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Candidates face tough Oak Harbor crowd

Oak Harbor City Council candidates Larry Eaton and Beth Munns listen to a question from SE Pioneer Way merchant Kelly Beedle.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor City Council candidates Larry Eaton and Beth Munns listen to a question from SE Pioneer Way merchant Kelly Beedle.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

A forum in Oak Harbor this week saw candidates in hotly contested city races linking themselves with Socrates, making claims that the public didn’t know what it was talking about, and playing hot potato with tough questions from the crowd.

Held at the Elks Lodge Wednesday evening, the League of Women Voters forum was attended by about 90 people.

Participating were hopefuls in several city races. Paul Brewer and Tara Hizon faced off for Position 1 on the city council while Larry Eaton vied with incumbent Beth Munns for Position 2. They were followed by Mel Vance and incumbent Rick Almberg who are hoping to fill Position 3.

The evening was concluded with the mayoral heavyweight match between City Councilman Scott Dudley and incumbent Mayor Jim Slowik. The candidates remained civil, but they didn’t pull any punches either.

“I understand it’s you I work for and it’s your money I’m spending,” Dudley told the crowd.

“Talk is cheap Mr. Dudley,” fired back Slowik, which earned a chorus of “ooos” from the crowd.”

Not surprisingly several controversial and familiar topics, from Pioneer Way to a dispute over open public meeting rules that went all the way to the state Auditor’s Officer, were brought up and rehashed.

Slowik was steadfast, saying he was proud of the downtown project but also admitted that mistakes, some of which he called “horrendous,” were made. However, he emphasized that it was a badly needed infrastructure project and was just one of 20 needed city projects begun since he took office.

Dudley also faced critics. Slowik supporter Gerry Oliver, who was defeated by Dudley in a 2009 bid for city council, quizzed his former opponent about comments he made in a recent newspaper story concerning staffing changes Dudley said he would make if elected.

When Dudley responded by saying that the big change would be one of attitude at City Hall, Oliver held onto the microphone and accused him of dodging the question. Oliver said it was unfair of Dudley to do so when so much of his campaign has been based on complaints about an existing lack of transparency.

But perhaps no one felt the hot seat like Munns. She was the first of the incumbents to face the crowd and seemed to take the lion’s share of questions concerning Pioneer Way. She was asked about staff accountability, how the city could assist afflicted businesses, and about the scope of the project. At one point Munns said she was amazed she could be asked the same question in so many different ways.

But it was her answers that landed her in the hottest water. In context of the one-way decision, she said she felt the city council had listened to constituents, referencing a silent majority. She also questioned the validity of a petition against a one-way that had about 2,200 signatures.

“I was down at Ace Hardware and a lot of people didn’t know what they were signing,” she said, which earned loud groans from the crowd.

The next man to speak said he was offended by Munns’ response, but she stuck to her guns and said she believes the public is often misinformed when it comes to the details of city projects.

Eaton, a retired high school teacher, came off considerably better in dealing with the crowd. He earned points right away by crediting Munns with being “the nicest woman in the world” and by responding masterfully to hot questions.

Oliver, a former student of Eaton’s, asked him to be specific about his plans for economic growth; Eaton and other challengers have been criticized as being too negative and without vision for the future. Eaton answered by saying he wanted a new big-box store in town, but before doing so he pointed to Oliver.

“To see what a success I’ve been, just look at this young man,” he said.

Munns also answered the question, saying she didn’t feel it was a council member’s job to personally recruit new businesses. Rather, the council as a whole should focus on making the city a place where businesses want to come.

For example, Pioneer Way has all-new infrastructure, a brand-new look and is already attracting new merchants. Munns said she was proud of how the council has worked together over the past four years to get long-planned-for projects done.

Things seemed to settle down a bit by the time Almberg and Vance took to the microphone. In amicable fashion, the candidates laid out their future plans, went over their backgrounds, and discussed a variety of topics. Perhaps one of the more interesting topics batted around concerned open government and transparency.

Interestingly, while Vance said he wants more public input and would seek to have members of the community on city standing committees and have meetings broadcast online, he also said he wouldn’t always do what the public suggests. Rather, he said he’d do what he thinks is best for the whole community.

Almberg has not been a voice of support in the past for televising standing committee meetings or making them more accessible by relocating them at City Hall and at more convenient times. However, he said he was interested in ideas expressed by Position 1 candidate Tara Hizon. Like Vance, she is proposing that cheaper web-based technologies be utilized.

Hizon and Paul Brewer were the first up at the forum. When discussing their strengths, Hizon, 33, stressed that she is not a career politician and will bring a “fresh pair of eyes” and a new perspective to the council. Brewer, 66, is a former council member of 12 years and promised to monitor government carefully.

“I’ve been known as a gadfly; Socrates was too,” Brewer said.

The candidates were hit with a gambit of questions, from government accountability to what they will do to help youth. Brewer, who has run a campaign on the need to “open government back up,” talked about how “bad eggs” at City Hall should be let go. He also supports the return of a city police “resource” officer at the high school and a city youth coordinator.

Hizon, who is criticized by some as a rubber stamp for the status quo, made it clear that was not the case. Concerning accountability, she said everyone makes mistakes but that negligence is a different matter. And like Brewer, she wants meetings recorded – she would utilize less expensive online technologies – and also supports the return of the resource officer.

Ballots for the election are scheduled to be in the mail next week. Return ballots must be postmarked no later than election day, Nov. 8, to be counted.

 

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