A conversation with local elected officials

Four of the islands’ elected officials held a meeting to discuss the state of the islands.

“Tonight we wanted to spend a little time tonight with our friends from the San Juan Islands,” Washington State Rep. Debra Lekanoff said.

Thirty-seven people joined in on the Aug. 17 Zoom meeting that was inspired by the Orcas Women’s Coalition and hosted by Lekanoff’s office.

“This idea originated with a couple of women from our leadership. We felt it was important not only that the people of San Juan County have the opportunity to hear from our elected officials but the people of San Juan County have the opportunity to talk to our elected officials and talk to each other,” OWC Steering Committee member Cindy Wolf said.

COVID-19’s affect on the county

San Juan County Councilmember Jamie Stephens represented the council during the meeting. He spoke about how the county is currently in Phase Two with additional restrictions on transient accommodations.

“Where we are is how we should plan to go forward,” Stephens said, adding that during the past five months, islanders have rallied to serve those in need. “There have been some remarkable partnerships and realigning of services by our nonprofit community.”

Stephens commended volunteers in the islands and acknowledged the federal, state, county and Economic Development Council programs that have worked to feed people, keep them in their homes and provide counseling services. He also encouraged everyone to check on their elderly friends and neighbors.

Friday Harbor Mayor Farhad Ghatan expressed his appreciation for the county’s willingness to work with the town to procure COVID-19 funding.

“We’re looking forward to a cooperative application to the second round of CARES funding with the county and are very pleased that they have chosen to work with us,” Ghatan said.

He also recognized restaurants and businesses in town for their continued efforts to stand up to people who refuse to wear masks and follow the community’s health orders.

“In so many cases they go above and beyond in showing patience but being strong and insistent in keeping us safe,” Ghatan said.

San Juan County Health and Community Services Director Mark Tompkins applauded the ongoing efforts of the county’s surveillance team. He also noted the county’s preparation of isolation and quarantine facilities — renting hotel rooms for patients — if needed. The county has also been focusing its efforts on vulnerable populations by providing a home delivery meal program.

The county has facilitated asymptomatic testing on all three of the main islands and has partnered with businesses to perform employee testing, Tompkins explained. There has been a lot of community outreach and cooperation with other agencies, he said.

“All of this has really been made possible by the support of our council,” Tompkins said. “Thank [you to] the council for allowing us to bring in some much-needed help to fill positions.”

Orcas Community Foundation Executive Director Hilary Canty stated concern that the islands’ community foundations are not seeing much from state and federal funding. The CARES Act funds have not been distributed in such a way that supports community needs such as child care centers and support for local businesses, she said.

State Sen. Liz Lovelett explained that the Legislature has not gone into special session because it has been waiting for the next round of federal stimulus payments before it started to make cuts. She added that Lekanoff and fellow state Rep. Alex Ramel are working on amending the state’s regressive tax code while she has worked on job recovery and getting children back to school.

“As much as we would like to wrap around and be able to solve every problem that’s out there it’s not realistic to think that we can,” Lovelett said.

Boys and Girls Clubs as well as the YMCA has stepped up to help provide child care, Lovelett said. She added that child care is a big problem facing working parents, especially amid the COVID crisis.

“That is a pretty dire situation in the best of circumstances let along in a pandemic,” Lovelett said, adding there are a lot of moving parts and there are people dedicated to finding a solution. “It’s unconscionable to have all our budget cuts come at the expense of the people in the community who are most vulnerable.”

Stephens noted that the HEROES Act, the proposed next stimulus bill which has yet to be passed, is set to help fund both state and local governments. He said state and local governments were mostly left out of the CARES Act and he expressed concern that President Donald Trump had said he doesn’t want to fund “inefficient local governments.”

“Which is difficult, to say the least,” Stephens said.

There are ongoing expenses for the county, Stephens explained, including providing isolation and quarantine locations for people, testing and paying employees.

“Every day that goes by it gets harder and harder to do contracts and get money out to the people who need it,” Stephens said.

There is $150 million for local governments and the state currently sitting in the possession of the Washington Department of Commerce, according to Stephens. He said the county is just waiting to see how and when that money will be released.

“If we got some of that money… it could help with child care,” Stephens said, adding that the local resource centers are working with the schools to develop virtual afterschool programs.

Lekanoff added that the HEROES Act was devised to include sending funds to the tribes, local and state governments.

“As we continue to move forward, Liz and I will continue to advocate for local governments,” Lekanoff said.

Mail-in voting

Mail-in voting has been a hot topic of discussion nationwide this year with many Americans being concerned about the hazards of voting in-person amid a pandemic. A campaign of distrust in the vote-by-mail system has been supported by the Trump administration, while a recently assigned United States Postal Service Postmaster General has begun to dismantle the nation’s federal mailing service.

Both Lekanoff and Lovelett have confidence in Washington state’s well-established mail-in-voting system.

“We get far better turnout and get very few incidents of fraud,” Lovelett said.

Lovelett added there should be a public relations “blitz” about how wonderful and easy mail-in voting is. She expressed concern that there is a massive movement to disenfranchise voters in the upcoming election.

“Every vote matters,” Lekanoff said. “Really getting out that vote and making sure your voice is heard.”

Healthcare

Officials spoke briefly about the necessity of good health care in the community. Ghatan noted the need to start paying attention to mental health issues being exacerbated by the pandemic. He said he has observed a drop in community spirit and suggested incorporating more waving at neighbors like what Lopez has been known to do for decades.

“I think that’s a great idea. I think it’s a great way to get a little bit of this humanity back to us,” Ghatan said.

San Juan County has always been a welcoming community, Lekanoff said.

She did agree that there are challenges related to the lack of behavioral and mental health services. Difficulties in those fields existed prior to the pandemic, Lekanoff added, and they’re even more evident now.

“It’s hard to provide all of those services that you would see say over in Mount Vernon or Bellingham when we’re more spread out like we are,” Tompkins said.

PeaceHealth has a telepsychiatry program and there are mental health counselors in the schools, he added.

“There’s a lot of mental health programs out here that are available,” Tompkins said.

The challenge in the islands for mental health providers is receiving enough money from Medicaid, finding staff and having enough patients.

“It’s just a struggle,” Tompkins said. “That is a challenge and hopefully we can use the telehealth as a model.”

In conclusion

“I always feel like I’m at home when I come out to the San Juan Islands,” Lekanoff said. “The values that come out of the San Juan Islands are always near and dear to my heart.”

Wolf thanked the elected officials for their time speaking with the community.

“I think we’ve taken some good steps to building what we need in terms of coordinating our efforts and really listening to each other in terms of how we are advancing,” Wolf said.