Candidates took on such hot-button issues as Navy jet noise, affordable housing and a state income tax during a forum at the Elks Club Thursday.
Perhaps, however, the most heated moment came when a county commissioner facing reelection lambasted the very people who invited her to the forum — the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce board members — over a much more esoteric issue.
Dave Williams, former commanding officer of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, moderated the lunchtime forum, an event the chamber holds each election for its membership. More than 100 people showed for the crowded forum.
Candidates were given strict time limits to answer questions posed by the chamber. Each candidate was asked about their support for the Navy base, particularly EA-18G Growler jet training at the Outlying Field Coupeville and over the OlympicPeninsula. Some residents and state officials have expressed concerns about the harmful impacts of noise.
The candidates all acknowledged that the base is a vital part of the county’s economy and the nation’s security.
Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, a Democrat, said the EA-18G Growler jets are louder than their predecessor and added it’s important to have an environmental impact study — which the Navy originally did not plan to do but is now doing.
“It’s really important for us to have accurate information,” she said.
Her challenger, Gary Wray, a Republican, said leaders should think creatively and come up with solutions. He suggested that noise attenuation in construction of new homes could help; he said the Navy might be asked to assist with the cost.
Democrat John Fowkes, who’s challenging Republican Commissioner Jill Johnson, stressed that it’s important for elected officials to see both sides of the issue.
“We need to look at the health issues and be open to listen to all sides,” he said, apparently referring to Johnson’s refusal to study the jet-noise issue as a member of Island County’s Board of Health.
Johnson said she is unwavering in her support of the Navy and OLF Coupeville and added she believes the underlying motivation for people who protest the noise is that they are against the military. She said she steadfastly supports the military.
“It’s part of our culture,” she said. “It’s part of who we are.”
Johnson’s remarks earned her applause from the audience.
State Rep. Dave Hayes (R-Camano) said he’s also an ardent supporter of the Navy and believes complaints about the jet noise are wrongheaded.
“We need to stop poking them in the eye,” he said, referring to the Navy.
Hayes’ challenger, Democrat Doris Brevoort, said she doesn’t have a vendetta against the base but gained in sight into the noise complaints after the jets recently started flying over her Mount Vernon home. She suggested she could work with theNavy on possible mitigation, such as flight times.
State Sen. Barbara Bailey (R-Oak Harbor) said people need to come together and listen to each other on the issue. Bailey said she spoke with the governor’s people about noise mitigation.
“It’s not all falling on deaf ears to those who represent you in Olympia,” she said.
Bailey’s challenger, Angie Homola, a Democrat and former county commissioner, said it’s important to listen to citizens and not just close doors on them. She noted that the jets are training in a pristine area of the Olympic Mountains.
Williams asked the four candidates for the two Island County commissioner seats about their support for the Oak Harbor chamber, noting a controversy over the awarding of lodging tax dollars.
They all agreed that the chamber and marketing of the community are important to the economy, especially for small businesses.
Price Johnson struggled within the time limit to explain the complicated background regarding the lodging tax controversy.The commissioners last year awarded the chamber $25,000 in the tourism-boosting tax — less than an advisory committee recommended — but the chamber declined to take the money because of concerns over the legality of whether the commissioners could change the proposed amount.
By the time the state Attorney General’s Office supplied an informal opinion supporting the commissioners’ action, the next round of the lodging tax applications started and it was too late for the chamber to get that money, she said.
Price Johnson said she worked to change the process by which lodging tax dollars are awarded and it should be more transparent and predictable in the future.
Johnson said her motivation in reducing the grant was to help the PBY Museum and Whidbey Marathon, which she thinks are significantly underfunded. As a former Oak Harbor chamber director herself, Johnson said she understands that the chamber could afford to have its grant reduced by $5,000.
Chamber board members — “some of the people in this room” — chose to construe her actions supporting other community nonprofits as a personal vendetta against the chamber and not a decision made for the good of the county,Johnson said.
In return, she asserted, the chamber retaliated by canceling her planned State of the County speech to chamber members.That, she said, was “very hurtful.”
Wray agreed that the commissioners’ changes in the funding process fixed the problem and a similar issue shouldn’t arise again.
Finally, Williams asked the candidates for state office if they support the creation of a state income tax and capital gains tax, both a part of the state Democratic party’s platform.
Hayes said he’s against the platform proposals, adding both would be bad for business and the economy. He said the lack of an income tax “is one thing that still does bring business to the state,” and the capital gains tax is just another income tax.
Brevoort said government leaders must be open to discussing different options to provide a much-needed, stable income stream to fund educational and other priorities.
She said capital gains taxes “mean different things to different people at different income levels.”
Bailey said both taxes were bad ideas that would drive business out of the state. She faulted Democratic-controlled legislature of the past for “out of control spending” and said the Republican majority coalition in the senate is the only thing preventing Democrats from imposing an income tax.
Homola said an income tax is not the solution, noting the failure of past efforts to impose one. Still, she said the state has the most regressive tax system in the nation and is severely challenged to meet such basic priorities as education.
Rep. Norma Smith (R-Clinton) and Marc Hennemann, a Republican running against U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, also spoke at the forum, but didn’t answer questions since their challengers weren’t able to attend.