Some Island County citizens defend Emerson after ‘snub’

A disagreement about who should be chairperson of the Island County Board of Commissioners escalated Monday after citizens complained about the perceived snub to Commissioner Kelly Emerson.

Commissioner Angie Homola, the current chairwoman, struggled to maintain control of the meeting at one point, exclaiming that she didn’t have her gavel, as her fellow commissioners interrupted and talked over each other.

The meeting began with 10 citizens voicing their opinions about the decision by commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Homola last week to turn down Commissioner Kelly Emerson’s request to be chairperson next year. By a 2-1 vote, the two Democratic commissioners chose Price Johnson as the next chairwoman, even though it was Emerson’s turn under a long-held tradition.

All but one of the speakers were critical of the perceived slight to Emerson, the sole Republican on the board.

Two residents on Camano Island, Dale Tyler and Ralph Ferguson, spoke at the meeting via video link from the Camano Annex. They asked Homola and Price Johnson to give detailed explanations of their decision, but then continually interrupted the meeting as Homola tried to explain that the commissioners would address the concerns after scheduled public hearings.

Oak Harbor resident Bill Strowbridge described Homola and Price Johnson’s comments at the last meeting concerning Emerson’s unreadiness to be chairperson as “petty, vile, personal attacks.”

“Kelly reports to the citizens, not to you two,” he said.

Resident Ed Drum said the commissioners should allow Emerson to do her job.

“I would like to see this bickering and cat fights stop,” he said.

Oak Harbor resident Bob Wolters, however, argued that it wouldn’t be appropriate to give Emerson the chair. He pointed out that she had unsuccessfully sued the county and county employees; he said county employees have not “healed” from the litigious assault. Also, he emphasized that Emerson has only been on the board for less than a year.

“I think the position of the chair is one where experience does matter,” he said. “I think leadership does matter.”

The commissioners addressed the issue at the end of the meeting, but the discussion quickly devolved into bickering.

Price Johnson said the decision about the chairmanship was neither politically motivated nor unprecedented. She read a quote from a former Republican commissioner, the late Gordon Koetje, who said the chairmanship shouldn’t be rotated just because it was the tradition.

In fact, a battle over who should be chairman of the Island County Board of Commissioners exactly 20 years ago was remarkably similar to the current argument. A News-Times article from 1991 states that commissioners Koetje and Dwain Colby “snubbed” Commissioner Dick Caldwell by not making him chairman, even though it was his turn under the unwritten tradition of rotating the chairmanship.

Even though all three commissioners were Republicans, Caldwell disagreed with the others in his opposition to increasing taxes and fees during a time of budget deficits. Likewise, Emerson has railed against taxes and fees during the current period of harsh budget cutting.

Twenty years ago, Colby complained about Caldwell’s improper relationship with county employees, saying that he had an “acid tongue.” Last week, Price Johnson complained about Emerson’s adversarial relationship with county employees.

On Monday, Price Johnson tried to give an explanation of her decision, but was interrupted by Emerson. Price Johnson started to say that Emerson was unavailable to staff, but Emerson interjected that personal remarks are out of order under Roberts Rules of Order. This sparked a feisty exchange with Emerson and Price Johnson talking over each other and Homola in the middle, trying to restore order.

“I hope this is being recorded. I can’t believe this,” Strowbridge exclaimed from the audience.

After bringing the meeting back to order, Homola said she doesn’t feel there’s a lot of animosity between the commissioners, as opposed to what was reported in the newspaper. She described the ways she tried to make Emerson feel welcome and help her with the job.

“I just honestly don’t see this as a vendetta, as any kind of political step,” she said of the decision not to elect Emerson as chairwoman.

But Emerson shot back that there is indeed animosity on the board, which she blamed on her Democratic colleagues. She said they “made it abundantly clear” in the months before she took office that they weren’t pleased with her election win.

“It’s been an adversarial relationship with the two of you long before I took office and you are being absolutely insincere in that regard,” she said to Homola.

Emerson accused her colleagues of directing the planning department to take actions against her in an ongoing dispute that started when her husband started building a sunroom without a permit. She claimed the inappropriate conversations took place in executive sessions that she wasn’t allowed to attend.

Homola denied this, saying she’s never met with the planning department on the issue and has never pushed anyone in the planning department in any direction. After the meeting, Price Johnson reiterated that they’ve never met with the planning director or anyone from the planning department in executive session; she said they’re not allowed to meet with anyone but attorneys behind closed doors.

But Emerson wasn’t convinced and essentially accused Homola of lying.

“We’ll have to take your opinion that you have not been involved directly in any of the planning department’s maneuvers because those were done in executive session which, of course, I wasn’t involved in,” she said. “Personally, I don’t take your opinion as truth.”

Emerson also accused Homola of doing a poor job as chairperson and allowed citizens at one meeting to make slanderous remarks about her.

“I just wanted to let you know there was a nasty comment made about tea bagging and I stepped in,” Homola reminded her.

Homola finally tried to bring the meeting to an end, but not before enjoining Emerson to come to work and put her time in. This sparked an angry response.

“I will do my duty as I see fit,” Emerson said.

During a Board of Health meeting afterward, Homola reached out an olive branch to Emerson and nominated her to be chairwoman, but Emerson declined.


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