5 candidates with 4 political affiliations vie for commissioner

Five candidates representing a surprisingly full range of political affiliations — or non-affiliation — and a breadth of views are hoping to replace Commissioner Helen Price Johnson.

Voters get to choose from two Democrats, a Republican, an Independent and a No Party candidate in the Aug. 4 primary election, which will winnow the candidates down to two.

A sixth candidate, Republican Gary Wray, bowed out of the race and endorsed Curt Gordon.

The two Democrats are Melanie Bacon and Nathan Howard.

Bacon currently works for the county as the human resources director and Howard used to work as a planner until moving on to Snohomish County.

Bacon, who was endorsed by Price Johnson, has worked closely with the commissioners and feels the county is well run, with very low turnover, but she has ideas for improvement.

Howard, a former union president who once sat on the opposite side of the negotiating table from Bacon, argues that the county needs a “culture change” from the top down.

Independent candidate Gordon, who has long focused on affordable housing and transportation issues, and No Party candidate Ed Jenkins are also intertwined. Jenkins has run against Gordon in every race he’s filed for in the last 11 years, which is quite a few. Jenkins, who didn’t return calls for an interview, has focused on criticizing Gordon in every candidate’s forum. Gordon said he doesn’t understand the obsession.

Damian Greene, a longtime member of the South Whidbey School Board, is now the sole Republican in the race. He’s a lifelong Whidbey resident who focuses on stewardship of what we have; he has worked for the ferries and as a train engineer, so transportation is one of the key issue for him.

The candidates’ ideas about the interrelated issues of affordable housing and homelessness illuminate some of the differences among them.

Gordon, as someone in the construction industry, has been warning about a dearth of affordable housing and its interconnection with county rules and regulations since the 1990s. Yet he’s not calling for a wholesale revision of the county zoning code and he doesn’t want to see large developments within the county’s unincorporated areas.

Rather, he said smaller tweaks of county policies and rules could do a lot to fix problems caused by the county and encourage things like guest cottages, which are smaller, accessory residences on a property.

“They make good use of existing utilities and infrastructure,” he said.

Bacon proposes a housing trust fund for the county, which would spur the construction and maintenance of affordable housing with capital financing in the form of grants or loans. She said only a few counties in the state have such a program, but she feels it will make a difference.

“One of the ways I would judge the success of my first year in office is whether a housing trust fund is established,” she said.

She said the county zoning code could be changed to allow and encourage small developments, like accessory dwelling units, fourplexes and even small boarding houses.

She sees affordable housing and homelessness as national issues tied to low minimum wage. She said the county needs to provide supportive housing for people in mental health crises.

As a land-use planner, Howard said housing issues are his “bread and butter.”

“The reality is, it’s going to take a lot of different approaches,” he said.

County leaders, for example, can encourage cities to “build up instead of building out,” which is called for in the Growth Management Act. Again, he said it’s a matter of changing a culture in which the city of Oak Harbor sees itself as a single-family-home community. He said the county can make changes in zoning rules to allow farm worker housing, more housing like duplexes and even communal living.

He’s a big fan of pilot programs, he said, which could be created to explore solutions and educate people about the realities of what’s possible and how different housing options affect the community.

He also supports the “housing first” model, which prioritizes getting homeless people into housing as a first step that allows other issues like substance abuse to be addressed more effectively.

Greene said people don’t want to see apartment buildings in rural areas, so he wants to encourage more residential development in non-municipal growth areas like Freeland. It’s time to look at alternative sewer system ideas for Freeland, or perhaps to look at other areas — like Bayview or Clinton — as areas for development.

He also said the county should look at code revisions for housing, but in a thoughtful manner that ensures relevance and effectiveness.

Greene distinguishes himself from the other candidates in his thoughts on homelessness. He said it’s an issue that needs to be tackled as it relates to mental illness and drug addiction and possible solutions may be found in other areas of the nation.

Greene points to the “Seattle is Dying” documentary which touted Rhode Island’s success; the show inaccurately gives the impression that Rhode Island’s solution is the locking up of homeless drug addicts in large facilities — or even a place like McNeil Island — and forcing them to get treatment.

Rhode Island actually offers more voluntary drug treatment than any other state and controversial programs like medically assisted treatment, according to the state’s Plan on Homelessness, the Rhode Island Coalition on Homeless, the Boston Globe and federal statistics.

Yet current policies aren’t working, Greene said, pointing to the increase in homelessness in the county.

“We’re being enabling instead of helping,” he said. “We as a county, we’re kind and generous and we want to help, but it’s not working. It’s a handout instead of a hand up.”

In a League of Women Voters online forum, Jenkins said some intelligent zoning changes could allow more creative housing. He said there are many ways to find solutions if county officials were willing to look at different ideas.

Beyond housing and homelessness, the candidates agree that the county is going to have to make changes to the budget as the pandemic continues.

“The challenge is that we’ll see revenue cuts, and we fully expect that to happen,” Bacon said, “and at the same time the citizens’ need for services are going to increase.”

Bacon said she’s learned how county government — including the budget — functions in her nine years as a human resource director and is positioned to get to work on the budget without having to learn the complexities. She said she will look at ways to reallocate funds and reduce redundancies in service.

Howard stressed that cutting staff should be the last step the county should take in balancing the budget.

Howard said he wants to foster a culture change in departments that will lead to a continual emphasis on improvements, which will translate to better and more efficient services. He wants to increase the transparency of the budget and programs.

He said protecting vulnerable populations should be a priority during the difficult time.

Gordon emphasizes his many years of experience creating budgets for government and he understands how complex they are.

“I’ve always been the budget guy,” he said. “I’ve always managed to build reserves.”

He said he also understands that the county runs very differently than a business — and cannot be run as such. He points out that most of the funds in the county budget are encumbered and cannot be used for other purposes, which is something many candidates don’t understand. The county is mandated to provide certain services.

He also said it doesn’t make a lot of sense to pledge to trim costs but not to cut staff when county programs are run by staff members.

“Anywhere you go to make cuts, it’s tied to jobs,” he said.

He said he’s in the middle of the road — neither conservative nor liberal — when it comes to fiscal policy.

Greene also has years of experience in working on budgets for government, specifically nine budgets for the school district. He said he’s helped lead the district in making smart fiscal decisions, such as increasing energy efficiency and renting facilities to make money.

An essential element of his platform is his conservative fiscal ideals. “I believe in less government and trying to make things work with less money,” he said.

“We can improve the quality of life without increasing people’s financial burden,” he added.

Like the other candidates, Greene said public health, public safety and law and justice should be the top budget priorities.

Greene said the county employees are its biggest asset and their jobs shouldn’t be cut, although he said reductions through attrition might be an option.

“I will be going in line by line when I get there,” he said, referring to the county budget.

In the forum, Jenkins was critical of the other candidates for focusing on cuts when increasing revenue is the better solution. He said when his business was facing challenges, he dug in and figured out how to find the additional revenue.

With the apparent exception of Jenkins, the candidates have websites with details, including videos, about their backgrounds and platforms. In addition, voters can find more information about them at the county’s online voters’ pamphlet.

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