A veteran of county government known for being outspoken is facing a political newcomer who is equally vocal in his view that change is needed in county leadership.
Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson, the incumbent in District 2, is vying to retain her seat. She is challenged by Dan Evans, the president of the Oak Harbor Main Street Association. They are both Republicans and live in Oak Harbor.
Johnson was first elected in 2012 and is finishing up her second four-year term as a county commissioner. She was endorsed by the Island County Republican Party.
When Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, who represents District 1, announced she wouldn’t be seeking another term, Johnson said she felt that she could continue offering “a steady hand of leadership,” especially in helping to balance the county budget.
“The things that I’m focused on are things people don’t see, and that comes from being in office for a while,” she said.
After eight years, Johnson said she has the experience necessary to understand how county government can be fine-tuned to improve efficiency, although the county is already among the leanest in the state in terms of tax revenues.
“We need to operate as a single organization and not 13 different departments,” she said.
Those wanting to be newly elected officials, she pointed out, have “big policy conversations” but never get down to the “nuts and bolts” of how government happens.
Evans said the current commissioner is not listening to the citizens and that he was inspired to run for the position to represent them.
“I knew that somebody had to step up and challenge her,” Evans said.
He has formed a commitment with Damian Greene, the Republican candidate running for the District 1 position, to improve “life, health and safety” in Island County.
One of Evans’ priorities is to increase funding for the Island County Sheriff’s Office so that new deputies can be hired for each of the county’s three districts.
Johnson questioned how Evans plans to find the money needed for the new positions. The cost to get a deputy on the road averages around $100,000 per year, she pointed out.
Johnson said she thinks the staffing level for the sheriff’s office is “solid” and noted that the commissioners never denied Sheriff Rick Felici’s staffing requests; the sheriff is an elected official and the commissioners can’t unilaterally increase staffing in his department.
Evans said he has had conversations with the sheriff, who expressed concerns about the department being understaffed. To fund the additional jobs, Evans said there will be need to be some “creative solutions” found and that a core responsibility of government is ensuring safety.
Evans is critical of the county’s operations, including the time chosen to hold board of county commissioner meetings and the process followed to purchase property for the new behavioral health stabilization facility in Oak Harbor. He complained that taxpayer money was spent without holding a public meeting.
Johnson cited her involvement in helping to get the county’s new behavioral health stabilization facility built as one of her proudest accomplishments. She noted that state government allows county commissioners and every other governmental entity to discuss real estate acquisition behind closed doors to prevent speculation by the sellers and price escalation.
Like all the other government entities on the island — including the city of Oak Harbor recently — “the county always talks about the purchase of property in executive session,” she said.
“It’s part of a much longer-term vision that (Evans) has not asked any questions about,” she said in regards to the behavioral health stabilization facility.
Evans is also critical of the Low Income Housing Institute’s proposed housing project in downtown Oak Harbor. He claims that Johnson “pushed” the project “in an illegal zoning area in the city.”It’s unclear what “illegal zoning area” means. Opponents of the project argued that the proposed project did not comply with the current zoning, not that the zoning or the area were illegal.
The Main Street Association was successful in filing a land-use petition in superior court to halt the project at the proposed Pioneer Way location. The case is now in the state Court of Appeals.
Yet Johnson said this is another instance in which Evans doesn’t understand the difference between city and county government. Johnson said she is supportive of building the housing project for veterans and low-income working people in whatever location it is allowed, but whether to permit the project was completely the city’s decision.
“It’s unfair to say I pushed it though in a location it couldn’t go,” Johnson explained. “I was never in a position to make a decision about the permit.”
Evan’s failure to understand the jurisdictional issues at this point in the campaign is concerning, Johnson added. She also expressed her concerns about Evans’ “inability” to understand laws and to follow mandates relating to land development and public health.
Evans said he understands the Growth Management Act, but he thinks Island County commissioners need to advocate for change in Olympia.
Evans said that local organizations could be working together to support one another.
“That’s what leadership is, developing those relationships with different entities, bringing them together and coming up with a solution,” Evans said.
Unlike neighboring counties that had to reduce staff during the most recent economic downturn, Johnson said Island County was able to retain its staff because the commissioners had prepared for “a rainy day moment like this.”
But Johnson said she doesn’t plan to rest on her laurels in the next four years. She said she wants to have conversations about building a new county jail, raising graduation rates, establishing a tax reduction program for owners of properties that retain water and creating affordable housing for seasonal workers.