Shaw Island’s Alex MacLeod burned too may bridges and ruffled too many feathers to advocate effectively any longer for San Juan County and its stake in the future of Washington State Ferrries. So said a majority of the San Juan County Council, which removed MacLeod from the San Juan Ferry Advisory Committee. Time will tell whether the council was right.
As always, the fate of the chronically cash-strapped state ferry system will be determined in Olympia, not in the San Juan Islands. And the situation has gone from bad to worse now that the four 80-year-old Steel Electric-class ferries have been permanently pulled out of service.
During his four-year tenure as chairman of the committee, MacLeod reportedly made few friends in Olympia, at WSF headquarters or among the elected officials of Anacortes and Island or Skagit counties. The word at the state level, at least according to the County Council, which declined to name names, is MacLeod had become increasingly “hostile and belligerent” in his dealings with the power brokers in those arenas.
But MacLeod, without names to determine the context of what may have spawned such complaints, was unwilling to acknowledge problems had been created for the county through his supposed confrontational style. According to County Council Chairman Howie Rosenfeld, the council had “no choice” but to kick MacLeod off the committee.
It’s reasonable to question whose interests the council had in mind by sacking MacLeod. This fact remains: it’s going to take a strong and consistent voice to protect the interests of islanders in regards to ferry service. And MacLeod was a strong, consistent voice. If an ego was bruised in Olympia or at WSF, well, it wasn’t the first time. That’s politics.
For islanders, the reality is that it costs twice as much to ride the ferries as it did seven years ago. Service has been cut while ticket prices have soared. The number of riders in the San Juans has dropped seven percent during that same seven-year period, while WSF has seen a systemwide decline of one million or more.
But that’s not all. According to the San Juan County Economic Development Council, statewide tourism spending increased 8 percent from 2000-05; that figure remained nearly flat — at .8 percent — on the islands. Furthermore, the $25 million the county would have received over the next 15 years through the recent 9.5-cent gas tax increase was shifted to WSF instead to help cover the rising cost of fuel. Islanders can thank state lawmakers for that decision.
So who in Olympia is keeping the San Juans’ interests in mind?
MacLeod’s understanding of the inner workings of WSF and the challenges the agency is faced with was never in question. His failure to let the public know in advance of the committee’s Jan. 14 meeting, the catalyst of his undoing, was small potatoes for the council and an error MacLeod owned up to. Rosenfeld said council members had hoped to somehow “salvage” the situation and keep him on. But they didn’t.
In Olympia, state officials are preparing to turn the state ferry system inside out to solve the agency’s chronic lack of funding. MacLeod had been outspoken in his criticism of state lawmakers for eliminating the motor-vehicle excise tax — one of the agency’s major sources of revenue — and their failure to replace those funds.
The council may believe fences will be mended and the interests of islanders better served with MacLeod off the committee. But if the council thinks anyone in Olympia is looking out for the best interests of islanders, it might just as well believe in elves, fairies, unicorns and a great big pot of gold at the end of some fantastically colored rainbow.
History suggests otherwise.
By Scott Rasmussen