This election will decide whether the Island County Board of Commissioners will return to majority rule by North Whidbey Republicans, which could affect how the board approaches spending priorities, environmental regulations, climate action and a host of other issues in the future.
Tim Hazelo, a Republican who lives on North Whidbey, is challenging incumbent Commissioner Janet St. Clair, a Democrat who lives on Camano Island. They are running for the District 3 seat, which represents North Whidbey and Camano Island.
St. Clair defeated Republican Rick Hannold four years ago, tipping the balance on the board toward Democratic control and adding a Camano resident to the board for the first time since 2014. The two other commissioners are Jill Johnson, a Republican who lives in Oak Harbor, and Melanie Bacon, a Democrat who lives in South Whidbey.
The race could be a close one. In the primary, St. Clair received 49% of the vote while the two Republican candidates split the rest. Hazelo won the second spot on the General Election ballot with 39% while former commissioner Rick Hannold got 12%.
The race for campaign funds is much more lopsided. St. Clair reported receiving $73,000 while Hazelo reported $34,000.
The two candidates have very different backgrounds and ideas about the role of government.
St. Clair worked as a social worker for nonprofit organizations for 30 years, managing large budgets, working on policy and developing programs for “cutting edge, integrated behavioral health and primary care services,” according to her campaign website.
As a commissioner, she admits to being “wonky” and getting into the weeds in her exhaustive research. She has led the effort to expand broadband into rural areas of the county, has been involved in efforts to support community health and has focused on issues of affordable housing. She admits that some of her priorities were delayed because of the county’s central role in addressing the COVID pandemic.
“I prefer local government,” she said. “I don’t have a desire to be in a different level of government because I like the connection to the people.”
Contrary to a rumor going around that St. Clair only moved to the county fours years ago, she and her husband bought their Camano home in 2013 and moved to the county full-time in 2015 — which is when she registered to vote in Island County.
Hazelo is the chairman of the Island County Republican Party, a former candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives and a former flight engineer in the Navy and the Navy Reserves. He currently works as a computer simulator operator with a company that contracts with the Navy. About 26 years ago, the Navy brought Hazelo and his family to Whidbey Island, where he has a small farm that he often mentions when talking about the importance of preserving the rural way of life.
Energetic and well spoken, Hazelo has been credited with helping to energize the Republican Party in the county, particularly the more conservative wing, though it has come with some in-fighting. He has publicly questioned mask mandates, questioned how much humans contribute to climate change and said he, as the chairman of the county party, was obliged to support the members’ vote to declare that the election of President Joe Biden is not legitimate.
Yet he said his stance on the larger, federal issues like abortion shouldn’t be a litmus test for candidates for local government positions. Claiming that most people have lost their trust in government, he said he wants to help remedy that be emphasizing and supporting the fundamentals of government, such as infrastructure and public safety.
“It’s those simple things we can improve on,” he said, “and I think I’m the guy to do it.”
The candidates’ descriptions of their priorities are illuminating.
During a League of Women Voters forum, Hazelo said the overwhelming message he’s heard from residents while knocking on 10,000 doors and twice as many phone calls is that residents are most concerned about public safety, perceiving an increase in crime. He points out that the number of deputies in the sheriff’s office is at a level prior to 2008, when many cuts were made.
He said he will prioritize increasing funding for the sheriff’s office.
“Here locally, where the rubber meets the road, where I’m going to take charge, is in promoting public safety and promoting our police force and sheriff’s force into the modern era,” he said.
In an interview, Hazelo said that preserving the rural character of the county doesn’t mean increasing regulations, but quite the opposite. He said he wants to work with farmers, business people and others to reduce onerous regulations and taxes.
“I want to figure out what we can do to cut the red tape,” he said.
Hazelo also emphasized the importance of property rights.
St. Clair, on the other hand, said her top priorities are housing affordability and access to health care, including mental health care. She said she championed state funding for an innovative behavioral health pilot project and continues to be an advocate for better mental health and substance abuse treatment. She jumped in and contacted both state and federal officials to help the struggling hospital district.
She said the board has taken some bold steps to address the problem. Commissioners earmarked $9.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, funds for affordable and workforce housing projects and are asking for proposals. The board decided that development of low-income and workforce housing is the highest prioritized use of the federal dollars.
St. Clair voted in support of a 0.1% sales tax that will fund affordable housing units for people whose salaries are at or below 60% of median income for the county and who fit in one of several groups, including veterans, senior citizens, people with disabilities, domestic violence survivors and families with children at risk of homelessness. Hazelo spoke out against the measure, saying that it should be put on the ballot.
In one of the more controversial issues of her term, St. Clair voted to provide $1.5 million in matching funds to the Low Income Housing Institute, commonly known as LIHI, for the purchase of the Harbor Inn in Freeland. The county money comes from recording fees, which can only be used for projects related to homelessness and affordable housing. The hotel will be transformed into a combination of affordable housing units and a shelter.
She said she understands the sentiments of Freeland residents who are worried that the facility will bring crime and grime into the community. But she researched the issue and found that studies have shown that such facilities do not, in fact, cause the kinds of problems people are concerned about.
St. Clair said she is guided by both the data and research, but also by a desire to provide services to everyone, including those in need.