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County council candidate conversations | Part 1

From left and right: Jamie Stephens and Brian McClerren - Contributed photo
From left and right: Jamie Stephens and Brian McClerren
— image credit: Contributed photo

by SOUNDER STAFF

With less than six weeks until San Juan County elects a new three-member county council, all six remaining candidates are hitting the campaign trail.

The revamped council, and the April 23 elections, are the result of revisions to the county charter proposed in 2012 by the Charter Revision Commission and approved by the voters in November, 2012. The revisions returned the council to three members elected countywide from “residency districts” comprising San Juan, Orcas and Lopez and their respective nearby smaller islands.

Nominated in a February, 2013, primary were Lovel Pratt and Bob Jarman from San Juan for District 1, Lisa Byers and Rich Hughes from Orcas Island for District 2, and Jamie Stephens and Brian McClerren from Lopez Island for District 3. Hughes, Stephens and Jarman are current incumbents on the present six-member council; Pratt is a former councilwoman who was defeated by Jarman in a 2012 council race; Byers is the director of OPAL Community Land Trust on Orcas; and McClerren is a Lopez resident making his first run for elective office.

Leading up to the election, the Weekly will be running a series of Q&A segments with candidates from each district.

Brian McClerren

Sounder: What do you bring to the table that is different from the other candidates and why did you decide to run?

BM: I’m in a different world than the other candidates and that gives me a unique perspective on government. I’m trying to become a homeowner. I’m starting my business while hanging on to a full-time job. I’m raising kids and about to have a new baby.

My political ideas aren’t being fed to me by an organized party machine. They come from my own experiences and result from an enormous amount of time studying, listening and making observations. It has taken a hefty dose of courage and determination to put myself into this race. It is a reflection of my deep love for the San Juan Islands that I am deliberately seeking the most demanding, stressful and criticized job available. I am convinced, as are my supporters, that I can be that change that I seek.

Sounder: How do you plan to balance the county budget? Do you support renewal of Prop. 1, the voter-approved property tax increase that expires at the end of 2015?

BM: I am bothered that the assumption appears to be larger government and increased taxes. A special part of our identity in this place is that we value our independence. I can tell you unequivocally that nothing sacrifices independence like being in debt. This relates to bond debt as well as grant-funded activities.

Last year our council signed a debt obligation that demands repayment through taxation “without a vote of the people.” Worse than that, they are touting it as a demonstration of fiscal responsibility.

The recent Community Conversation meetings are creating a helpful guidance for specific areas where we may be overspending on services. There are many great ideas about restructuring departments and eliminating costly delays. A budget that has increased about $20 million dollars in the last eight years contains hundreds of places to reduce expenses. We just need leaders with the courage and energy to start digging.

If we move forward in a business-friendly posture I expect no need for a renewal of Prop. 1 and I will work toward that end on the council.

Sounder: What is the single most critical issue facing county residents?

BM: Growing and diversifying our local economy. Life in the San Juans has long been aided by easy, affordable access to goods and services on the mainland. This summer, my family ferry ride will cost $73 ($90 for Friday Harbor). Fuel could be around $5/gallon. Even the Postal Service will be reducing access to goods by mail. It is time that we get serious about growing our own economy.

We have a shortage of dependable labor, affordable housing, and services tailored to residents. There is tremendous room for growth, and with it we will usher in a new generation of talented, independent, and resourceful citizens who value these islands for their culture and natural beauty.

Sounder: You are the youngest candidate in the group, what are the strengths and weaknesses of your age?

BM: It makes me more of an optimist. I’m full of energy and enthusiasm in tackling the issues of the day but with a young family, I’m frequently thinking about life 20 or 30 years from now. I think that’s an inherent strength. I am excited to meet the people who shape our world and they seem pleasantly surprised at a new face in politics.

Some of the formalities of being a councilman are going to be strange. I don’t even own a tie or a blazer. I can already see the need for a second phone line at home and a full office setup on Lopez. I think the public is going to be pretty understanding about those kinds of growing pains though.

Sounder: What is one problem you see in the county that you could fix as a councilman and how?

BM: I don’t see enough questions being asked. When spending requests and budgets come before the council we should be having some intense conversations. Each one of these financial presentations begins with a statement like, “This is all very routine,” which usually means please don’t question my department. The public is craving a council who will be critical about spending.

One councilman recognized that signing up for the county’s insurance benefits was an unnecessary waste of tax dollars and he declined. Another councilman returned money from travel expenses which he did not use. This is the kind of behavior which I admire. I hear all the time from residents, “Find out why we are spending so much.” We need to be more fiscally conservative now than we have been for a long time. I promise to ask those hard questions.

Jamie Stephens

Sounder: What do you bring to the table that is different from the other candidates and why did you decide to run?

JS: The combination of talents and experience in issues that face all county residents is what is different about my candidacy. I am a small business owner; have participated in developing affordable housing; have seen the need and been involved with delivering family and children support services; taught in the school; helped develop jobs by teaching a small business course to entrepreneurs; developed a water plan for the Lopez UGA; have experience with the county budgeting; worked to expand local agriculture.

I have been on the council for two years and believe that I can help lead through the transition and contribute to moving our community forward. I will continue to ask questions, do the research and seek alternatives that fit our unique island community.

Sounder: How do you plan to balance the county budget? Do you support renewal of Prop. 1, the voter-approved property tax increase that expires at the end of 2015?

JS: My goal is a five-year horizon of budget stability. The budget has been balanced for the last few years through reductions of employees, freezing wages, changing health insurance, deferring maintenance, and delaying capital improvements. The changes took the cooperation of county departments and employees. These were only year- to-year fixes and are not sustainable.

The passage of the public safety sales tax will help keep the budget balanced for two to three years if we are disciplined with our expenditures. As the economy improves we should not spend money the same way.

The council is engaging the public to determine what the scope and scale of county government should look like. The results of this will guide what combination of revenue versus expenses is the right course going forward.

The revenue from the levy lid lift is part of our current budget and it helps fund specific programs. The uses, amount, and form of any renewal will need to be determined by the results of the community conversations.

Sounder: What is the single most critical issue facing county residents?

JS: Achieving budget stability is the single most important issue facing county residents and property owners. The council will get direction from the community about the priorities of government but hard decisions will need to be made about restructuring government and how to pay for the services the citizens want. These will include infrastructure such as bridges and roads; water availability and delivery; sewer; storm water treatment and communications.

Sounder: Will your experience on the council help you serve again as a councilman? Why or why not?

JS: I have worked for companies and have been on the boards of nonprofits that have gone through major changes. Each time it has been helpful to have a person or persons that have experience with the organization to lead through it. I believe that I am one of those leaders. I will reach out to other council members, department heads and into the community for expertise to help us thread through this challenging time. I have been on the council long enough to know the organization but not so long to rely on “that is how we used to do it.”

Sounder: What is a mistake you have made as a councilman that you have learned from?

JS: I have learned valuable lessons about email. I try to be much clearer in my communication.

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