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Election 2007: Almberg, Vance vie for city council seat

In many ways, Oak Harbor City Council candidates Rick Almberg and Mel Vance are as different as can be.

But in other ways, the two men share some things in common, not the least of which is a passion to make their city a better place to live.

Almberg, who owns a successful construction management company, is running a well-organized, very visible campaign backed by many well-known Oak Harbor residents, including a $250 donation each from outgoing Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen and her husband.

He has a keen understanding of land-use planning, as both a seven-year member of the Oak Harbor Planning Commission and as someone who works with developers. As he said, he’s been part of the process from both sides of the table and has the respect of the development community.

“You really have to speak the language and understand the ripple effect of decisions to understand land use,” he said.

In contrast, Mel Vance currently lives a life of what he describes as a “volunteer.” He doesn’t have a regular job, but takes care of his mother, disabled friends and neighbors; he volunteers with the Island County radio assist. He is running a door-to-door campaign on his own; he’s not asking for money or endorsements from anyone. He doesn’t have experience on city committees, though he hasn’t been afraid to speak his mind at council or planning commission meetings.

Vance has strong opinions about what’s wrong with the city. He sees rampant development, an out-of-control budget, traffic congestion and a lack of responsiveness to the citizens.

“A lot of people want to see the end of the stranglehold that this minority of wealthy people has on the city,” he said. “A lot of people in this town want to see major changes.”

While Almberg helped make land-use decisions, Vance feels that many of those determinations were dead wrong. He sees too much sprawl and poorly-planned development with detrimental impacts on traffic and the environment.

“I’ve lived in Oak Harbor for over 35 years and I’m tired of seeing them screw it up,” he said.

Yet as a candidate, Almberg has specific proposals that would prevent problems like urban sprawl, the destruction of the natural environment and further traffic congestion. He advocates infill development, especially in the Midway Boulevard and Pioneer Way areas. He said the city should create incentives — like breaks from certain fees — to encourage redevelopment in the “infill zones.”

“Our first priority should always be: Look to infill,” he said.

In fact, both men were against controversial proposals for expanding the city’s urban growth area to make room for a large-scale retail development south of the city and a large-scale housing development on farmland east of the city. Vance spoke out against “another hopscotch annexation.” Almberg said he was opposed to the proposals on a technical issue; he said “it doesn’t make sense to amend a plan that doesn’t exist.”

When it comes to the council’s prioritized list of non-enterprise capital projects — including marina redevelopment and construction of a pier — Vance said most of it should be thrown out.

“We should concentrate on traffic problems, building a new fire station and fixing sewer lines in the old parts of town,” he said. “You gotta fix the infrastructure first.”

Vance said improvements to Windjammer Park or the marina are not critical things the city should tackle.

Almberg said the city’s highest priority should be protecting existing assets. The most obvious example on the city’s priority list sits at No. 1 — redevelopment of the marina.

Almberg is also a big supporter of efforts to revitalize downtown Oak Harbor. He served as chairman of a group that tried to build a performing arts center on Pioneer Way.

“It can really be the soul of the community,” he said.

Vance said he would rather see the city concentrate on developing business and industrial parks, which create well-paying jobs, instead of improving the retail environment downtown — where wages are more modest.

The two candidates also differ on the issue of whether city workshops should be videotaped and played on channel 10. Almberg said he’s not a fan of the idea for several reasons. He thinks videotaping would encourage grandstanding, stifle a free dialogue and cost too much.

“The money can be better used for other city business,” he said.

Vance is a strong proponent of videotaping. Though Vance is critical of the city for its free-spending ways, he said the estimated $2,100 a year to videotape economic development workshops would be money well spent on informing the community about how decisions are made.

In fact, Vance feels that city leaders have purposely tried to keep the citizens in the dark by doing a poor job of communicating. He points to the Dillard sewer system controversy as an example.

Almberg, in contrast, said the problem is that residents don’t get involved in important decision-making processes and tend to complain after the policies are in place. For example, he said he was disappointed when residents didn’t show up for an important planning commission meeting about the transportation plan.

Other ideas that Vance proposed include improving Internet service in the city to make it more appealing to business; increase development impact fees so that developers are paying for the “actual impact” they have on infrastructure; create an environmental impact fee to discourage clear cutting; and encourage the recycling of gray water through regulations.

Almberg hopes to find ways to better support small businesses, better protect shorelines and solve the city’s traffic congestion problems. He said he looks at the issues facing the city as being interconnected — from growth to traffic to land use to the need for cooperation with other governmental entities.

It’s this kind of a philosophy, he said, that will ultimately solve problems like the gridlock on Highway 20.

“A capital element of my campaign is looking for partnerships,” he said. “I believe the city has to partner up with the state to start addressing the critical segments of the highway. It’s not going to be an easy fix and it’s not going to be a fast fix.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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