Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen, a three-term Republican incumbent, is defending his seat against first-time candidate and Democrat Mark Lundsten.
Wesen, who was first elected in 2008, said his experience governing in difficult financial times will be a resource to the county as it deals with the impacts of COVID-19.
County revenue comes from the taxpayer, and he said he would work to review what spending is essential, and cut costs in a time when the pandemic has forced many out of work. Families are struggling, and it’s important that the county live within its means, he said.
“We’re going to have to make choices on what programs the public wants to pay for,” Wesen said.
He said he is already in talks with department heads, trying to determine what they can cut from their budgets as the county has used its federal COVID-19 relief funding to support struggling small businesses.
Wesen said his time in office has given him time to learn how local government works, and build relationships with other elected officials at the federal, state and local levels.
“It takes a while to learn all of it, and I don’t think now is the right time to be making a change,” he said.
Lundsten said he cut his teeth politically mediating conflict between Alaskan commercial fishermen and government regulators, helping to craft policy that would both preserve fish stock and meet the needs of the fishing companies.
This experience taught him how to find common ground between opposing sides and, he said, translates well to local government.
If elected, he said he wants to focus on improving dialogue between residents and county government. In his experience working with the county while serving on its Planning Commission, he said he feels this has been lacking.
“People don’t feel like Skagit County responds to what they say,” he said. “There’s not a back and forth.”
In dealing with the pandemic, Lundsten said a commissioners’ role is to support the good work county Public Health is doing, and to emphasize mask-wearing, social distancing and other health guidelines.
He supports investment in inexpensive rapid COVID-19 tests that individuals could take multiple times per week. Those who test positive would be encouraged to stay home, and those who don’t have the virus could feel more confident that they could shop and dine safely.
“We need to have confidence before we go back to our lives,” Lundsten said.
Both candidates agreed that housing availability is a major issue facing the county, and both agreed on how to tackle it.
“We have to have a broad spectrum of housing available,” Wesen said.
He said the county’s role is to work with cities to improve their land use rules to allow for more apartments, and thereby alleviate an extremely tight rental market.
Lundsten said more diverse housing is needed, and he supports more apartments in cities and allowing accessory dwelling units throughout unincorporated Skagit County.
State rules on growth have worked here to preserve rural character and reduce urban sprawl, but Lundsten said it’s also hampered local government’s ability to allow for enough houses and apartments to accommodate everyone who wants to live here.
Governments have to be willing to allow denser construction, and keep working with nonprofits such as the Anacortes Family Center to build subsidized housing, he said.
“We have to have an attitude where we’re willing to look at a variety of options,” Lundsten said.