In the race for District 1 Island County commissioner, voters have a choice between a traditional Democrat and a traditional Republican.
At least that’s how Democrat candidate Melanie Bacon sees it. She said her opponent, Republican Damian Greene, is essentially all about law enforcement and taxes, and she prioritizes human services, the environment and equality.
“It makes it easier for the voters,” she said of the clear political distinction between her and Greene.
Greene, however, bristles at the thought that he’s a conventional conservative. He points to his years as a nonpartisan member of the South Whidbey School Board and his support for the restoration of the Maxwelton Creek as proof of his bipartisan bona fides.
“I’m not a party-line guy,” he said. “I lean more right, but I see good things on both sides of the political aisle.”
Yet if he’s elected, Greene concedes, he will work to increase the number of deputies and fight for less government and against more taxes.
District 1 covers South and Central Whidbey Island. Six candidates competed in the primary, with Bacon winning nearly 37 percent of the vote and Greene getting nearly 20 percent.
The two candidates have distinct backgrounds.
Bacon, the current Island County human resource director, has been a military intelligence officer, a prison chaplain, a NOW leader, a founding member of an educational endowment foundation and a planning commission member in Minnesota.
Greene has deep roots in the area. He can trace his family back to 1876 in Mount Vernon. His family has been on Whidbey Island since 1964. He’s a South Whidbey High School graduate and has spent nearly his entire life on the island. He was an insurance agent for much of his career and owned a Farmers Insurance office until it went out of business.
He is currently a locomotive engineer for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and has been elected three times to the South Whidbey School Board.
The two candidates have significantly different views about how county government is doing and how much needs to be changed.
Bacon said the three current county commissioners have been effective, efficient and “fabulous” leaders. She said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, whom she would replace if elected, was an especially dynamic leader. Price Johnson, a Democrat, is running for state senate and endorsed Bacon as her replacement.
Bacon said the board and the county as a whole, which is on the front line of the COVID response, has done an excellent job with the challenges.
Greene, however, said he believes he can use budget skills he learned with the school board to trim the county budget and reallocate money.
“I think we have government waste,” he said. “I think we need someone to come in and find it.”
In addition, Greene said the county needs to take care of what it has and pointed to the need for roundabouts and street lights on the highways, as well as maintenance of the Mutiny Bay and Clinton docks — all things that are not part of county government. When asked about this fact, Greene said the county needs to have strong leaders who will advocate for the county in different levels of government.
Bacon said the citizens are in need of direct services more than ever, and she will prioritize services that will help people get through the pandemic and its aftermath.
“We have a responsibility to care for people who cannot fully care for themselves,” she said.
When it comes to public safety, she pointed out that commissioners have never denied the current sheriff’s request for deputies.
Sheriff Rick Felici previously said he limited his requests for additional deputies because he had trouble filling the open positions; but he recently wrote in an email that he could use a few more deputies. The office has historically operated with one of the lowest officer/citizen ratio in the state and that hasn’t changed. Deputies still respond to some calls alone.
Greene said the solution might be to increase deputies’ salaries.
Bacon, on the other hand, said she doesn’t want to see the sheriff’s budget cut, but she feels the office is fully funded and priorities should be elsewhere.
The candidates’ perspectives about the role of government in protecting the environment is another illuminating difference.
Bacon said the county shouldn’t let the pandemic divert attention away from the environment, especially when it comes to climate change. She said the first step should be to work with experts to identify concerns that are the most pressing, whether it’s salt water intrusion, habitat loss or other problems.
Greene, however, is critical of Bacon’s ideas about the environment, questioning how she is going to pay for any of it.
Bacon faults Greene for being a one-trick pony when it comes to the environment. She said he continually focuses on returning salmon to Maxwelton Creek on South Whidbey, where the school district has an outdoor classroom.
“He doesn’t have any other connections to environmental projects or organizations,” she said.
Greene said restoring the creek is important to him and the community and doesn’t have to burden local taxpayers to find the solution. His “innovative” idea for fixing the problem, he said, is to bring all the players together — including the county, nonprofits, state Fish and Wildlife and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service — to “get on the same page” and come up with solutions.
“It’s going to take someone like me to get these different agencies to work together,” he said.