Emerson should get time as Island County commission chair, Johnson says
By JUSTIN BURNETT
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
March 1, 2013 · Updated 2:56 PM
Two months ago, Commissioner Kelly Emerson received 60 days to settle her issues with the Island County Planning Department or face the possibility of once again being passed over for chairmanship of the board.
The matters have yet to be resolved, but Emerson will likely serve as county commission chairwoman.
Newly-elected Commissioner Jill Johnson is supporting her fellow Republican’s bid to serve as chairwoman.
Johnson said Thursday that she met with Emerson and Democratic Commissioner Helen Price Johnson before being sworn into office. Johnson said she made it clear to both that she believes Emerson deserves her turn at the helm.
“I made a promise and that’s to support Commissioner Emerson as chair(woman),” Johnson said.
“I keep my promises.”
The issue of chairmanship is the first thing the board will talk about during its next work session, set for Wednesday, March 6.
The meeting begins 9 a.m. and will be held in the Commissioners Hearing Room, 6 N.E. Sixth St., Coupeville.
Since her election in 2010, Emerson has battled with Island County Planning and Community Development over an alleged critical areas violation at her Camano Island property.
It started when department officials were informed during her campaign that an un-permitted porch was being built at the residence.
A stop-work order was issued and county officials said they found there might be a wetland on the property.
Emerson and her husband, Ken Emerson, spent the past few years maintaining that the wetland does not exist. They unsuccessfully sued the county, wracked up $37,000 in fines and hired two hydrologists to examine their property. Both hydrologists said no wetland exists.
Emerson said it should come as no surprise to anyone that the issue hasn’t been resolved. She said she made it clear in January, when she was given the 60-day deadline, that she didn’t expect anything to be resolved by March.
Neither she nor her husband are going to back down, she said, so the next steps — and ultimately resolution — is in the hands of planning officials, particularly its departmental chief, Bob Pederson.
As of Friday, her prediction held true; neither party has capitulated.
One side has to give, and Emerson said it will have to be the Planning Department.
“That’s all there is to it,” Emerson said during an interview this week.
Two issues are being disputed: the Emerson’s fines and an after-the-fact building permit.
With regard to the fines, the Emersons have few options until Pederson either decides to drop the matter or attempt and force the couple to pay.
The latter could be accomplished by placing a lien on the Emersons’ property.
Pederson confirmed that the next step is in his hands but declined to say anything further on the matter, specifically whether or not he is pursing a lien as a tool of enforcement.
As for the permit, the wetland issue will only be settled when an expert who passes “muster” makes a determination.
The two hydrologists hired by the Emersons are licensed by the state, but their credentials are disputed.
Pederson concedes, however, that their determinations may prove correct.
Planning officials who visited the site early on said they think one may have existed but until a mutually agreeable expert is hired, the matter will likely be unresolved.
“There may not be a wetland but the indications were there were when the county inspected the site,” he said.
The ongoing dispute has fueled debate, particularly along party lines.
Some Democrats bemoan an alleged lack of accountability for Emerson while some Republicans continue to claim that the commissioner is the victim of political attack.
“I still feel a sense of outrage; I wouldn’t be able to get way with what she’s doing” said Neil Colburn, a former Langley mayor and Helen Price Johnson supporter.
“I have no idea why Pederson and the board haven’t taken action against her … it doesn’t seem right,” he said.
“From my perspective, she’s represented her party but not the people of Island County; she’s an ideologue,” he said.
On the other side of the argument, North Whidbey resident Bill Strowbridge, an active Emerson supporter, said he thinks the ongoing issue stinks of political motivation.
He said he’s one of many who are fed up with the county’s refusal to acknowledge the absence of a wetland.
“If it were me, I would force the issue legally … even if it meant stepping down as a commissioner,” Strowbridge said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Helen Price Johnson was ordained chair for life,” he said.
“It’s sad and people want to put this behind,” he said.
The board has long held to a tradition of annually rotating the chair position.
Emerson was passed over last year by her two Democrat colleagues — Price Johnson and former Commissioner Angie Homola.
Emerson sought the spot again in January, this time with another Republican on the board, but she was again met with resistance.
Price Johnson refused outright to support her bid while her problems remain unresolved.
Johnson was unwilling to move forward at the time, instead suggesting Emerson receive two months to resolve the issues.
Though she called those issue’s “legitimate internal concerns” at the time, Johnson has softened her stance.
Johnson said she learned a little more about the issue and thinks Emerson has valid points of her own.
“The truth of it is this is a personal property rights issue between the Emerson’s and Island County – it’s not a commissioner issue unless you make it one,” Johnson said.
Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Justin Burnett at email@example.com or 360-675-6611 ext. 5054.