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‘Gadfly’ vs. Oak Harbor’s establishment
“You like being known as a gadfly, an irritating fly or annoying person who provokes others into action by criticism?”
That was undoubtedly the most memorable question posed during the League of Women Voters of Whidbey Island forum in Oak Harbor Thursday evening at Skagit Valley College.
The forum focused on a four-way city council race and the renewal of North Whidbey Park and Recreation District’s operations levy, the only two measures Oak Harbor voters will see on their Aug. 16 primary election ballots.
Attendance was a long way from standing room only, but the forum did see a respectable turnout of about 30 people. While there was healthy discussion on the park district’s levy renewal, the council race between Paul Brewer, Mark Wiggins, Martha Yount and Tara Hizon got the most attention.
The question, asked by Oak Harbor attorney Christon Skinner, was directed at Brewer. It was in response to a candidate story that appeared in the News-Times this past Wednesday, which used the noun to describe Brewer’s past and future approach to politics.
Brewer said he sees nothing wrong with questioning the plans and designs of those in power. In fact, he said he’s running for office because he believes the council needs someone like that now.
“If those questions were addressed, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now,” he said, referring to controversies such as the city’s stalled SE Pioneer Way project.
Skinner is a member of Hizon’s election campaign. The question did earn a chuckle or two from the crowd, but it did not seem to put Brewer in a poor light by setting him apart from the other candidates.
Both Hizon, a small business owner, and Wiggins, who runs his family’s nursing home, defended a council members’ right and responsibility to ask questions. However, they also said being a source of contention and casting dissent isn’t the solution either.
Martha Yount, a retired small business owner, said elected officials are not specialists in complex fields such as engineering. The city hires experts and when they give their expertise, decision makers should listen. Government works best when everyone is on the same team, she said.
The next question came from Oak Harbor resident Naomi Story, who asked candidates what their focus will be if elected.
In the order in which they responded, Brewer said he’d like to make changes that would lead to greater public participation. He proposed changing the start of council meetings from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., along with similar changes to standing committee meetings. Not all are held at City Hall and some start as early as 7 a.m.
Hizon said her first priority would be economic development with a focus on the downtown area. She also defended the current meeting schedule, saying that recent meetings have gone until midnight. Getting there earlier makes it easier for some to stay for the whole meeting, she said.
Wiggins said his focus would also be economic revitalization though he also values strong and open communication. Responding to a later similar question, Wiggins said Oak Harbor has potential that could be realized through tourism promotion.
“We need to let the world know we’re here,” he said.
If elected, Yount said her top priorities would be public safety and keeping Oak Harbor a clean environment to live in. She again defended the status quo, saying the start time for city meetings, especially council meetings, are fine the way they are.
“I’ve been able to make most of them over the last year,” Yount said.
While she is retired and Brewer’s complaint is focused on working families, Yount said council meetings are available for everyone to watch on channel 10.
Gerry Oliver, the owner of a downtown real estate office who is also a member of Hizon’s campaign, asked candidates about their vision for the future and what they will do to keep things moving forward.
Again, in the order in which they responded, Brewer said Oak Harbor has been hit hard with lost businesses, particularly in automobile sales. He said he would involve the chamber and work to lessen city bureaucracy to attract new businesses.
Hizon also wants to entice new commerce but says the key will be to look at the big picture. Finishing major city projects, such as SE Pioneer Way, while also creating a positive atmosphere downtown and focusing on improving the viability of the waterfront are strong places to start, she said.
Wiggins, a former longtime member of the Oak Harbor Planning Commission, said the area around Goldie Road is ripe with possibility. With a little encouragement, its industrial zoning could pave the way for light industry or high tech business.
“I believe there’s opportunity there,” Wiggins said.
Yount said she believed state rules influence many of the types of development allowed in the city. She didn’t specify which rules she was referring to, but did say that any new industries allowed should be clean environmentally.
Robyn Kolaitis, an Oak Harbor resident and loud critic of city staff, asked how each candidate would approach the topic of holding public employees accountable when they make mistakes.
Brewer said it’s simple; two strikes and you’re out. Working for the public carries a high standard. A warning is OK the first time, but the next time it happens it should be “bye” to that employee, he said.
Hizon expressed a similar opinion. People make mistakes but it can be expensive when it happens on large projects. Evaluating the error by a third party later may make sense, but that doesn’t mean staff shouldn’t be held accountable.
“If it’s a big enough ‘oops,’ someone should lose their job,” Hizon said.
Wiggins also said city workers have to live up to expectations. That applies to hired firms or agencies that make mistakes on the taxpayer dime too. He said there are ways of holding such entities accountable.
Finally, Yount said finding Native American remains on SE Pioneer Way in the early 1980s did not guarantee that more would be found during the current project. She was not in favor of using “third party” groups to evaluate errors and the city should be tolerant of accidental mistakes.
“If you find someone who purposely made a mistake, that’s another question,” Yount said.