Establishment candidate faces reformer in race for mayor

The two men who want to be mayor of Oak Harbor next year have emphasized their differences on the campaign trail, but they also have a few things in common.

Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns has a long history in the city as a businessman, volunteer and politician, having served as a councilman before becoming mayor.

In contrast, Pat Harman is a comparative newcomer to the city. He has experience in public finance and has positioned himself as a reformer, particularly when it comes to budget decisions.

Severns said he is in the middle of two important negotiations for the city, and he wants to see them through. The city has an opportunity to obtain property at the marina, and the Navy is considering hooking into the city’s new sewage treatment plant, which could lower sewer rates for residents.

“It’s a big discussion and a big opportunity,” he said.

Harman is critical of city leaders’ decisions in building the sewage treatment plant, from the placement in the waterfront park to the costs that skyrocketed to twice the original estimate, leading to a large jump in rates.

He’s also critical of officials for letting city streets get to a state where residents are being asked to raise the sales tax to fund repairs.

Budget priorities, he said, should be police, fire and roads.

“Some of the things that are presently funded will have to change,” he said.

Harman said he believes in transparency and communication. He said it would be a good idea to gauge public sentiment through advisory votes, which should have been done before the city finalized plans for the sewage treatment plant, created a transportation benefit district or got rid of the RV park.

Severns pointed out, however, that the public was very much involved in important decisions through committees, charrettes and public meetings over years. When it comes to the sewage treatment plant, he said he would probably never again do a project through the general contractor / construction manager process. As opposed to the design-bid-build method, the final costs in a GC/CM project aren’t known until the end.

The $149 million plant was expensive, Sevens said, but the city is ahead of all the other communities which will be required to build expensive facilities as regulations tighten.

Both men are in favor of development, but with caveats.

Severns said he pays close attention to building projects that are being proposed and has pushed the city’s development services department to find alternatives — especially to stormwater rules — in order to help developers. The city, for example, may purchase an easement to help a large residential project on the south end of the city deal with stormwater.

At the same time, Severns said developers sometimes don’t understand regulations and get angry at the city for requiring them to follow the law, leading to the perception that the city is an obstacle to growth.

“I’m a firm believer in the free market, “ he said, “but people who want to do those kinds of projects need to do their homework.”

Severns and Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson started an affordable housing task force to explore ways to encourage affordable development. He said officials are just starting to put some of the proposals into action.

Harman said he would rather have a farm as a neighbor, as opposed to a housing development, but he feels that the way to lower the city’s crippling utility rates is through residential growth, which he said should be managed intelligently.

“I’m begrudgingly pro-growth,” he said. “I’m not going to go pell-mell into it.”

Harman added that he believes the city’s permitting process can be streamlined, saying that it can take an inordinate amount of time to get a building permit for a simple project.

The two candidates also have similar views on a controversial affordable housing project downtown. Severns said he would have liked to see more retail space on Pioneer Way, but that the project followed city code — which the council is looking at changing in response.

Harman said retail business is good for downtown, but pointed out that there’s plenty of empty retail space already and not enough affordable housing. The property in question hadn’t been developed in 40 years, and is across from the sewage treatment plant. He questions why people suddenly think it’s such a valuable spot for retail, he said.

“People think it’s homeless housing,” he said. “There’s a lot of misinformation.”

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