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4 seek District 1 commissioner seat

A test of the Top Two primary

The race for Island County Commissioner District 1 has four serious candidates seeking two slots available on the general election ballot.

Two are Republicans, one is a Democrat and one is not affiliated with any party, but all have a chance to advance in this, the year of the “Top Two” primary.

Voters in District 1, which encompasses South and Central Whidbey, have a wide range of choices. Helen Price Johnson is the only Democrat; Phil Bakke is a Republican and the present appointed county commissioner; Reece Rose is a Republican with a Libertarian bent; and Curt Gordon is unaffiliated with any party.

In recent interviews with the Whidbey News-Times, all four gave a taste of what voters can expect if they are eventually chosen to be a county commissioner. Here they are, in alphabetical order.

Phil Bakke

Phil Bakke is the incumbent commissioner, thanks to the appointment he received after Mike Shelton resigned to take another job. He left his secure job as director of Planning and Community Development to enter the political waters.

“I love the job,” Bakke said of the position he has held since December. “It allows you to get involved in all kinds of things that as a land use guy you’d never be involved with.”

Bakke spent years working on planning and land use issues, and now enjoys the variety that comes with transportation, criminal justice and other issues the three-member board of commissioners deals with.

“The biggest surprise is how many things the county really does. There are so many people touched by services of the county in their daily lives. ... It’s just fantastic.”

Bakke, 37 and single, doesn’t dodge the land use and environmental issues in which he’s been embroiled for years. In Island County, most controversies are associated with growth and its regulation.

But in Bakke’s view, such issues aren’t as controversial as they were years ago. “Four to five years ago the county took a turn,” he said. “It was pretty combative in the late ‘90s.”

To defuse the situation, Bakke and other county leaders started inviting regular citizens to help with planning, hosting numerous meetings on critical areas protection, for example.

“All those meetings showed there’s a better way of doing it,” he said. “We made a big shift from an internal planning organization to a community planning organization.”

The county also started meeting with state agencies before plans were set in concrete.

As Bakke sees it, that shift has been a success.

“It completely changed relationships,” he said. The recent wetlands update was made without a huge public controversy. “Before, they would have been at our throat,” he said.

The county now has a wetlands program that includes continuous monitoring of major sites.

Now, Bakke doesn’t see land use as the No. 1 problem for the commissioners. His top priority is to upgrade the county’s technology, which has always been a problem, even dating back to when he was hired right out of college.

“In ‘94, they sat me down in front of a typewriter,” he laughed. While the county departments all rely on computers, the system is antiquated.

“It’s ‘70s and ‘80s technology driving it. It’s scary,” he said.

Bakke expects a difficult process before the 2009 county budget is adopted. He describes basic county services such as law and justice and health as “core programs, they’re good programs,” but he wouldn’t mind cutting grant-funded peripheral programs. “Next year is going to be a tough budget year for everybody,” he said.

A change in how the state apportions sales tax just went into effect, and Bakke said that “could be Island County’s saving grace.”

Curt Gordon

To Curt Gordon, this year provides a rare political opportunity because the new “Top Two” primary does not require candidates to label themselves, which is something he is loathe to do.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” he said. “I’ll make good on it while I can. I want to do the best for the people of Island County, while the other candidates offer party-line perspectives.”

The 51-year-old owner of Island Asphalt in Clinton is not new to elective politics, as he’s served many years as a South Whidbey Park & Recreation District commissioner, which is a non-partisan position. He’s also been active on the county level as an appointed member of the technical advisory group to the Conservation Futures Board, which helps buy conservation property for the public’s benefit. He also also served on the Regional Transportation Planning Organization.

He’s been a Whidbey Island resident since the age of 2, and he and his wife Sue have three grown daughters.

Gordon is willing to offer some criticism of Bakke’s spending on planning, but he focuses his campaign on what he sees as positive ideas.

His top priority is providing more affordable housing to Island County residents. His idea is to allow for more housing units along routes served by Island Transit, as long as there is suitable infrastructure in the area.

“Mix transportation with rural densities,” he said. “We should offer density bonuses near transit routes in the rural zone.”

While county officials recognize the affordable housing problem, Gordon said to date “there has been no creativity at the county level.”

From his time working in the Conservation Futures program, Gordon has become an advocate of purchasing environmentally important land using the existing property tax. “It isn’t fair to take people’s property, so take a little money from all of us and buy threatened property,” he said.

He would like to see more open space encouraged by allowing more clustered housing. “We’re checker-boarding the rural zone,” he said. “We’re losing affordable housing and also losing our workforce.”

Gordon foresees a difficult budget year for the county with dwindling revenues from construction. “We’re going to have to get creative,” he said of the budgeting process, promising to be open about it. “We can’t be doing backroom cuts.”

“A business perspective and family perspective are needed,” Gordon said of the board of commissioners. “I don’t have to be distracted by party politics.”

Helen Price Johnson

Helen Price Johnson is the only Democrat in the race for Island County Commissioner, District 1. She has deep roots on South Whidbey and in the Island County Democratic Party, in which her late mother, Virginia Price Jones, was active for many years.

“I’ve lived on the island most of my life,” Price Johnson said. “We need to protect the environment and community for the generations to come — and that’s not the direction we’re headed.”

Price Johnson would like to see a more open county government: more transparent, more inviting to public participation, and one which “weighs the environment on decisions.”

“The county should encourage a sense of community by promoting more volunteerism,” she said. “We have a great wealth of volunteers.”

That’s the tack she took when she was elected to the South Whidbey school board at a time of intramural squabbling and infighting, she said. She now heads the board.

“When I became president of the South Whidbey school board they told me ‘we’ve always done it this way,’” she said. But as she tells it, the various factions started working together in integrating the curriculum and other endeavors, and now the attitude is positive despite tough budgetary times.

Price Johnson said the county is guilty of acting prematurely in some cases. She cited recent controversies such as the Jefferds house allowed on Ebey’s Prairie and the wall allowed on disputed waterfront property in Greenbank.

“We need courageous and visionary leadership willing to stand up for all of Island County,” she said. “They’re always making the same mistakes. ... Local government makes better decisions when the community is brought to the table.”

Price Johnson, 49, said she will also bring business experience to the county job. She managed and then owned Jones Department Store in Langley for several years, and now handles the business side of the construction company she owns with her husband David. She’s particularly interested in promoting “green industries through forward thinking.” They have four children, the youngest a senior in high school.

She’s reserving judgement on the wetlands ordinance update heralded by incumbent Bakke.

“We’ve heard that it’s a model but we don’t know how good it’s going to work,” she said, adding later, “You’ve got to have the data to show what you’re doing is effective.”

Price Johnson also expects to deal with budget problems if elected, but she sees more serious problems ahead.

“The biggest threat is the threat to our community bond,” she said. “Let’s make sure our neighbors know who we are, and we know our neighbors, and let’s keep a data base of our most vulnerable. It’s a sacred responsibility that we take care of this wonderful place.”

Reece Rose

When discussing why she is running for Island County commissioner, Reece Rose goes directly to what she sees as the heart of the matter: the budget.

“The big concern is Island County is going bankrupt,” said Rose, a staunch advocate of small government and property rights. She was once active in the Island County Libertarian Party, but returned to her GOP roots.

“I saw them as what the Republicans claimed to be and weren’t,” she said of the Libertarians.

A real estate professional on Whidbey Island with a business background in California, Australia and Canada, Rose is wary of more taxes, which is what she sees in Island County’s future if changes aren’t made now.

“There’s a very real fear that after the election is over we will have a need for protection and they’ll go for a tax increase,” Rose said, saying the increase will probably be justified as a way to support the criminal justice system.

Instead, Rose would tackle the unions and related expenses.

“Island County has six unions,” she said. “It’s frightening.”

With cost-of-living increases, step increases and benefit increases, the county can’t keep up when its property tax increase is limited by law to 1 percent annually, unless there’s a vote of the people.

“This is not a good situation,” Rose said. “I’m very concerned we’re just two to three years away from being one of those bankrupt counties.”

To address the problem, Rose suggests a salary freeze and cap on benefits for county employees and cutting “needless programs.” She would eliminate outside land use attorneys, instead using the prosecutor’s office for such cases.

“That’s a good chunk of change,” she said.

Rose admits she won’t be popular if she bucks the unions, but she’s ready for the challenge. “I want to cut the spending, not increase the taxes,” she said.

She also has her budget paring knife out for county expenses, including money the commissioners spend on their automobiles and off-island travel. “I believe in small, limited government. We have a huge, bloated government,” she said.

She and her husband, former Navy pilot Rufus Rose, have five daughters between them, all grown.

Rose is optimist that the Top Two primary will give her an opportunity she didn’t have the one other time she ran for county commissioner in 2006, when the primary was closed, not allowing crossover voting.

“It really did me in,” she said. “I have a lot of Democratic support. A lot of Democrats are fiscally conservative.”

Like everyone, Rose is curious to see how the Top Two primary works in the competitive District 1 race, with its two Republicans, one Democrat, and one unaffiliated.

“I hope it’s to my benefit, but with four people it’s hard to say how it’s going to divvy up,” she said.

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