By Meg Olson
Affordable housing, net neutrality, overcrowded jails, over-regulation and fiber optic broadband versus 5G were all hot topics at the recent candidates forum sponsored by the local voters’ association at the Gulf Road community center.
The October 4 event was one of the earliest forums leading up to the November election and candidates for all three state legislative positions were in attendance along with candidates for county council, county prosecutor and public utility district commissioner.
Running against Doug Ericksen for state senator, Pinky Vargas said, “I know that Point Roberts gets left out of the equation in Whatcom County and I want to make sure you are included.” Vargus added she would work with the community to increase tourism by encouraging projects to draw visitors, from a dock to a lighthouse. “You’re not getting a fair distribution for the taxes you are paying,” she said.
Ericksen said he wants to return to Olympia to “keep being successful in doing great things for Whatcom County,” setting education, job creation and “protecting our quality of life” as ongoing priorities.
State representative Luanne Van Werven is looking for voter support to retain her seat and emphasized safe schools and safe neighborhoods close to affordable housing in her remarks.
Van Werven’s opponent Justin Bonneau said he is running to help working class families by promoting affordable housing, access to early childhood education, and healthcare. “I’d like to see Washington pursue a single payer health care system,” he said.
State representative Vincent Buys, also seeking reelection, said that like Van Werven and Ericksen he wanted to make sure businesses weren’t burdened with over-regulation. “Lots of people in Olympia don’t get to work with the regulations they pass,” he said, adding that as a general contractor, he does.
Sharon Shewmake, running against Buys, is a professor of economics who wants to see decisions made in Olympia based on evidence instead of anecdotes. “I want to look for ways to fix lots of problems using evidence and data-based approaches,” she said.
A question from the audience about their views on the state’s growth management act (GMA) highlighted the differences between the two candidates. “I’d get rid of it,” Buys said, saying adequate land would then be available to create affordable housing. Shewmake said that “there are other ways we can address affordable housing without sprawl,” which the GMA curbs by limiting urban growth areas. “We can build up, infill cities, and that creates walkable communities that are healthier.” She added the state legislature had slashed the budget for affordable housing in 2010 and she would, if elected, work to get the funding restored.
Running for the at-large position on Whatcom County Council, Carol Frazey said she had chosen to enter the race because “our core values of equity, equality and environmental protection are not being reflected at the national level and there’s a lot we will need to do locally to protect our community and environmental health.”
Her opponent Mike Peetoom said he was running because he saw county council as disconnected from the communities their decisions impact like Point Roberts and Birch Bay, where he is a chamber of commerce director. “Their bad decisions affect you and they don’t understand the situation here,” he said.
James Erb, the assistant city attorney for the city of Bellingham, is one of two candidates running to replace David McEachran as county prosecutor. “I think it’s time for some serious criminal justice reform to reduce incarceration,” he said, adding that the county wouldn’t need to ask voters to pay for a bigger jail if they emphasized jail alternative programs such as GPS ankle bracelets for certain offenders. “They’re significantly cheaper and people can stay connected to their jobs, their families, their schools and mental health services,” he said. “We have 16 percent more people in the Whatcom County jail than the state average.”
On the topic of net neutrality, most candidates endorsed the concept. Justin Boneau said he would like to see internet infrastructure become a public utility. Van Werven stated she had voted for the state’s net neutrality law adopted in February because she “did not like the idea of the largest companies controlling what we see.” Ericksen, however, suggested those in favor of net neutrality regulation represented “a socialist takeover of our government systems rather than a more market-based approach.”
Shewmake responded that net neutrality had been “the law of the land” until the federal communications commission scrapped the rules in December 2017 in what she described as “a corporate giveaway by the Trump administration.”
Candidates also discussed the growing demand for high-speed wireless communications and the need to get that service to rural areas like Point Roberts. Ericksen said roll-out of 5G systems would come only after “we make sure it’s safe;” Buys said, “We have been working with companies to incentivize moving technology into these more remote areas.” Atul Deshmane, a candidate for the county public utility district commission, wrapped up candidates’ comments throwing his vote with those who favor expanding fiber-based broadband to meet the need. He said the Point was fortunate to be served by Whidbey Telecom which is aggressively moving forward with the technology. “That could be a really great economic development opportunity for this community,” he said.
Ballots were mailed this week, according to the county auditor’s office, and need to be postmarked or in a ballot box by November 6. In Point Roberts, the ballot drop-box is located at the Point Roberts Marketplace.