Separate trips by Whidbey officials produce hope for Navy P-8As

When Whidbey Island officials have concerns, they go to the top.

Island County Commissioner Angie Homola and a contingent of Oak Harbor officials went on separate trips to Washington D.C. in the past couple of weeks and met with some of the most important people at the Pentagon, as well as the top elected officials from Washington State.

The main topic of discussion was the siting of the new P-8A Poseidon aircraft. Whidbey officials became alarmed after hearing reports that the aircraft may not be coming to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station as originally planned.

While the Whidbey officials may not have obtained any promises, they made sure decision makers in the nation’s capitol heard their message loud and clear.

“Sharing information and knowledge with the Navy brass helps  them to see the perspective of the local community,” Homola said.

Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik said he was surprised and extremely gratified that people like Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Vice Chief of Navy Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert took the time to talk to Oak Harbor officials.

Homola also said she was gratified to be invited to meet the chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead. Homola was in Washington D.C. for the National Association of Counties conference and had planned on visiting the Pentagon to talk about the P-8A decision and other issues. What she didn’t expect was to be called in to meet with such a high-ranking military official; she invited Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen to come along on the 40-minute meeting.

“Adm. Roughead was very attentive to our concerns and generous with his time,” she said. “He made it clear that the driving reason behind the P-8 decision was budgetary.”

Likewise, Slowik said the message he got was that the military is in a cost-cutting mode and that many decisions are being made based on what’s most cost effective. He said he received some very straight-forward answers and strong support during a visit to Capitol Hill.

Rep. Norm Dicks, who Slowik described as the “numbers guy,” explained to the Oak Harbor officials that military construction money has been diverted to projects that improve the readiness and safety of the nation’s nuclear weapons following reports about problems at bases within the U.S.

The Navy was planning to build a new hangar and other construction projects in anticipation of the 24 P-8A aircraft originally slated to come to NAS Whidbey, but the military decided the large cost would be avoided by sending all the planes instead to Jacksonville, Fla. and Kaneohe, Hawaii, according to the mayor.

Yet Slowik said it may still be possible to simply make alterations to an existing hangar to get it ready for the new aircraft, thereby saving the cost of construction. And in a couple of years, the Navy may have money freed up for construction.

Slowik said he was especially impressed with Sen. Patty Murray and her staff, who gave the Oak Harbor officials a no-nonsense briefing.

“Sen. Murray is a very strong advocate of bringing the P-8As to Whidbey,” he said. “She’s definitely on our side.”

Likewise, he said Rep. Rick Larsen was very supportive.

While both Slowik and Homola said their trips were productive, the efforts got off to a rocky start. Homola and Commissioner Kelly Emerson had both asked to go along with the Oak Harbor officials to their meetings at the Pentagon, but the members of the Oak Harbor task force uninvited both commissioners after the two women had a disagreement over who should go and who would best represent the Navy base. The task force is a private group of Oak Harbor citizens and base officials who lobby on behalf of the base; they hired retired Adm. James Seely to set up meetings and go along with city officials to the Pentagon.

In past years, former Commissioner Mac McDowell, whose seat Homola now has, accompanied Oak Harbor officials to the Pentagon, at the county’s expense, according to county Budget Director Elaine Marlow. Ironically, he went along on the trip this week with Slowik, Councilman Danny Paggao, Councilman Jim Palmer and Councilwoman Beth Munns.

Yet Homola said she wants to put the disagreements behind her and work together to support the Navy base. She is hosting a meeting at 6 p.m., Tuesday, March 22 at the Skagit Valley College’s Oak Hall to discuss her trip with anyone who is interested.

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