Peterson, Severson talk issues in County Council race | San Juan County Council, San Juan North

Rich Peterson and Laura Jo Severson ... candidates for San Juan County Council, San Juan North. - Contributed photos
Rich Peterson and Laura Jo Severson ... candidates for San Juan County Council, San Juan North.
— image credit: Contributed photos

San Juan County Council District 2 voters will experience something new when the Nov. 2 general election comes.

For the first time since the county charter divided the islands into six council districts, District 2 voters will choose between two candidates seeking to represent them on the San Juan County Council.

And the charter, which is up for review beginning next year, is a good place to start in gaining some insight into the difference between the two candidates.

The incumbent, Rich Peterson, says the county is more effective and better-managed than it had been when three commissioners controlled the county’s executive and legislative branches. He cites as evidence the completion of various Growth Management Act-related mandates, some of which were long overdue.

“The system we have now is beginning to cure the ills we once had,” Peterson said of the charter.

The challenger, Laura Jo Severson, believes the county would benefit if the charter were fine-tuned a bit. Severson, though supportive of the charter in concept, said it’s costing the county “far more, not less” and that the county appears somewhat top-heavy within its ranks.

More importantly, she said, having an even number of council members, like six, can lead to “minority rule” when four or more votes are needed for any legislation to be approved. As an example, she cites the vote on the Brickworks project, in which a vote by two council members derailed the project.

“I liked the idea of having someone elected from our district representing us on the council,” she said. “I just wish it was someone who represented me.”

It’s her first-ever run for political office, but Severson isn’t pulling any punches. She’s critical of the steps the council has taken in attempting to solve the county’s solid-waste dilemma. And she’s critical of her opponent’s vote against a ban on styrofoam food containers. She’d like more emphasis placed on recycling and reducing the volume of garbage handled at the solid waste facilities.

In addition, Severson fears the county may be relying too much on paid consultants in its attempt to cut costs, and not enough of a skilled and experienced workforce. She said that even though costs must be contained while the economy recovers, the council may need to look further up the ladder to reduce expenses.

“I think that maybe some restructuring would be appropriate,” she said.

In contrast, Peterson believes the county may need to put fewer resources into the solid waste facilities. He said privatization, creation of an independent utility and a more fully-automated system would reduce the costs the county incurs without having to further scale back or eliminate services altogether.

“It’s going to get solved, we can’t not solve it,” he said. “I think we’re going to get to a place where we have less manpower.”

As for the county’s financial woes, Peterson said salaries and benefits are about the only areas to control expenses until the economy recovers and revenue is more abundant.

“The major growth of expenses is in salaries,” he said. “So we’ll have to limit salary growth by either having fewer benefits or fewer employees, or some combination.”

Despite their differences, the two candidates have more in common than not, in some ways.

Each spent about 30 years working in the public sector before retiring from their chosen careers — Peterson, a firefighter, Severson, a teacher and guidance counselor.

Both are relative newcomers to the island, moving here within the past 10 years. Both share a love of boats; Peterson owns a power boat, and Severson a 44-foot sailboat.

And neither expected to be running for office.

Severson intended to work on someone else’s campaign, but tossed her hat into the ring when it appeared no one else would. Though managing a political campaign — her first ever — may be new territory for her, she said she’s always kept a sharp eye on the workings of local government.

“It’s been a bit of a learning curve for me,” she said. “But I think every history teacher in some way is a political wannabe.”

Peterson, who took office following an uncontested race in 2006, expected to serve only one term. He is seeking reelection largely to finish a number of priorities he’s championed during the past four years, such as improved cell-phone service, protecting the charter and finding “sensible” solutions to the pending update of the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance and Shoreline Master Program.

Peterson and Severson agree the update of the CAO and SMP is a top concern for those in the 2nd District. And each maintains that any regulatory changes, if warranted, should be reasonable and strike a balance between the needs of property owners and in protecting the environment.

“Nobody wins in a fight between property rights and environmental protection,” said Severson, adding that protections which are appropriate also help to maintain property values.

The 2nd District is arguably the most geographically and culturally diverse of the county’s six council districts. Its boundaries encompass the island’s easternmost tip, Turn Point/Pear Point, as well as its northernmost point, Roche Harbor. Its southern border skirts past the Town of Friday Harbor as it separates the north half of the island from the south, and then extends south along the west side to include several homes on Mount Dallas.

Also known as San Juan North, the district includes Brown, Henry, Pearl and Stuart islands, as well as several of the island’s most densely populated neighborhoods, such as Hillview Terrace, Sutton Road, Mitchell Bay and those that surround Roche Harbor Resort. It consists of four voting precincts — No. 9, 11, 12 and 13 — and is home to 2,293 registered voters.

Collectively, those voters are an active lot. At 65 percent, District 2 voter-turnout in the August primary was slightly above the county’s combined mark of 64.4 percent, second-highest among the state’s 39 counties.

Come Nov. 2, Peterson expects an even larger turnout with so many important issues on the line.

“There’s a very, very strong concern about their government working well,” he said of those in the district. “People are very, very engaged.”

Severson believes the key to victory lies in knocking on as many doors as possible and gaining some face-to-face time with voters.

“My goal is to shake hands with everybody in the district and I’m doing the best I can to do that.”

—Age: 68

— Family: Wife, Janice, married 47 years; two children, four grandchildren.

— Employment: San Juan County Council member, District 2. Elected in 2006.

— Career: City of Santa Barbara Fire Department, 1963-1980; deputy city fire chief, 1976-1980; Santa Barbara County fire chief, 1980-1992.

— Education: Associate of arts, Glendale Community College; associate of science, Santa Barbara City College; attended Los Angeles State College and Long Beach State College.

— Community involvement: San Juan Lions Club; San Juan Island Yacht Club commodore, 2008; volunteer set builder, San Juan Community Theater.

— Campaign website: www.richforcouncil.com

— Age: 64

— Family: Husband, Bill, married 36 years; one child, two grandchildren.

— Employment: Washington Vocational Services, part-time job coach.

— Career: Teacher, guidance counselor, 32 years — Highline School District; Evergreen High School, Mobile, Ala.; and county schools.

Education: Bachelor of science, Auburn University; master of arts, University of South Alabama.

— Community involvement: American Red Cross local chapter volunteer, Friday Harbor Presbyterian Church, Friday Harbor Sailing Club.

— Campaign website: www.laurajoseverson.com (under development)

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