Oak Harbor candidates duke it out at forum

Oak Harbor City Council candidates discussed homelessness, public art and communication strategy.

Most of the candidates for Oak Harbor City Council duked it out over homelessness issues, the lack of affordable housing, public art controversies and communication strategy at the North Whidbey candidates forum hosted by the League of Women Voters last week.

Only one incumbent, Joel Servatius, took the stage. He has been challenged by Shane Hoffmire. Bryan Stucky and Andy Plumlee are running for Millie Goebel’s seat. Councilmember Jim Woessner is running unopposed. Fe Mischo, who is running against Dan Evans for Erica Wasinger’s seat, said she was out of town for a relative’s funeral and was unable to make the forum.

When asked about the needs of the city, almost all candidates said housing affordability was one of their top two concerns. Plumlee was the only one who did not share that answer and instead said a dearth of first responders and providing job skills for citizens were the most important needs in the city right now.

The candidates differed in their thoughts on how to address issues of homelessness.

Hoffmire said that the city needs to do more partnerships with local organizations and the police department, but that no one — not even at the national level — had figured out a solution yet. Evans’ answer also included partnerships with local organizations but he said the city council should ask groups to specialize more.

“Every organization that we have out there trying to help are all trying to help everyone do everything,” Evans said. Asking each group to focus on one part of a “path to success” would go further in trying to help the crisis, he said.

Stucky said there are already resources for people who are temporarily homeless. Others can go to the new stabilization center if they have made “bad choices” and want help, he said. Another group of people with drug and alcohol problems, which Stucky called “the visible homeless,” is a harder issue to solve. He would like a dedicated person in the police department to connect with those individuals.

Servatius noted that the city council had increased its Whidbey Homeless Coalition contribution from $9,000 to $50,000 this year to help with its new shelter near Coupeville.

Plumlee said those who are chronically homeless need wraparound services and low-barrier housing. However, he did not like the idea of giving people money directly.

The candidates also spoke about how the city can combat the effects of climate change. Stucky said the city could buy electric cars for its fleet and install solar panels. However, he cautioned that environmental pursuits can be expensive.

“Take a look at the treatment plant. That’s as environmentally friendly as they come, and we’re feeling the pinch of what it costs us,” he said.

Evans said the public information officer could do more to educate residents about what programs are already available, like discounts for replacing a home’s light bulbs with LED ones. Hoffmire echoed Evans’s ideas and added that reaching out to smaller builders about what tax credits are available could help. Servatius noted that the city had all of its lights replaced with LEDs and said he liked sustainable buildings. Plumlee said the city should partner with groups like the Coalition for Urban Innovation to learn about best practices.

In response to a question about how to resolve controversies like public art or tree removal for the sake of business expansion, the candidates generally thought the same. Everyone said that private landowners have the power to do what they choose with their property. The candidates agreed that communication is key when it comes to public art.

Hoffmire criticized the council for disregarding the results of a survey about the “Angel de la Creatividad” sculpture — 70% of respondents said they did not want it — and voting to accept the art anyway.

Often people say no public art will ever receive 100% approval, Hoffmire said, “Well, you got almost 100% opposition.”

Stucky said the arts commission should take the lead on seeking community feedback about art. Servatius incorrectly claimed that the renderings of the “Angel de la Creatividad” and used in multiple Whidbey News-Times stories showed it in a spot it was never meant to be. In fact, the sculpture was initially going to be placed near the boat launch and kitchen shelters at Windjammer Park when it was first proposed; it was not until months later that a new site on the opposite side of the parking lot was selected.

All candidates said the city needed to better engage citizens in its work.

Hoffmire again brought up the council’s decision on the controversial sculpture and said it is situation like that that “breeds distrust.” Servatius said that although there was room for the city to improve, the city’s public information officer was doing a good job on social media.

Plumlee claimed that council members need to be out in the community more. Stucky thought the same and said he did not see a single council member at the last Memorial Day ceremony. Evans said he would have time set aside in his schedule to meet constituents weekly at Whidbey Coffee if elected.

The video of the forum can be viewed online at www.lwvwhidbey.org/videos.