Island County’s first female county commissioner Helen Price Johnson is on the lookout for what’s next.
Price Johnson served for 12 years as the representative for District 1, which covers all of Whidbey south of Oak Harbor. Her last day was Dec. 31.
Price Johnson, a Democrat, did not seek reelection in 2020. Instead, she ran for state Senate, but lost to Ron Muzzall, a Republican.
Melanie Bacon, the county’s former human resources director, was elected to take her place as county commissioner.
“It has truly been a blessing to work for her — and setting myself up now to fill her shoes is frankly very daunting, because I know well what an extraordinary job she has done for the citizens,” Bacon said.
Price Johnson, a lifelong Whidbey Island resident from Clinton, was a South Whidbey School Board member for many years before being elected as county commissioner in 2008. Although Price Johnson and former Commissioner Angie Homola were elected at the same time, Price Johnson started the job in November because she defeated an appointed commissioner, earning her the distinction as the first female commissioner in Island County.
Since then, the commission has had all women members twice, and that will be the case once again.
“It’s an honor to have been the one to break the glass ceiling,” Price Johnson said.
“I think we have been successful in Island County to take away that barrier, at least at the local level. I hope at some point gender is not a talking point for elected office,” she said.
Her time in office has not come without its challenges. She stepped into the role during the 2008 financial crisis and spent the last year trying to lead during a pandemic with historic implications.
One of the biggest challenges she faced in office was the 2015 death of 25-year-old Keaton Farris in the Island County Jail, she said. Farris, who suffered from mental illness, died of dehydration, and an investigation found multiple problems in how the jail was run.
County officials worked to improve the jail system after Farris’s death. It was nationally recognized in 2020 by The Stepping Up Initiative as an “Innovator County” for its efforts to help people with mental illness in the jail.
“That was a tremendous challenge. It’s not over, but I’m really proud of the work we’ve done,” Price Johnson said, highlighting the collaboration with the Island County Sheriff’s Office and Human Services department.
She’s also proud of the county’s new stabilization center in Oak Harbor, slated to open in the new year; growth management plan for Freeland; keeping public beach access on Wonn Road in Greenbank (“That was a long-fought battle that I felt really strongly about”); and representing Island County statewide with the Washington State Association of Counties, even serving as president.
She hopes the county’s relationships with regional partners will continue to grow. A group of counties called “SWISS” — Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan and Snohomish – have gotten together, she said, to encourage partnership.
She wished that she could have done more for the county’s workforce housing supply, an access road to the Whidbey Airpark and the Clinton Gateway Plan, but those “had to take a backseat to the crisis of the pandemic,” she said.
Still, her efforts have been felt locally and statewide.
Mary Margaret Haugen, a retired state legislator who has known Price Johnson for almost 40 years, said she has done extraordinary things.
“I don’t think this community realizes what an impact she had statewide,” Haugen said, highlighting Price Johnson’s work as president of the statewide county commissioners association. “(It’s) really an honor for a county like ours.”
Lincoln County Commissioner Scott Hutsell knew Price Johnson when she was still a school board member and worked alongside her in the commissioners association.
“She is probably the most bipartisan, non-partisan person when it comes to working for people, and she has represented her county well over our 12 years together as commissioners,” he said.
“And this is coming from an Eastern Washington conservative Republican.”
During her last meeting as a commissioner, Price Johnson’s fellow representatives proclaimed this month in her honor. After reading a slew of accomplishments, Commissioner Jill Johnson told Price Johnson that she has “a heart for this place and a sense of service that goes beyond any title,” and thanked her for her leadership.
Price Johnson doesn’t know what’s next for her long term. She said she’ll be spending time with family and helping her husband with their construction business for now.
“I’ve been given a great opportunity with the relationships and the experiences I’ve had as county commissioner, and I would like to find the best way to put that to use to serve my community,” she said.
“My roots are very deep on Whidbey. I’m not going far.”