3 grilled in public

The three applicants for the Island County commissioner vacancy bring different tools to the table.

Planning Director Phil Bakke, Auditor Suzanne Sinclair and real estate broker and former commissioner candidate Reece Rose faced the music Wednesday night in Oak Harbor as members of the Island County Republican Party and the public probed the three candidates with questions.

Each member of the trio is vying for the District 1 position that is empty as of Friday after longtime Republican Commissioner Mike Shelton stepped down. The party’s sparsely-attended public reception in Oak Harbor provided an opportunity for the applicants to sound off on various issues as well as separate themselves from the political herd.

Bakke, a graduate of South Whidbey High School, has spent 12 years with county, eight of them at the planning helm. His job has afforded him ample time to work with the commissioners and has placed him firmly in the middle of contentious land-use issues.

“I have a lot of passion about the community, how it develops, and how our county government delivers services to our citizens,” Bakke said during the introductions, adding that proper investments and continual efficient frugality will be tantamount to running a prosperous county.

Rose said she is focusing on health and environmental issues and ensuring that the government is not overly intrusive.

“It’s a difficult job, but I love working with people,” she said. “I believe I’m an able administrative person and I believe that we have a wonderful county, we have wonderful employees, and we can just grow together and be even better.”

Sinclair has also cut her teeth in Island County government for 12 years, 10 as auditor. During her tenure, she has amassed resources that she said would serve her well in the commissioner position.

“I have built a network of acquaintances and resources across the state that I think will be a benefit to Island County were I the commissioner,” she said.

Trio lists

top concern

Party Chairman De Dennis asked the applicants what they see as the number one concern for the county.

Although Sinclair said wetlands and land-use issues will likely grab headlines, she said a glaring lack of affordable housing is the more pressing worry.

“The median wage earner can’t afford median prices,” she said. “That needs to be addressed.”

Bakke said land use issues will be crossing the commissioners’ desks, including Fish and Wildlife updates on how the county regulates streams and salmon recovery. But budgets will undoubtedly take center stage.

“There are always more requests than there are dollars to fill them,” he said. “And so it becomes a matter of prioritizing ... That current expense fund is stretched a long way.”

Rose agreed that budgeting would be an issue in the face of a predicted declining economy. She said, however, that she is concerned with emergency management services. The county has a thick plan assembled by dedicated volunteers, but the key is turning theory into application. The county needs to be proactive, rather than reactive.

“There’s a tremendous distance to go between creating the plan and fully implementing it,” she said. “And I think we’re going to need to take a good look at that.”

Ferry service

ideas sought

Living on an island, an efficient ferry system is crucial. With only one boat now running the Keystone route, audience member Butch Bailey asked the applicants for possible solutions: improving or relocating the terminal, or designing new boats.

“The Keystone thing’s not going away,” he said.

Sinclair, a former Vashon Island resident, can relate to ferry reliance. She said she could appreciate the ferry system’s desire to have uniformity in its fleet, but advocated for additional new boats with more frequent trips. Relocation of the terminal is not feasible, she said.

Bakke agreed that moving the terminal would be an unlikely solution given environmental concerns, tribal issues and incensed homeowners.

“I think the alternative that makes a whole lot more sense is developing shallow draft boats that are highly maneuverable to go in and out,” he said, adding that Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland has appealed to the state to allow construction and usage of the new boats. “We need to get past that.”

Rose maintained that patching up 80-plus-year-old boats is not the answer.

“This business of hanging on and hanging on doesn’t make sense,” she said, instead recommending the securement of state funding to get the shallow draft boats on the water. “I think Nichols Brothers is prepared to build them for us.”

Getting ready

for growth

After the figures for county population growth were released, the islands were abuzz with talk of a boom and problems created by the projected influx. The candidates were asked how they felt about the growth and how best to handle the hordes of people potentially relocating to Island County.

Bakke said the commissioners have already down-zoned significantly in unincorporated Island County. Therefore, more development will take place in the cities. The planning director said cluster developments could be built in exchange for permanent open space.

“What we’re seeing is infilling,” he said. “The population growth will slow when there is no more room for infilling.”

Sinclair said growth is necessary and inevitable, and agreed with Bakke’s assertions.

Rose said the opposite of growth is stagnation. The real estate professional added that the county will have to plan very well as water, sewer and utilities will be constraints with which to contend.

The Island County Fair has been a fixture in local newspapers in the last two years. And not because of the festivities. Dennis asked the applicants about their commitment to the fair and how they saw the annual event in the future.

All three applicants said relocation of the fair could be an option if an ideal site was secured.

“It’s an issue that needs to be studied,” Sinclair said. “I would think you need to talk to the players.”

Rose said if the fair were to move, discussions between the city of Langley and the fair board would be necessary.

Bakke said if the fair remains in Langley, event volunteers and board members will have to work with Langley to find a peaceful coexistence. He added that he had spoken with stakeholders from both sides and they were amenable to changes.

“They have a real interest in picking that torch up again,” he said.

The next primary election could be very interesting with two potential, very interested Republican candidates inevitably left over after the appointment. Only Rose confirmed that she would run again if she is not chosen. Bakke and Sinclair said they would not rule it out.

When asked about their stance on the mental health sales tax passed in the county, all three applicants were in support. Reece added that she would have asked more questions to ascertain how Island County came up with their mental health numbers.

On the issue of encroachment of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and resulting development restrictions, the three candidates were also in agreement that the base is vital for the economy and the buffer needs to be maintained.

Commissioners Mac McDowell and John Dean will personally and publicly interview the three candidates Wednesday, Sept. 5, at 6 p.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room in Coupeville.

Each candidate will be interviewed separately, while the other two will be asked to leave and remain out of earshot until their turn. A closed executive session will follow and if Dean and McDowell reach an agreement, a motion will be made in public and the county will officially have a new commissioner.

The commissioners have 60 days to defer a deadlocked decision to the governor.

While the board interviews will be open to the public, time will not allow for questions from the audience. However, questions can be submitted for consideration by mailing the commissioners office at P.O. Box 5000, Coupeville, WA 98239 or emailing it at

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