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LaFond farewell

Staff photo / Jessie StenslandRecently retired councilman John LaFond sits aboard his racing sailboat, Grampa John. LaFond has sailed in Race Week every year since 1982. He looks forward to having more time for sailing and skiiing after leaving the city council. - Jessie Stensland
Staff photo / Jessie StenslandRecently retired councilman John LaFond sits aboard his racing sailboat, Grampa John. LaFond has sailed in Race Week every year since 1982. He looks forward to having more time for sailing and skiiing after leaving the city council.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland

The calm voice of reason on the Oak Harbor city council has given up his seat.

John LaFond spent his last night on the council at a meeting just before Christmas. He decided not to run for re-election in November. Former city employee Eric Gerber will take over his seat this month.

LaFond retired from the Navy in 1979 and retired from Skagit Valley College in 1999. But now the busy 64-year-old is completely, and officially, retired.

That leaves him free, finally, to ski the mountains and race his sailboat to his heart’s content.

“People ask me if I’ll miss the council and I have to say, ‘no,’” he said. “I’m glad I did it and I’d do it all over again. I thought it was interesting and it was satisfying to serve the city of Oak Harbor, but my identity isn’t based on being on the city council.”

In his 12 years on the council, LaFond always seemed to have a way of distilling an issue so that it’s easy to understand and the answers seem like common sense.

He took his responsibilities seriously.

“I would like to point out the humorous moments, but I went digging and couldn’t find any,” Mayor Patty Cohen said in a farewell speech to LaFond at the Dec. 18 council meeting. “We were told he’s a very serious critter.”

His greatest effort, Cohen said, was that he “painstakingly watch-dogged the city budget.”

Fellow Councilman Paul Brewer felt that LaFond was a “rubber stamp” for the three mayors he’s served under. LaFond admits that he usually supported the administration’s position, but only because it seemed the most reasonable one to him.

“I did not believe in being against something for the sake of opposition,” he said. He considers himself a “pragmatist.”

But LaFond wasn’t unaccustomed to controversy. Over the last year, for example, he stood alone in pushing to keep the 6 percent property tax that expired at the beginning of 2001. He finally got his way at his last meeting, where all but Brewer decided the tax was the only way to balance the troubled budget.

“He has consistently demonstrated the ability to take the unpopular position,” Cohen said before handing LaFond the ceremonial engraved oak leaf.

Oddly, perhaps, LaFond said the greatest controversy he was at the center of involved the Oak Tree Preservation Committee. He was the chairman of the committee in the 1980s, when the committee proposed an ordinance that protected the larger trees from development. He said the proposal greatly angered several council members, who felt it infringed on property rights.

LaFond was on the council during many other controversies, including the battle over Wal-Mart coming to town, the annexation of the Hackney land, creation of the comprehensive plan and extension of water lines to Goldie Road.

He said his “greatest disappointment” while on the council was seeing others bend to the will of small but vocal special interest groups. As the saying goes, he said, the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Yet LaFond said his politics have changed while he’s been on the council and has learned how government really works.

“I’ve become more liberal over those 12 years,” he said, “and I’ve come to realize that a lot of things government does wouldn’t get done if it wasn’t for government. ... In a 100 percent pure capitalist society, some things just wouldn’t get done.”

LaFond has been the chairman of the city’s marina, lodging tax and the Oak Tree Preservation committees, as well as a representative to the Economic Development Council. These duties he also took seriously.

Marina Harbormaster Dave Williams said LaFond is a big supporter of the marina and has always had “lots of good ideas and good advise.”

“He’s a great guy, a good friend and a voice of logic and reason,” Williams said.

LaFond’s common-sense aspect may come from his education. He became a civil engineer in the Navy. He went to the University of Utah while he was in the Navy in the early 1970s and earned a master’s degree in business administration.

The Navy transferred LaFond, with his wife Carole, to Whidbey Island in 1974. Their three children — Ron, Mike and Sandy — all graduated from Oak Harbor High School.

He’s seen a lot of changes since then. The population has doubled. The highway has been widened. The senior center, the city pool, the public works building, the fire department, the post office and the library have all been built in those years. When he moved here, the MacDonald’s and Burger King were just being built. They were the first franchise fast food restaurants in a city that is now full of them.

He said the city has become a better place to live over those years, but he also has big hopes for the future. He would like to see the Hackney land on the north end of town turned into a business park. He wants to see an interpretive center and trails built in the Freund marsh. And he would like to see downtown Oak Harbor revitalized, along with the construction of a performing arts center.

“There are half a dozen things I would like to see done in the next ten years,” he said. “The biggest obstacle, of course, is funding. I don’t know if it will ever happen, but a pier would be nice.”

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

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