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Lacher makes history, elected first woman mayor of Friday Harbor

From right, mayoral candidate Carrie Lacher, County Councilman Howie Rosenfeld, Jeff Brash and Lee Sturdivant react to election results showing Lacher in the lead in the mayor
From right, mayoral candidate Carrie Lacher, County Councilman Howie Rosenfeld, Jeff Brash and Lee Sturdivant react to election results showing Lacher in the lead in the mayor's race. County Auditor Milene Henley declared Lacher the winner. Lacher will become the first woman mayor of Friday Harbor.
— image credit: Jane K. Fox

Carrie Lacher downplayed her gender during her campaign for mayor, but all of those mayoral portraits on the wall in the Council Chambers wouldn't let her escape this obvious fact: Since Friday Harbor's inception 100 years ago, there has never been a female mayor.

Women have held important positions in all other corners of local and county government, but the mayoralty was like an incomplete chapter in the story of women in leadership.

Until Tuesday.

Voters elected Lacher the Centennial Town's 28th mayor tonight. As of 8:16 p.m., Lacher was leading with 302 votes to Robert Low's 215. County Auditor Milene Henley declared Lacher the winner.

"I haven't made it an issue because there were more important things to talk about," Lacher said of gender and her election. "But it's a very clear sign that people want a change. Some people will not vote for me because I'm a woman, some will vote for me because I am a woman. We approach problems differently and collaboratively. We want to know how you feel about it."

Her historic election "sends a fantastic message to our young girls that you too can do this. Don't underestimate yourself."

Lacher, 54, is a Town Council member, chairwoman of the county Solid Waste Advisory Committee, and a member of the county Housing Bank Commission. She has served as mayor pro tem in Mayor David Jones' absence.

She will take office as mayor Jan. 1. Low, who planned to call Lacher to congratulate her, said he will apply to be appointed to her council seat; the term expires Dec. 31, 2011.

As mayor, Lacher will be the town's chief executive, with ultimate hire and fire authority although most of that responsibility is delegated to the town administrator. She will appoint members of town commissions and committees, will work with the town administrator and treasurer to write the budget, and will set the agenda for and preside over Town Council meetings. She will vote only to break a tie.

As mayor, Lacher will receive $148 per meeting, with a maximum of four meetings per month (council members receive $85 per meeting).

She said rising utility rates are a top concern; she thinks some some capital projects can be postponed, like enlarging the Trout Lake dam, to stave off rate increases.

"I think overall, among the different people I talked with, the biggest issue was utility costs," she said. "That was the most consistent concern."

Raising the dam 7 feet would increase the amount of water available for the town by 62 millions gallons a year. But it would also result in increased utility rates. (Trout Lake was holding 380,848,893 gallons on Monday; the lake's total storage is 468,216,384 gallons.)

During her campaign, Lacher said she would be "a very visible presence" at the Association of Washington Cities, which represents Washington's cities and towns before the state Legislature, the state executive branch and regulatory agencies.

"That presence is critical to keep Friday Harbor on Olympia's radar," she said. She wants Friday Harbor and other ferry-served communities in this region to ally, so the region has a collective political voice on transportation issues.

She will not support a single fire department for San Juan Island unless there is clear benefit for the town; she supported the town's participation in a Sept. 25 conference on establishing regional fire authorities.

Lacher would support Friday Harbor joining the county stormwater utility to further spread the costs of stormwater improvements.

She supports a moratorium on utility rate increases while money is raised to fix needy streets. She wants to establish a funding source for street improvements; possible revenue sources include a paid parking lot.

She and Low both proposed establishing a funding source for street improvements, which are currently funded with sales tax revenues. When sales tax revenues decline, like they did this year, less money is available for street improvements.

She and Low also expressed concern about safety in the Harbor Ridge mobile home neighborhood on Roche Harbor Road.

Low, who served as town fire chief and fire marshal before his current job, said he thinks the neighborhood is a fire hazard. Lacher is also concerned about the density — and condition — of mobile homes in the neighborhood.

Harbor Ridge is zoned multi-family, which means 14 homes per acre can be built there. There are 64 homes there now, according to Town Administrator King Fitch. But at 15.40 acres, some 215 homes could be built or placed there under current zoning.

A candidate of change
Low ran as a candidate of change. Early in his campaign, he said he might accept Fitch's resignation if it were offered, and recruit a new administrator. Low, county fire marshal, served as town fire chief from 1998 to 2006. He didn’t feel Fitch always supported him as an employee, and since then has differed with Fitch over street improvements, the decision to not open Nash Street year-round, and the placement of pedestrian bumpouts on town streets.

Nash Street is mostly undeveloped and Fitch has been hesitant to open it – the budgetary decision is the Town Council’s – because the town doesn’t have the money to develop it and Fitch fears it would become a hazardous stretch of road.

Nash Street was opened as a gravel road during the dry months last year and was closed in winter, although this year it has been closed, obstructed by two large concrete blocks.

Nash Street leads into Low’s Spruce Street neighborhood. Low, who is also an EMT, said not opening Nash Street threatens public safety because emergency vehicles must travel around to Argyle Avenue in order to access the neighborhood.

Likewise, the pedestrian bumpouts, designed to provide pedestrians a better view of oncoming traffic, impede the movement of emergency vehicles, Low said. (Fitch said the bumpouts are called for in the town's street standards.)

Low has also spoken at Town Council meetings, asking that the town put Spruce Street on the Six-Year Transportation Improvement Plan for road improvements. When the neighborhood was built, street and stormwater standards were relaxed so the developer could keep the sale price of homes lower. Many of those original homeowners are now gone, and current homeowners say they are paying the price in roads rutted by water and ice that accumulates in inclement weather.

Low said he and his neighbors have mostly felt neglected by the town; Mayor David Jones and then-Councilman Kelley Balcomb-Bartok were to meet with neighbors last year, but that meeting never took place. Balcomb-Bartok proposed that neighbors establish a local improvement district to pay for improvements.

Aug. 6, Low asked the Town Council to at least place an asphalt overlay on the road – the lifespan of an asphalt overlay is about five years – as a temporary fix. The Town Council asked that the town begin to figure out the extent and cost of the work that would need to be done.

A consensus builder
Where Low was a candidate for change, Lacher touted herself as a consensus builder. She's particularly proud that the Solid Waste Advisory Committee voted unanimously on a solid waste utility fee structure to recommend to the County Council, despite some initial disagreements.

It's consensus, she said, that will get the town through the tough days ahead.

"People really love this town," Lacher said. "I do and Bob Low does, and that's why we're running for mayor. That's why people do all the things they do. We need to keep alive that passion and commitment and loyalty to the town and build on that."

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