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Popular candidates, varied backgrounds

Island County Commissioner Phil Bakke chats with his opponent, Helen Price Johnson, before a recent candidate forum.   - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
Island County Commissioner Phil Bakke chats with his opponent, Helen Price Johnson, before a recent candidate forum.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

Voters may have a tough time deciding between two candidates for Island County commissioner.

Republican Phil Bakke and Democrat Helen Price Johnson are vying to represent South and Central Whidbey on the board. They are both known for being genuinely nice people with deep roots in the South Whidbey community.

In possibly the first time in county history, both candidates are “Falcons.” Price Johnson graduated from Langley High School in the 1970s. In 1988, Bakke graduated from South Whidbey High School, which replaced Langley High.

Yet they made very different choices in their professional lives. Price Johnson said she understands the challenges of small businesses, which are an especially vital part of the county’s economy. She owned Jones’ Department Store in Langley until 1992 and now runs Price/Johnson Construction with her husband. At the same time, she’s served on the South Whidbey School Board.

“The difference between us is, Phil has worked for the county most of his adult life, while I’ve been in the community running small businesses, raising a family and being involved in the community,” she said.

Bakke has had a remarkable career in the county planning department. He quickly rose in the ranks and became the first code enforcement officer. When the planning director retired in 1999, he recommended Bakke to take his place. At age 29, Bakke became head of a department with a $1.6 million annual budget and 31 employees. Then last year, Bakke took a pay cut to be appointed as a county commissioner.

“The county has never had a trained planner as a commissioner before,” he said. “I think it’s a real advantage. In the time I’ve lived in the county, the issues that have been nearest and dearest to the citizens have been land-use issues.”

APZ issue

One of the most controversial land-use decision in recent years was the adoption of accident potential zones, or APZs, around the Navy base on North Whidbey. The APZs are areas the county considers more at risk for an airplane crash. The new zoning prohibits churches, schools, day cares, campgrounds, equestrian centers and other similar uses, though current uses are “grandfathered in.”

Bakke defends his vote for the zoning, which he feels will prove to be the right decision in the long run. He points out that it protects the base from encroachment while lessening the chances of a catastrophic loss of human life if a plane does crash.

Bakke blames the people opposed to the APZs for spreading false information about the impact.

“What has happened is almost shameful,” he said. “People don’t know what they are talking about. They need to read it.”

Price Johnson said she’s not sure that the APZs are necessary — especially the expanded “racetrack” zones.

Open government

But Price Johnson argues that there wouldn’t be a problem with misinformation if county leaders had done a better job of informing the public about the proposals and the process.

“A great opportunity was missed by the board to bring the community along,” she said, explaining that the council could have sent out press releases and held forums in the affected neighborhoods.

In fact, Price Johnson said the perception that the county isn’t open and responsive is one of the reasons that she decided to run for the office.

“I want to help ensure that our county is a government that we can trust, that’s open and is of service to people, not an impediment to them,” she said.

She feels that resistance to openness and public input, especially from people with opposing viewpoints, trickles down from the commissioners to the departments they control. Members of the planning department, and Bakke himself, are notorious for not returning phone calls.

“I think that’s disrespectful,” she said.

Price Johnson said it’s a tremendous waste of resources when groups of citizens and the county have to hire attorneys to battle each other over land-use issues. She said she was elected to the school board during a time of budget problems and was able to find solutions by working closely with the public.

“I want to get more people engaged in the county,” she said, “and access the energy in the community.”

On the other hand, Bakke said the planning department has made huge strides over the last decade in improving its relationship with the community. He said public participation is an essential component in the planning process and the county is always striving to find better ways to communicate.

“I believe in public input,” he said. “The tough part is figuring out the best way to do it.”

Bakke said his door is always open and he never forgets that he works for the people.

While the commissioners control the county purse, Bakke pointed out that most departments are headed by an independent elected official. He said sometimes the community unfairly blames the commissioners for issues in departments that are beyond their control. He admitted, for example, being frustrated that the prosecutor’s office has taken more than three months to answer an important question about beach access in Greenbank.

“People in the community are being encouraged to believe that the county doesn’t care because it’s taking a long time,” he said.

Budget woes

Yet perhaps the biggest challenges facing the commissioners is the budget. Costs continue to increase while revenue projections are down.

Bakke said an essential part of the budget process is the workshops with elected officials and department heads. Requests and needs for the following year are discussed at the meetings. The commissioners are just finishing up a series of workshops, but Bakke said Price Johnson missed all but one.

That’s a big problem, he said, since she would take office immediately after the election in certified if she wins. Under state law, appointed officials have to leave immediately if they lose an election. The county budget has to be completed soon after the election is certified.

The hearings that Price Johnson missed are essential, he said, to understanding the budget.

Price Johnson, on the other hand, is critical of Bakke for his pledge in the voter’s pamphlet that there will be “NO NEW TAXES.” Bakke already admitted that he will vote for the annual 1 percent property tax levy.

Bakke said he doesn’t consider that a “new tax.”

Also, Bakke said his “no new taxes” pledge is only for a year, which isn’t at all clear in his statement. Price Johnson said his pledge is obviously misleading.

Yet in general, Bakke said he’s against increasing taxes in the current economic environment.

“It’s just not the right time to be raising taxes,” he said. “It’s just not.

Price Johnson said she is concerned, as a small business owner, about county fees that go up without any notice to the community.

She said she would search for efficiencies across the county budget before even considering raising taxes. She said she will look to the residents for guidance in deciding whether to cut services or raise taxes, if it comes to that.

“It’s important to engage the community in a conversation for setting priorities,” she said.

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