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Democrats come out swinging

Tempers flared and accusations flew at the candidates forum Thursday in the Oak Harbor School District building as voters were treated to a surprising display of attack-style politics.

Though the forum included candidates from all major district and county races, it was the debate between the candidates for both Island County treasurer and county prosecutor that caused the most commotion among the approximately 100 folks in attendance.

The candidates forum was sponsored by the Island County League of Women Voters.

Incumbent Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, a Democrat, apparently fed up with Republican challenger Kelly Barlean’s swipes at his record, dropped a bomb when he revealed a trial transcript in which a judge chastised Barlean for possible “disgusting and unprofessional” conduct during a murder trial. The judge’s comments were preceded by “if indeed Mr. Barlean did” what was alleged. The description of what happened came from Barlean’s co-counsel.

Banks said he decided to reveal the information because Barlean had chosen to make character an issue in the campaign.

“Ethics is important,” Banks said.

What the court transcript reveals is that while defending a client during a 1996 murder trial, Barlean may have intentionally withheld information about a plea deal from his client in order to provide a loophole out of a conviction should the client be found guilty. By withholding information, Barlean in essence was providing “ineffective assistance of counsel” to his own client, who was being charged with the stabbing death of a victim. The presiding judge who was highly critical of Barlean’s alleged tactic was Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Gerald Knight.

Banks said he had never seen an attorney “dressed down” in court by a judge.

Barlean told the crowd that what was actually happening during the case was that he was being criticized for taking on a case only two years out of law school. Such a claim does not appear to play out in light of the transcript, which was obtained by the Whidbey News-Times.

Barlean accused Banks of falsifying the record, apparently referring to a separate matter in which he was criticized by Judge Knight for taking on a murder trial with so little experience.

“I question the wisdom of an attorney, without any jury trial experience, starting out of the shoot the first trial... is a murder trial,” Knight said.

Treasurer talk gets hot

Things didn’t cool down much when the candidates for Island County Treasurer next took the stage. Democratic challenger Linda Riffe immediately went after the record of incumbent Republican treasurer Maxine Sauter, charging that a history of dubious audits by the state auditor’s office points to a need for change.

Riffe referred repeatedly to a series of audit reports issued over the past eight years in which the treasurer’s office under Sauter has been found to lack certain financial controls.

Riffe said it was her research into the auditor’s findings that drove her to run for the treasurer’s position, out of a sense of duty to the public.

“I was so concerned as a tax-paying citizen that I decided to put my career on hold,” Riffe said, referring to her leave of absence from her administrator’s position in the Oak Harbor School District.

“I can do better for the citizens of this county,” Riffe said, adding that she would also work to bring the office up to date on new technology, where it has woefully lagged, she said.

Sauter said she was shocked and amazed by what she was hearing. She reiterated a phrase that has become a sort of mantra over the past few months: “Not a penny has gone missing in my office.”

“Where this information is coming from is a shock to me,” Sauter said. “I’m very proud of my record.”

Sauter said she keeps a close watch on county funds. “Everything is counted and gone to the bank, which is only 20 feet away,” she said.

Riffe said the county’s risk manager, Betty Kemp, said in an interview that the county almost lost its bonding and insurance coverage because of the poor audit reports. Here, Sauter suggested someone from the audience call Kemp to straighten out the misinformation.

“I would not be doing this unless I was deeply concerned,” Riffe said, adding that anyone interested could look into the information themselves on the state auditor’s web page. “We can’t thumb our noses at the state auditor,” she added.

Other races more civil

Compared to the melee between the candidates for prosecutor and treasurer, the evening’s other debates were downright civil, as they avoided ad hominen attacks to focus on a number of the issues confronting county and state government.

Squaring off in the race for Island County Commissioner, District 3, were incumbent Bill Thorn, Democrat, and Republican challenger Bill Byrd.

Thorn pointed to his record as a commissioner over the past four years, focusing on his strong leadership in accomplishing such things as a cessation of herbicide spray in the county’s roadside maintenance and an expansion of the board of health. He added that he’s worked hard to create efficiency in county government during the current budget crisis.

“I’ve worked to keep a tight control on expenditures,” Thorn said.

Byrd said he’s running his campaign on four crucial issues: the budget, creating economic revitalization throughout the county, better transportation and public safety. He said overcoming budget shortfalls is high on his list of priorities.

“What’s going to happen in the next two to three years is crucial,” Byrd said. “It’s not going to get easier, it’s going to get harder.”

Both candidates agreed that it is important to expand the county’s economic base by bringing in new businesses that fit nicely into local communities.

Byrd said he has been shocked by the level of juvenile drug abuse and crime throughout the county, and he would work hard to create a juvenile detention center. Thorn agreed that the 10-bed juvenile detention center in the works is an important development, though he emphasized the need for education, treatment and prevention in overcoming drug abuse.

“I don’t think incarceration is the ultimate answer to drug abuse,” Thorn said.

Ultimately, Thorn stressed his experience as a commissioner, saying that the past four years have prepared him for making the tough decisions needed by county government. “I bring balance to the board of commissioners,” he said. “It’s a kinder, gentler place than it was four years ago.”

Byrd said his experience in the military as well as in the business sector has provided him with essential leadership skills. He said he’s ready to confront the current budget crisis, and to make hard decisions and cuts if necessary.

Although the race for county clerk has generated many angry letters to the editor, the current clerk, Jane Koetje, and challenger Sharon Franzen didn’t get into the dicey issue of why Koetje had fired Franzen, a 22-year veteran of the office.

In fact, Franzen agreed that Koetje made some “long overdue and wonderful” changes to the office in the last year, but said she would have made the same changed if she had the authority.

Koetje got only softball questions from the audience and emphasized her administrative savvy.

In the debate between candidates for the open state representative seat, Democrat Eron Berg and Republican Barbara Bailey said little to distinguish themselves from each other. Instead, the Libertarian candidate set himself apart by stressing his differences.

“Libertarians are different,” he said. “We don’t think we know how to run people lives.”

Both Berg and Bailey stressed their experience and activism. Berg talked about his career as mayor of LaConner and the many government boards he’s on. Bailey stressed her professional experience in the “corporate level of the hotel business,” her activity in the community, and her role as a mother and grandmother.

Bailey explained that her three main concerns are education, making the state more business-friendly and providing quality health care for everyone.

Berg said the community needs a proven leader fighting for them in Olympia during this time of budget problems.

“It’s absolutely critical that you have someone with a proven track record and the experience,” he said.

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