County commissioner looks back on first year in office

Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair is a nerd.

The kind of nerd who spends the holidays pouring over a book about “mastering council meetings” in preparation for becoming the new chair of the board of commissioners.

She’s just wrapped up her first year in office after defeating incumbent District 3 commissioner Rick Hannold in 2018. Despite her propensity for preparation and studiousness, the position has opened her eyes to the realities of county government, its unsung heroes and the divide that can exist between what the public thinks government does and what it can actually do.

“The learning curve on this job is tremendous,” St. Clair said.

Last year’s striking “aha moment” came during the snow storm that pummeled Whidbey Island last February. She knew that a large percentage of the budget was dedicated to public works, but her position in office has allowed her to see firsthand much of what the department does. In one instance, she rode along with a crew as it cleared roads to help a resident in need return home from a mainland hospital.

The unusual weather event also resulted in a pretty continuous stream of emails from constituents and a dialogue about what local government could do about their problems.

“It was just this wonderful, concrete case study,” St. Clair said.

She spent a lot of time over the first year explaining that commissioners don’t have authority over other elected officials or state decisions.

When it comes to things the county can and has done, she said she’s proud of the progress made to protect the environment, such as giving the Whidbey Camano Land Trust a grant to expand a preserve and trail system in North Whidbey. She thinks more can be done to protect shoreline, and she’d like to see incentives in place for protecting that critical habitat.

She’s proud of the work the county has done on housing, much of which was set in motion before her term began. However, she was taken aback by some of the resistance to affordable housing, she said.

The concerns about growth and development are legitimate, she said, but she’ll continue to focus on ways to support workers and seniors in Island County.

“We should all focus on creating communities where everyone can thrive,” she said.

Another challenge with her new position stemmed less from the job itself and more from its location. St. Clair ran for office, in part, because she thought Camano Island deserved more of a voice on the board.

Her residence on the county’s other island, however, means a three-hour roundtrip commute to and from work.

In the summer, she and her husband decided to shorten her commute by utilizing less-than-conventional lodging options. The couple stayed in their boat at the Oak Harbor marina during most weeknights.

One week that summer, her commute was made even shorter when they camped at Fort Ebey State Park and the commissioner rode her bicycle to the commissioners’ Coupeville office.

“What a cool place, where you can camp and ride your bike to work,” St. Clair said.