Just after 3 o’clock Tuesday, Helen Price Johnson was sworn in as the first woman to serve as an Island County commissioner.
A crowd of county employees and well-wishers hoping to witness the historic moment overflowed into the halls of the Law and Justice Center and burst into cheers as Price Johnson finished her oath.
In an interview, Price Johnson said she was honored to be chosen by voters to break through this particular glass ceiling.
“It’s good to have reflective representation of the community on the board,” she said. “My grandmother would be very proud. She was 21 when women earned the right to vote. She always made it clear that the right was hard-earned and sacred.”
It also may be the first time in county history, or at least in memory, that the majority of the three-member board are Democrats. Several Island County old-timers say they can’t remember a time when Republicans didn’t dominate, though county officials couldn’t say whether it’s a first.
The history-making is likely not over. The Island County Auditor is conducting a manual recount in the extremely close contest between 16-year incumbent Commissioner Mac McDowell and challenger Angie Homola, who’s 60 votes ahead.
If Homola wins, she’ll be the second women to inhabit the board, which will be made up of three Democrats — Commissioners John Dean, Price Johnson and Homola. Without a doubt, it will be the first time the board has been all Democrats.
Price Johnson, along with Auditor Sheilah Crider, were sworn in immediately after election certification because they won positions that had been filled by appointees. The rest of the winning candidates will take office in the new year.
While Price Johnson and Homola admit that changes are in store for the county — especially if Homola is successful — they agree that most of the differences will have nothing to do with political parties or gender.
Both women say they were elected by people who want commissioners to be more open and to listen to their concerns.
“I bring a more community-oriented attitude toward leadership,” Price Johnson said. “That’s something John Dean has started and something Angie talked about in her campaign.”
In fact, Homola said she is considering donating a portion of her $78,500-a-year salary as commissioner to the county — if she wins — in order to fund video of the commissioners’ meetings, which could be accessible over the Internet. She points out that most people can’t attend meetings because they are during the workday.
“To have a truly open government, it has to be accessible,” she said.
Members of groups such as Whidbey Environmental Action Network have felt disenfranchised from county government in the past, but they are excited by the change in the board. Marianne Edain of WEAN said she hopes that the commissioners will listen to their concerns and avoid time-consuming litigation.
Homola is known for being an environmental activist, but she hasn’t proposed any sweeping changes or even re-opening controversial land-use ordinances, such as the accident potential zoning. All three Democrats said they would be cautious about making such a move.
Perhaps the biggest change coming will be forced by the budget deficit. Not only will the commissioners have to prioritize spending, but they will have limited resources to devote to projects or programs. Commissioners have already warned that layoff and spending cuts will translate to less service to the community.
With the turnover of commissioners, Commissioner Dean will suddenly become the “old man on the board” after just two years in office. It’s a role he said he’ll be comfortable with, though he also expects county government to be different in the future.
“I’m not exactly sure how this is going to play out,” he said. “Anytime you get fresh perspective and fresh faces, you’re going to get change. I think there will be a significant change in courthouse culture.”
With women in the majority, Dean will be the likely benefactor. Both Price Johnson and Homola have said, half-jokingly, that they plan to liven up the austere aesthetic of the commissioners’ hearing room with plenty of homemade cookies and flowers.
Dean expects land-use regulations to swing more toward environmental protection and for board appointments to reflect a wider range of interests. But he said people shouldn’t be concerned that Republicans will be shut out.
“It isn’t about Democrats taking over power,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to stomp anyone who doesn’t feel the way we do. I think we will be able to find middle ground.”