Veteran McDowell vs. upstart Homola

Veteran Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell speaks to the Candidates Night crowd in Oak Harbor as challenger Angie Homola listens.   - Nathan Whalen / Whidbey News-Times
Veteran Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell speaks to the Candidates Night crowd in Oak Harbor as challenger Angie Homola listens.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen / Whidbey News-Times

It’s hard to imagine two North Whidbey residents more different than the candidates vying to represent the area on the Island County Board of Commissioners.

Incumbent Commissioner Mac McDowell has been on the board for 16 years. The Republican is known for speaking off-the-cuff and saying exactly what he thinks in his easygoing way. He owns millions of dollars worth of real estate on the island and elsewhere and likes to keep property taxes low. He’s spearheaded efforts to protect Whidbey Island Naval Air Station from encroachment, to the ire of some property owners.

“The one thing communities can do to prevent base closure is to prevent encroachment,” he said. “I’ve made it a mission of mine since 1993.”

Angie Homola, the Democratic challenger, is a feisty newcomer to politics. She’s a fastidious collector of facts and figures, which she can quickly pull from three-ringed notebooks. She’s a wife of a reservist, the mother of school-aged children and, as an architect, she’s an owner of a home business. She’s known as an unapologetic critic of both county and city government, as well as a proponent of environmental stewardship and open government.

“We should be truly inviting the public to the table,” she said, adding that she would represent the greater public, not just the chosen few.

Island County Democrats apparently feel McDowell may be vulnerable this year. The Island County Democratic Central Committee has donated $7,000 to Homola so far. McDowell received $400 from the Republican equivalent.

Not surprisingly, the two candidates have a dissimilar ideas on a host of issues facing the county.

Open government

Homola has said she got involved in local government after being appalled by what she felt was a lack of open and responsive government.

“I think that questions should be welcomed and answered,” she said.

She wants to bring transparency to county government in a number of ways. Legal notices about action the county is taking, for example, should be in plain language.

“It should read so people can understand it and not read like legal jargon,” she said.

McDowell, however, said he’s been surprised by recent criticisms of the county’s public notice practices, especially regarding the accident potential zones. He points out that there were four planning commission and four county commissioner public meetings. There was even a meeting with Oak Harbor officials that was televised. The ordinance was changed due to public comments.

“I absolutely believe in open government,” he said.

McDowell said the idea of mailing out information on meetings to residents is cost prohibitive because he feels that all county residents would have a right to receive them. He said that would cost $25,000 each time.

“I think we should always be striving to do better through technology,” he said.

Budget woes

With the economy on everyone’s minds, McDowell has extolled how he and other commissioners have managed the county’s budget. He points out that the county has consistently had one of the very lowest property tax rates in the state during his term.

“We’re the lowest county right now in property taxes,” he said. “And we’re not one of these counties that’s wondering how it’s going to make bond payments.”

Over his 16 years in office, the county has done a number of construction projects, including building a new Law and Justice Center, remodeling two county buildings and putting up three new precinct offices for the Sheriff’s Office. McDowell said all this — except the juvenile detention facility — was done without any new taxes. He created a policy to limit bond payments to no more than 50 percent of known funds available for capital improvements.

McDowell voted to establish a 10 percent reserve in the general fund, which might just come in handy in the near future. And he was in office when voter-passed initiatives cut into county revenue. He boasts that cuts were made and the public probably didn’t even realize it.

“I’ve been there, I’ve done that and I’ll be able to do it again,” he said.

Homola doesn’t feel that the commissioners have always used tax dollars wisely. She said expensive consultants have been used to do work that either staff could handle or wasn’t needed at all. She points to land-use attorney Keith Dearborn, who received more than $1 million in fees from the county. His fees currently come from the planning department’s budget, which are independent from the general fund.

The candidate said the commissioners haven’t properly funded the Sheriff’s Office in recent years, adding only one deputy since 1998. She said deputies should always have backup available.

Homola argues that county commissioners have relied on revenue from new construction to fill the coffers, which she feels isn’t a responsible strategy. She said it’s lead to an unsustainable boom-or-bust mentality and ugly urban sprawl.

APZ debate

The biggest controversy that’s faced McDowell in recent years has been the zoning of accident potential zones, or APZs, which are areas surrounding the Navy base considered at higher risk for plane crashes. Some residents of North Whidbey are upset with a racetrack-shaped APZ that covers about 1,000 properties and creates some restrictions on land use.

Yet McDowell remains proud of the zoning. He said it will help keep the base off a closure list by preventing encroachment, which is intrusive development. He was a major player in the effort to prevent base closure in 1991. Since then, he’s returned to the Pentagon each year — sometimes at his own expense — to lobby the leaders.

“On my most recent trip, the Secretary of the Navy stated the county’s land use plan was a model for the U.S. in preventing encroachment,” he said.

Also, McDowell said preventing certain high-density uses — especially large daycares — is necessary for protecting the public.

Yet Homola feels that McDowell and other county officials should have made much greater efforts in informing the public and taking input in making such an important zoning change. If she’s elected, Homola said she would want the zoning ordinance to be rescinded and for the process to begin again — this time with more input and better notice.

She said she hasn’t made up her mind about the APZs, though she does have some concerns. She explained that the Navy did not even request the expansion of the zoning into a racetrack formation.

“We do need to protect the interests of the naval base, but we need to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise the rights of local citizens,” she said.

Homola does exaggerate the impact of the zoning, claiming it “means a person can’t work at their computer in their own home.” County staff said that’s simply not true.

Growth rate

Responsible growth is an important issue for Homola. She feels that the city of Oak Harbor’s request to expand its urban growth area — the property earmarked for annexation and development — will result in an unnecessary destruction of valuable farmland, harm to the environment and urban blight inside the city. The county makes final decisions in such matters.

She said the city’s study shows it already has more than enough room inside the city for growth over the next 20 years. In fact, she said the study was flawed and there’s a lot more room that it shows.

Moreover, she proposes that the state should have different growth standards for sensitive places.

“Let’s pick markers that are appropriate for islands,” she said.

McDowell said he agrees with the concept of the Growth Management Act that growth should be in cities. But he said the city went through the process and the study accurately shows that more land is needed for development in the future.

“My opponent would say we should do infill,” he said. “It’s just not true unless you tear down large areas of the town and put up multi-family developments.”

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