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Candidates for several local offices talked about everything from housing affordability to bringing business to Anacortes during a Chamber of Commerce-led forum last week.

Among the issues discussed:

Mayor's race

Mayoral candidates Matt Miller and Ryan Walters, both of whom currently serve on the City Council, talked about the $1.4 million the city spent on consultants for work at the former contaminated water treatment plant, which must still be cleaned up.

This issue got away from the City Council, but the most important thing a government can do is be willing to make mistakes, correct those mistakes and promise to do better, Walters said.

He said he has worked on transparency as a council member but there’s more to do.

Walters is also a longtime advocate in capital planning, so everyone knows how much a project will cost. Also important is looking at things like maintenance, replacement and upkeep costs, he said.

“As mayor, I will lead staff to a new way of accounting for those projects,” Walters said. “We need to shine a light in capital planning as much as anything else so that people can hold elected officials accountable, and we can make this progress we need to in our city.”

Miller said that when he worked with the Department of Defense, he worked on building projects meant to last 50 or 60 years.

“I understand the importance and value of making a capital facilities plan,” Miller said.

As far as the consultant and the water treatment plant, he said he gave advice and didn’t think the city needed to hire an outside consultant.

More transparency is key, and the city is working on ways to be more transparent, he said. It also comes down to council oversight.

“The bottom line is, we could have done a better job in providing oversight as these expenses got out of control,” Miller said. “I assure you as mayor, consultants will be a laser focus for me, because if we’re hiring the right people as directors, then why do we need to hire someone for so much as consultants?”

The mayor candidates also took on housing affordability and density.

Miller said he’s proud of the work on the comprehensive plan that brought about options for more accessory dwelling units that provide more affordable homes for people.

“I’m not going to promise that I can create a bunch of affordable houses in Anacortes, but what I can promise is we’re going to have the opportunity for more of a variety of housing types in Anacortes,” he said.

Population density and other housing decisions by the council come after public discussion, public hearings and more opportunities for input, Walters said.

He wrote the moratorium on the restriction on the five-story buildings in the area where one is going in now. As mayor, he said he would ask the council to make that restriction permanent to ensure compatibility with the neighborhood, he said.

“The housing crisis is a regional and national problem,” he said. “We can’t build our way out of it. It demands regional and national solutions.”

Locally, options like condos and multifamily homes are solutions, but they need to be in neighborhoods where they are compatible, Walters said.

Candidates were able to ask each other one question during the forum.

Miller asked Walters whether he supports or opposes the state-passed capital gains tax or supports the City of Anacortes taking a stand on an income tax.

Walters said he’s aware of the state capital gains tax, but said that the City should only be studying and working on resolutions relating to issues that directly affect Anacortes in particular, not the state at large.

The city can’t take on all state issues, Walters said.

For example, Anacortes is meeting with state representatives about the work being done on mental health because that is something that has a very direct impact on the people here, he said.

“That’s the kind of stuff I really want to work on,” Walters said.

Walters asked Miller how he would handle another recession — through cuts and raising revenue — should it happen while he was mayor.

Miller drew on his experience owning a small business and said there is not always a way to raise revenue in a recession, so it really comes down to spending cuts.

Employees, for example, are the most important asset of a business or city, but also the most expensive.

The cuts would depend on how deeply the recession affects city finances, he said.

* The full story, which includes how other candidates responded during the forum, can be found on goanacortes.com.

City Council, Positions 4 and 5

For the City Council race, newcomers Jeff Graf and Amanda Hubik are competing for Position 4. Incumbent Bruce McDougall faces challenger Sara Holahan in Position 5.

Graf is a department director at Janicki Industries and a current Planning Commission member. Hubik is a legislative assistant for Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham.

McDougall is a telecom network architect, and Holahan is a retired librarian.

Their comments at the forum focused on economic development, housing affordability and population density.

For economic development, it comes down to utilizing existing partnerships, Hubik said. The county has many great groups, which the city can use to help draw businesses here.

Graf said the City Council could benefit from an economic development director but can’t really afford one.

The best way to move that way is for the mayor develop the strategic vision for the city and for the City Council to move toward those goals.

“We should definitely make that role a priority,” he said.

More businesses mean more jobs, which helps people afford housing, he said.

Holahan said she would love to see more green jobs come to the area and mentioned the idea of an electric boat builder, which was supported by both council and mayoral candidates.

She also said there are people who don’t want to shop in Burlington but may not know the options available here.

Another big issue was the need for affordable housing in Anacortes and whether taxpayers had done enough with the 1/10 of 1% sales tax increase to fund construction of subsidized housing.

McDougall called affordable housing, and a lack of available inventory, a “significant problem.”

He said the voter-passed tax increase, which comes with a state match, should help. Plus, the development regulations changes implemented by the City Council, which offer incentives for creating affordable housing, should bring more multifamily homes like apartments and townhouses. But that will take time, he said.

Holahan said the tax increase was a great step forward, but “it’s a very small amount of money for a big problem,” she said.

She is interested in looking at a slightly higher rate.

“I personally would be willing to pay more than 1/10th of 1%,” she said. “This is something that voters care very much about.”

She also suggested calling a meeting of stakeholders and looking at a land trust.

Graf said the taxpayers have done enough, and Anacortes has the highest sales tax rate in the county. The city now needs to make sure that money is used in the best way.

It should be split up between the Anacortes Family Center and the Anacortes Housing Authority, he said.

“Do we want another tax increase? I would suggest no,” Graf said.

The money raised can be used for many things, including rental assistance, Hubik said.

“Our taxpayers are doing exactly what they are supposed to do,” she said.

The Housing Authority and the Family Center are receiving money each month, and the money could do great things in the future, Hubik said.

Along with housing affordability, the council candidates talked about development regulations that would allow for greater housing density and taller buildings in neighborhoods with shorter, single-family homes.

Graf was part of the comprehensive plan that changed density for areas of Anacortes. The discussion brought out crowds of people, and the city should strive to get concerned people involved earlier in the process, he said.

It comes back to creating a strategic plan, he said. Sometimes that goal is worth things like neighborhood disruption, he said.

Hubik agreed that communicating those goals is key. Finding the people most affected is essential, she said. Reaching people may require innovative methods, she said.

“The City Council needs to call the community together,” Holahan said.

Coming together is the only way to find solutions that require big decisions, she said. That includes talking about how big people want Anacortes to grow.

“How much can we grow?” she said. “How many stories high are we looking at?”

McDougall said there is no way that this community can avoid adding density.

That will mean more affordable housing, he said.

Anacortes School Board

Four candidates for the School Board talked about their history with the schools and what would qualify them to sit on the board.

Meredith McIlmoyle and Celese Stevens are up for Position 1. Diana Farnsworth and Erik Schorr are facing off for Position 2.

All four are new to the board.

They took on issues of mental health, inclusion and the district’s strategic plan during the forum.

Mental health supports in schools are essential, McIlmoyle said. There are some “wonderful and robust programs” here, but the district needs to be always looking at the best ways it can use the money coming in to support students, teachers and counselors, she said.

Farnsworth said everyone needs to be committed to mental health, particularly at a time when the pandemic has caused unusual stress.

Schorr said he agreed with both of them and that he would also put in effort to prioritizing identifying students with learning disabilities. He noted that mental health issues can stem from those disabilities, so identifying those students early and putting supports in place can make a difference.

Stevens said she wants to help students feel safe and to have the boundaries in place to help them feel like they have the supports and safety they need.

The candidates also addressed state legislation that promotes inclusion, diversity and equity — something that has become politically divisive like so many things between progressives and conservatives.

Farnsworth said the bill, like many other things for her, comes back to education. There is no way to understand anything without talking to people about the things they know.

This bill calls for leaders to be educated so that they understand cultural competency. Then, they can share what they know with the students.

As a School Board member, Farnsworth said she would continue to pursue education and would keep her website active so she could share what she’s learning with the people of Anacortes.

Schorr said this can be a divisive topic and, with all divisive topics, the key is communication. Talking to each other in an open way leads to understanding and helps people see different sides, he said.

Implementing any policy should be done with lots of communication that could help minimize discord, he said.

Stevens said she supports the asking of questions. When specific terms are used in the bill, for example, it’s important to clarify and define those terms.

Asking questions means facing issues head-on and finding out how they can best be addressed, she said.

McIlmoyle said as with any hard topic, it comes down to where a person is getting their information. This bill, like others, has been grabbed by radical sides. Getting information from a source like the School District helps find solutions away from those radical ideas.

She also said she supports that this bill means meeting students where they are when they walk through the door. That means working with students of different races and gender identities. But it also focuses on those having a hard time, such as those who don’t have enough to eat at home or who have a deployed parent.

Training helps the staff understand and celebrate differences, McIlmoyle said.

All four agreed special education should be a priority.

Stevens said she wants to listen to the school staff, particularly paraeducators, who are in with students every day and often know best how to help them.

She talked especially about identifying dyslexia early, which can mean big things for students.

Schorr said identifying students with special needs early is essential.

“If you start early, you can set them on the right path,” he said.

McIlmoyle also talked about early detection and about talking to parents who have success stories of what worked for them.

Farnsworth said providing special education support should be a priority in the district.

Other contested races

Port of Anacortes write-in candidate Mary LeFleur and Fidalgo Pool and Fitness Center District candidate Christine Mathes spoke at the event.

Their opponents Jon Ronngren and James Mitchell, respectively, were unable to attend.

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