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Candidates conduct civil interview

A Tuesday night forum for candidates in Oak Harbor races was bereft of fireworks, but was a civil exchange that focused on the community's priorities for the future.

The event which drew a standing-room-only crowd of over 100 folks to the Senior Center was jointly hosted by the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce and the Whidbey News-Times. The questions came from Chamber members and newspaper readers, while the mayoral candidates took a few queries from the audience at the end.

The two City Council candidates who appeared — Bob Morrison and Jim Palmer — expressed more views in common than in contrast. But the three candidates for mayor — Councilman Paul Brewer, Councilwoman Sue Karahalios and Jim Slowik — were able to stake out some unique positions on the political landscape.

Council candidate Clairann Haney could not appear because she was at a board meeting for Red Cross.

The closest thing to a political jab came from Slowik. The mayoral candidates were asked what they thought about a rumor that the Navy may be willing to lease the Navy Lodge property, which is on the Seaplane Base near the Yacht Club.

Karahalios pointed out that there could be a public-private venture at the site, but she expressed concerns about costs to taxpayers.

"The citizens of Oak Harbor should not pay the burden of infrastructure," she said.

Slowik pounced on that, saying that the question "defined the differences" between the candidates. He suggested that the property could be incorporated into the marina and could be the site of a mall and restaurant.

"Vision. That's what this question is about," he said.

Yet in answers to other questions about priorities, Slowik focused on the more mundane business of maintaining and building infrastructure and never discussed the question of funding it.

Brewer did not directly answer the Navy Lodge question. He pointed out that a boat builder had approached the city about building a facility at the marina, but that the administration never passed on the request to the council. He said the mayor should focus on bringing in living-wage jobs, which presumably a shopping center at the Navy Lodge wouldn't provide.

Brewer wasn't the only one to dance around a question. Neither Slowik nor Karahalios answered a question as to whether they would support a proposal for a large shopping development, possibly a Costco, on the south end of the city.

Slowik spoke about the inevitability of growth and the need for adequate infrastructure and planning. Karahalios said that Oak Harbor may not need to take a different approach to growth if Freeland incorporates, though the city will need more room for senior facilities as the population ages. She added that her votes on the shopping development were clear, even though the actual proposal was withdrawn before the council had a chance to vote on it.

Brewer pointed out that his challengers' answers were off point; he clearly stated he was against the idea of a shopping center south of the city. He suggested that commercial development should go on Goldie Road at the city's closed-off landfill.

In his introduction, Brewer described himself as a person who gets things done, pointing out that he pushed a sidewalk-building plan and the patrol squadron memorial though city government.

"I don't give up a fight," he said. "When I think something is good for the community, I don't give up."

Karahalios said she was a proven and dynamic leader, very hard working and results oriented. She pointed out that she, as a former state representative, still has valuable contacts in state and federal government she can tap to bring grant money and other funding back to Oak Harbor.

"Being mayor is a huge responsibility and you need someone who knows what they are doing," she said.

Slowik said he is the "candidate for change." He said he will focus on infrastructure needs, create a five-year business plan and break the gridlock on the council by returning civility. He proposed using dollars more wisely.

"Let's search our budget and convert consultant costs to actual project results," he said.

When it comes to priorities among major projects, Karahalios and Brewer both pointed to improving downtown Oak Harbor, but with different wrinkles.

Karahalios said the downtown sewer plant needs immediate attention because of state requirements under Puget Sound clean up plans. She also pointed out that the city doesn't have any bonding capacity to do large projects. She pledged to work in the first three months as mayor to create a plan to restore bonding capacity.

Brewer said the city needs to stop planning and take action to improve downtown, but he also was critical of development, especially the building of waterfront condominiums — which he called "a view for a few."

"This town has been given away to development," he said. "It's time to turn it around and get back our town."

Slowik had a simple answer to the question of priorities: "infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure."

The city council candidates, on the other hand, didn't disagree about much of anything.

Palmer described himself as an open-minded planner and "a fresh set of eyes" who will work well with other council members. He also stressed the need to take care of infrastructure, especially roads.

"We need to encourage the community to use alternative transportation as part of that," he said.

Morrison said he, as a former councilman, understands the "who's and what's of getting things done in Olympia." He said the youth program should be expanded and the needs to look at building a new fire station in the growing southwest section of town. He said the city needs to be careful to preserve what it has.

"Growth and preservation must go hand in hand to ensure viability," he said.

When questioned about their thoughts on the Windjammer Plan to improve downtown, Palmer said he was open minded to ideas about moving forward. He said the many projects should be broken into smaller pieces that can be accomplished. He said he would encourage other service organization to become involved.

"We can use the same approach and commitment that got the stadium passed," he said.

Morrison stressed that it's important to get parts of the plan accomplished — even if it's the less expensive things — to build momentum. He pointed out that people have been planning for downtown revitalization for more than 30 years.

"Let's do something and get one of the projects done," he said, "and I think Pioneer Way (streetscape) is most economically feasible."

On the question of whether council workshops should be on TV, both men agreed that they should, but with caveats.

Morrison said it's a good idea unless the cost is prohibitive. Palmer said he was in favor of the idea, but was worried that a video camera would keep away people who are shy.

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

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