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Whidbey Island candidates spar in new league format

Island County District 2 commissioner candidate Phil Collier gets an earful from Terri Arnold after the League of Women Voters’ primary forum in Oak Harbor on Wednesday.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Island County District 2 commissioner candidate Phil Collier gets an earful from Terri Arnold after the League of Women Voters’ primary forum in Oak Harbor on Wednesday.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

Island County District 2 commissioner candidates faced off Wednesday at their first public political forum of the season.

And while short, at just over one hour, organizers from the League of Women Voters of Whidbey Island say the event did exactly what it was supposed to do: inform voters of their choices on the upcoming primary ballot.

“I think for the candidates, their strengths and weaknesses were clear to see,” said Marshall Goldberg, the forum’s moderator.

Rivalries were cemented, some reputations stained, others polished. However, just how deciding the forum will ultimately be when it comes to election day is impossible to know, Goldberg said.

This was the first of two scheduled primary commissioner forums being put on by the league this month. Participants included incumbent Democrat Angie Homola, Republicans Jim Campbell and Jill Johnson Pfeiffer, and Independent Phil Collier.

New format

Both forums utilize a new format. Instead of being quizzed by the crowd, candidates were asked previously prepared questions about current and future issues. Each candidate was also issued three challenge cards, which allowed them to contest the responses or comments of challengers.

They were not wasted.

Almost immediately, Collier, a small business owner in Oak Harbor, challenged Johnson Pfeiffer, the executive director of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, when she said one of the skills she brings to the job is her experience balancing business interests, tourism and the importance of a strong economy.

He criticized Johnson Pfeiffer’s job performance, saying that despite the chamber’s annual budget of about $360,000, which includes money from a special tax levied on the overnight lodging industry, no jobs have been created.

“Mrs. Johnson has created zero,” Collier said.

Johnson Pfeiffer bit back quickly and hard, pointing out that the chamber doesn’t get money for economic development. Rather, she said the referenced tax funding is non-discretionary and can only be spent on tourism promotion.

“I appreciate Phil’s perspective; he’s also not a member of the chamber of commerce so he is not familiar with our intimate details,” said Johnson Pfeiffer, which resulted in loud murmuring and some healthy chuckling from the crowd.

Collier immediately used his second challenge card to debate the issue further, and Johnson Pfeiffer argued back over the specifics of the chamber’s budget and how it’s spent.

The role of government

But it wasn’t all verbal sword play. By design, the pointed questions effectively nailed down the candidates on their positions on not just hotly contested issues, but also their views on the role of county government itself.

Campbell, who is in his sixth year on the Oak Harbor City Council, listed in order of importance public safety, roads and infrastructure and bringing commerce to Whidbey while Homola, in her first term as commissioner, said it was to protect the health, welfare and growth of the county.

Johnson Pfeiffer agreed with Homola,  adding that government “should be as limited as possible.” Collier listed public health and safety, balancing the budget and parks and recreation but went on to allege that the county was overstepping its environmental obligations and unfairly raised taxes.

In the past four years, the county has cut about $6.2 million from the current expense fund. The only approved tax increases in that period have been 1 percent annual increases and the one-time use of previously banked excess tax capacity on the road fund in 2009. State law allows both to be passed without a vote of the people.

However, the board did put a property tax hike, known as Proposition 1, on the ballot in 2010 but it failed. Later that year, a clean water utility was adopted but it is technically not a tax. Instead, fees are collected from property owners to fund specific surface and groundwater programs.

The budget

Naturally, candidates were quizzed with several budget-related questions, ranging from their feelings about new taxes to what specific county services should be cut or restored.

Collier said he is against any new taxes but would be in favor of restoring funding to the “building department,” as it is currently open only four days a week instead of five, along with the health department and those related to public safety.

He proposed cutting “failed environmental studies,” referring to salmon restoration efforts at Swan Lake and money spent on projects such as the work at Ala Spit and Dugualla Bay lagoon.

The remark was too much for Terri Arnold, director of the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District. She said from the front row, “Those are grant funds, goofball.” Although she was shushed by Goldberg, Arnold gave Collier a tongue-lashing after the meeting that was so severe that it cannot be reported in a family newspaper.

Campbell said he didn’t want to raise taxes but was not willing to say he would never do so. If elected, he promised to look at the “entire tax situation and for every one of those that I think can be sunset,” he would push for the board to do so.

As for funding changes, he did not say where specifically he would find the money but that he would seek to restore the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices to “proper staffing levels.”

“If the cops arrest them and we don’t have lawyers to put them in jail, why bother arresting them,” he said.

Homola, speaking a mile a minute, rattled off a range of figures relating to the county’s financial situation since she took office and the amounts cut from the budget. She emphasized that accusations of wasteful spending are inaccurate, that just 1 percent of the current expense fund --- about $300,000 --- funds services that are not mandated by the state.

“That pays for seniors, Meals on Wheels, a little bit for animal control and hungry kids,” she said.

She went on to argue that 57 percent of the budget is spent on law and justice expenses, which should make it clear that public safety is a top priority for the board. Finally, she said that over $6 million in cuts is no small amount.

“I can get rid of full departments and not get there. I challenge anyone to help me find that extra money,” Homola said.

At one point, Homola was challenged by both Johnson Pfeiffer and Collier to address her position about a state income tax. On both occasions, Homola said a point will come when a discussion has to happen but that it’s a question for the community to answer.

Johnson Pfeiffer said that she would not commit to never supporting a tax increase. There may be a time when something is needed and if the only way to fund it is with a tax increase, it warrants consideration.

“The short answer is yeah, if we want a service we pay for a service,” Johnson Pfeiffer said. “Nothing is free in life. I learned that when I got my first allowance, although if you get to your grandparents early you can get a few freebies.”

Base partnership

Another interesting question was how each candidate proposed to partner with Whidbey Island Naval Air Station leaders on community issues, such as the Accident Potential Zone, or APZ, and noise.

Homola, who has been a Navy wife for more than 20 years, said she knows how important the base is to the economy and that she’s had great relationships with the past two captains.

Specifically concerning the APZ, it’s a matter of balancing property uses with base encroachment. She also mentioned another recent issue concerning a dispute over allowed water use for the Navy’s golf course.

Finding common ground and communication is a key to success, she said.

Johnson Pfeiffer echoed Homola, saying communication, openness and trust are essential. She also noted how vital the base is to the island’s economy and referenced her ties with members of a local task force that works to preserve the base’s presence on Whidbey Island.

Collier answered by saying he calls the APZ by its informal name, the “crash zone.” He said he has property within its boundaries and wholeheartedly supports its existence.

“I like that noise, that’s the sound of freedom,” Collier said. “I enjoy it.”

Campbell, a former Navy member, claimed he has ties with the base. He formerly worked for Lockheed Martin and was the company’s liaison in Scotland between the Navy and the Royal Navy for the Trident Missile Program before retiring to Oak Harbor in 2000.

He said he is “for keeping the APZ just the way it is,” and suggested going one step further. He said the county should consider buying property around the base to ensure against encroachment.

The comment earned him a challenge from Johnson Pfeiffer, who asked where he expected to get the money for such purchases. Campbell said he didn’t know.

“I don’t have the answer to that yet, it’s an idea that needs to be investigated,” he said.

Homola challenged Campbell as well, asking him to define the differences between allowed uses in the APZ within the city and within the county and to define those boundaries.

Campbell answered that the county, city, Navy and state bought what was the “Boyer property,” comprising the APZ on land, and that the rest of it spans over the water so doesn’t impact anyone.

The exact boundaries of the APZ could not be verified by press time.

Partisan bickering

Finally, the candidates were asked how they would promote civil discourse with board members at times of disagreement. The question resulted in laughs of anticipation from the crowd before anyone answered.

Collier was first up and joked that it should be settled by the amount of “girth and how much tonnage” each person has. But, as it turned out, he was partly serious.

“I guess, not joking around, maybe we should get some boxing gloves on,” he said. “Lately it just seems like it’s always two to one.” That was a reference to the two Democratic commissioners and one Republican.

Prompted by a man from the crowd who asked what he would do personally, Collier said he would try to cross party lines as an independent to get both parties together.

Campbell said his reputation in Oak Harbor among those who pay attention to city politics says it all.

“You know what they are going to tell you? Jim Campbell is the adult on the city council. Jim Campbell is the moderator on the city council. Jim Campbell is the one that’s even tempered and helps everyone get to a certain point,” he said. “That is exactly what I would continue to do on the county commission.”

Homola recently received the Book End award from the Washington Association of Cities for her bi-partisan efforts in establishing legislative priorities of state wide significance.

She and Lewis County Commissioner Lee Grose, a Republican, were the only two commissioners in the state honored with the recognition.

However, Homola said there are problems on the board.

“We have some serious challenges on the Island County Board of Commissioners, I’m not going to tell you we don’t,” Homola said. “When somebody’s called a bitch or told she’s an idiot, it makes it very difficult to conduct business but I continue to try and do that with my head up because that’s my job and I’m going to take those challenges.”

Johnson Pfeiffer argued that while she doesn’t always agree with Republican Commissioner Kelly Emerson, she was elected by the people and her votes count as much as those that put Homola and Commissioner Helen Price Johnson in office.

“You can have buyer’s remorse, and I’m not telling you what to think about her,” Johnson Pfeiffer said. “I’m just saying she was elected and deserves respect.”

 

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