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Commissioner Shelton quits

After leaving an indelible chapter in the annals of Island County, Commissioner Mike Shelton is moving on, poised to pen the next installment of his life.

The seasoned veteran of local government announced his resignation Monday, sending a wave of shock through several communities. Shelton will put an end to nearly 15 years of county service. The Republican commissioner has accepted an executive director position with the Washington Counties Insurance Fund in Olympia.

The new position will take Shelton and his wife, Marla, away from Whidbey Island, the couple’s home of more than 37 years. Moving is bittersweet and not without trepidation.

“Leaving a job that I’ve loved for 15 years is a difficult thing,” he said. “We moved here about three months before my son was born and he’s going to be 37 years old here in a few months. We’ve been married for 40 years, so practically our whole adult life has been spent on Whidbey Island. It will be hard to leave. We have lots of friends and family. That will be difficult.”

Shelton was approached in early May about the position. The decision to vacate his seat, which has one year and four months remaining on the term, was not an easy one. He feels, however, that he is leaving his successor with a county in good financial shape. But responsible frugality and fiscal efficiency are only a couple of the successes during Shelton’s tenure.

“With effective management of dollars, we’ve been able to do quite a few things,” said Commissioner Mac McDowell, who has been with Shelton since day one. “And Mike has been there for all of them.”

Communication has also been a watershed for the county in the last 15 years.

“There’s just been a multitude of changes,” he said. “I think we’re a much more customer-oriented courthouse than we were. We’ve tried to hire people that made that a priority in their job and pass that priority down through their departments. I’m proud of the 15 years and the things we’ve accomplished here.”

The Island County campus and county in general are markedly different than what Shelton observed when he first came into office. New buildings have been built or remodeled. Public health clinics have been added. Roads have been improved.

“I think we’ve accomplished a lot of very significant things,” he said, not the least of which is the county’s comprehensive plan under the Growth Management Act.

“They’re talking about our comprehensive plan potentially being a state model,” said Mac McDowell. “Our staff, along with Dr. Paul Adamus, has done original, scientific work tailored for Island County. So, from a planning standpoint, we’re head and shoulders above where we used to be. We’ve brought the county into the electronic world.”

Controversy and contentiousness have marked some of the issues Shelton and his peers have grappled with over the years. Land use never fails to paint a bull’s eye on the commissioners. Marianne Edain of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, a group that has had plenty of exposure to the commissioner, highlighted his honesty.

“We disagreed vehemently on many issues, in part on the values of critical areas and dedicated, permanent open space,” she said. “He’s an honest man, and as far as I know, he’s never personally stooped to ad hominem attacks. I don’t agree with his politics and ideas, but he’s a decent human being.”

Representing a district with a strong liberal presence, the moderate Republican enjoyed support from across the political aisle. Reece Rose, a Republican who challenged Shelton in the last election, said he was tough to beat because of the “heavy crossover voting” from Democrats.

Regardless of the issue and the public response, Shelton’s levelheaded leadership and languid oratory have been a trademark of his time in office. When the commissioner leaves in August, he will take with him a deep understanding of the county and its nuances.

“Island County loses a huge chunk of institutional knowledge when Commissioner Shelton leaves this fall,” Commissioner John Dean said. “While his shoes will be impossible to fill, I am happy for Mike and his wife, Marla, and I congratulate them on their decision to take on a new life in Olympia. The good news is Mike will continue working for the good of Island County as executive director of the Washington Counties Insurance Fund. The bad news is I will miss a talented and dedicated colleague who has been good to me as I began my new career in Island County government this year.”

McDowell and Shelton have not always seen eye-to-eye, but the duo learned each other’s strengths over the 15 years and built mutual respect and friendship while tackling unpopular issues. Loosely and fairly inaccurately compared to the situation in Las Vegas, whatever happened in the hearing room stayed in the hearing room.

“I think we balance each other pretty well,” McDowell said. “He’s a close friend and that friendship has grown with 15 years of working with him. We don’t always agree, but most of the time we tend to agree on most things. I’m going to be very sad to see him go. He’s done an outstanding job for his district.”

Former county sheriff Mike Hawley, now a lieutenant on North Whidbey, worked with Shelton for the entirety of the commissioner’s career in the county.

“It was a pleasure working with him,” he said. “He was an excellent administrator as well as very personable and had a great ability to find common ground among very diverse opinion. Island County will miss him greatly.”

The county is on the verge of passing the imposition of a tax that will be a boon to community mental health, a passion of Shelton’s.

“I’ve spent almost singularly as much time on mental health issues during my tenure than I have on any other issue,” he said. “I think we’ve come a ways. We’ve certainly got some distance to travel yet.”

The community mental health system is really designed in Washington D.C. and Olympia, he added, because it revolves around funding. The Medicaid funding and the state-only dollars that flow into the county come with strings attached that sometimes make it difficult to manipulate the money in a way that meets the needs of the communities.

“That is the reason, in some ways, why we’re proposing a tax for local-only dollars, because we have all of these gaps that state and federal dollars can’t be used to fill,” he said. “And yet the need is huge.”

Shelton’s new job will allow him to continue to actively participate in local government, a passion that he has developed over the years. He said he will miss the level of accountability that working in Island County has granted him. And he will miss the people.

“Lots of good people live in Island County.” he said. “We have a great staff here, people that I have the highest regard for. In Island County, I think a lot more than in other counties, there is an involvement level of people in government that makes the accountability factor very, very high. And I think that’s a good thing. One of the things that I like about local government is that you’re not separated from your constituency. When you go to the grocery store, the post office, or whatever, you are making yourself available to ask questions: Why did you do this or why did you do that? I think that’s all good. If you’re in Olympia or Washington D.C., you don’t have that constant interaction and feedback from the people that you serve.”

To find a successor, the Republicans’ central committee will meet and people interested in the position will submit their resumes. Three candidates will be chosen by the precinct committee officers and the two county commissioners will choose.

“They will not have to run for election this year because it’s so late in the year,” said Sinclair, who is herself interested in the position. “They will have to run for election in 2008 if they wish to continue, but that’s the standard cycle for the position.”

If Dean and McDowell cannot decide on an appointee, the governor would choose from the pool of Republican candidates.

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