings, but never got a response. She said she even announced her intentions during a city council meeting last month, but still heard nothing back.

To cap things off, Homola attended a meeting of the task force at city hall Monday. She said Slowik introduced her to the group by saying, “I don’t know how Commissioner Homola found out about this meeting.”

Slowik could not be reached for comment.

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