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Differences stark in Island County commissioner race | Corrected
The tension between the two candidates vying to represent Oak Harbor-area residents on the Board of Island County Commissioners started before either of them ran for public office.
The city of Oak Harbor was considering a measure that would have led to a large development on the south end of the city. Angie Homola, a founding member of Swan Lake Preservation Group, spoke out against the proposal as being harmful urban sprawl; Jill Johnson, the Oak Harbor chamber director, spoke at a council meeting, saying that the majority of chamber members were in favor of the idea.
A confrontation later ensued. Homola claimed Johnson misrepresented the facts and was rude. Johnson claimed that Homola was a bully and acted as if she had the right to demand documents from the private organization.
The disagreement illustrates the differences between the two candidates, their vision for the future of the county and just how strongly they hold their positions.
“We have to throw out the old playbook model of growing as fast as we can,” Homola said. “… We can no longer rely on growth to fund the budget. We were seeing our taxes go up and our quality of life go down.”
Johnson said well-planned growth and development is sometimes necessary and she’s in favor of expanding the city of Oak Harbor’s boundaries, which Homola helped to partially block. Johnson claims Homola is simply against growth.
“If you are truly concerned about the environment, putting homes in urban areas is much more preferable,” she said.
Homola is running for re-election after one term in office marked by historic budget shortfalls. She is extremely hardworking and involved in countless committees and groups, which can also make it hard for citizens to get hold of her. She is an architect and used to work for the county planning department until the union negotiated a layoff for reasons that are in dispute.
Johnson is the executive director of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce. She started her career in politics and managed campaigns in Washington, Texas and Colorado. She was an important voice in the successful campaigns to remodel Oak Harbor High School and build the stadium.
The two candidates have different views on a wide range of issues. One only has to turn to the recently adopted Island County budget to see a good example.
After years of budget cutting, the commissioners finally were in the position to restore some of jobs and programs that were eliminated during the economic downturn. Homola voted to fund a new long-range planner, as well as a corrections deputy, in the 2013 budget.
Johnson argued that Homola is out of touch for placing the planning position at such a high priority.
“The sheriff’s office is underfunded. That’s what people are talking about, not another planner,” she said.
“What people want is a safe place to live,” she added.
Instead of a planner, Johnson said she would have returned more funding to law-and-justice departments to pay for things like a new deputy, prosecutor or patrol car.
But Homola argues that people are truly concerned about their quality of life, which in Island County is directly connected to their environment and, therefore, planning.
She said thoughtful planning can also spur the economy by luring business with things like business-friendly zoning, the protection of resources and an adequate transportation system.
Plus, she said not adequately funding the planning department could lead to expensive lawsuits if state-mandated plans aren’t updated. She said the county currently has the lowest staffed planning department in the state on a per-capita basis.
Homola has an ambitious list of goals for the next four years. She wants to bring the Oak Harbor and Island County planning departments together to do joint long-range planning, though she said city leadership has been reluctant so far. She wants to see new ordinances on tree retention, low-income housing and renewable energy. She wants curb-side recycling in the county and a consolidated county motor pool.
In addition, she wants to improve the county’s cyber technology so that people can apply for permits or pay for dog licenses online. She also wants tax adjustments to be completed earlier.
Johnson, on the other hand, has priorities on a more philosophical level. She said she wants to change the way the county approaches property owners and business, particularly small businesses.
“I think there is government overreach that makes it hard for small business to get going,” she said. “I’ve heard from small business owners who feel like county government really wasn’t on their side.”
As an example, Johnson points to “simple things” like the county sign code, which she said considers aesthetics over business interests. In addition, she said the permitting process should be streamlined and quicker. She said the commissioners should consider the impact on small businesses when they create new taxes, such as the Clean Water Utility, or raise fees.
Most of all, Johnson said her priority is to represent the people of the district.
“District 2 hasn’t been well represented over the last four years,” she said. “My opponent only represents a very narrow range of interests.”
A change in tone?
An issue that Johnson has emphasized on the campaign trail is “tone.” She said she can end the constant in-fighting on the board, which she describes as unprofessional, counterproductive and hard on employee morale. She faults all the commissioners — Homola, Kelly Emerson and Helen Price Johnson — for petty bickering.
“You’re going to end up with the same contentious board of commissioners if you don’t make any changes,” she warned.
Johnson also pointed out that fellow elected officials refused to participate in a roundtable budget discussion with the commissioners.
“That speaks volumes about the relationship the board has with the other elected officials,” she said.
Johnson said she has experience dealing with people who have very different points of view and can bring a new level of decorum to the board.
Homola counters that Johnson has rarely been to county meetings and, therefore, can’t speak with authority.
“I can count the number of meetings my opponent has been to on one hand,” she said.
Homola points out that she won a state award for bipartisanship and is known on state boards for cooperating with people on all sides of an issue. She puts the cause of discord on the board squarely on Commissioner Emerson’s shoulders.
“It’s very challenging when you have a partner who has a very different point of view … and is unwilling to consider other points of view,” she said, claiming that Emerson is unyielding and bases her opinions on faux facts.
Homola also argues that Johnson is the one who lacks decorum and used her position as chamber director to thwart Homola in the past. She claimed Johnson made it very difficult for her to address the chamber and told the chamber members that Homola “bullied her way in” to talk about Proposition 1, a failed tax increase effort.
“A level of diplomacy and bipartisanship are strengths in my camp,” Homola said.