Political newcomer challenges incumbent in Lopez Island council race

Unlike their counterparts on Orcas and San Juan, Brian McClerren and Jamie Stephens have already advanced to the general election. It’s a “special” election, on April 23, in which all voters in the county will select between the list of candidates vying to become the elected representative from each of the three new county legislative districts, and a seat on the newly reconstituted 3-person county council as well.

The field of three candidates vying for the District 1 (San Juan) and District 2 (Orcas) council positions will each be winnowed down to two following the “special” primary election, Feb. 12.

Meanwhile, Islands Weekly editor Cali Bagby offers a glance at competitors in the Lopez Island council race, with a profile of each and a following Q & A.

Jamie Stephens

Stephens has served on the existing council for two years. He said during his time on the council he has fought to keep farmland available for farmers and has helped to open up their opportunities to market their products. He added that he has helped to bring resolution to the solid waste system and worked to make community control of the dumps and reuse facilities a reality.

Stephens has endorsed high-speed internet connectivity to be made available to the county.  He also advocated for permanent protection of the Bureau of Land Management lands in San Juan County and has traveled to Washington D.C. to further the effort.

“There has been a lot of change in county government during the past two years and I am an experienced voice to move the county forward while implementing the changes in the way the county is governed,” said Stephens.

Prior to becoming a council member, Stephens was active in the community; including serving as board member of the Family Resource Center, Fisherman Bay Water Association, as Port Commissioner, member of the Lopez Village planning Committee, and board member of the Lopez Community Land Trust.

He has also substituted at Lopez School and has organized the yearly Fourth of July Parade.

Stephens teaches business classes through the Family Resource Center. He has two children, one in college and another employed in Washington, D.C. He lives with his wife Lauren Stephens in Lopez Village.

Brian McClerren

McClerren moved to Lopez Island in 2004. He was hired over the telephone by a local building contractor.

“The labor shortage was so acute that I remember trying to convince my friends back in Oregon to move up and work construction,” he said.

McClerren and his family joined with others in forming Common Ground, the Lopez Community Land Trust’s fourth affordable housing project. McClerren served as co-op treasurer during the construction process. At the same time he and former partner Andrea Huss started Media Cocktail in Lopez Village. McClerren used his time as a business owner to return to school and studied economics, accounting and business law.

He recently hired the first employee for his new business, Reveal Window Cleaning, while also working full time at Sunset Builder’s Supply. McClerren is married to Leslie Franklin, and they are expecting a new baby in June to add to their family of four including Kayla, 9, and Levi, 7.

The candidate said he has been interested in civil service ever since his involvement in the LCLT. “I saw firsthand how government policies and priorities affect individuals. When the regulations are not in your favor, the cost of building goes up really fast. I realized the county is just as capable of being a hindrance to progress as it is to being a facilitator.” McClerren has pledged to restore monthly town hall meetings and make himself available to those who can’t find the time to attend.

Weekly: Why are you running for this position?

JS: In the words of former Commissioner Howard, “One has to be more careful with an island.” I came to these islands because of the beauty but I stayed because of the community. I have seen a lot of progress in the last two years and will continue to work hard to see it continue. I believe in strong and healthy communities by providing opportunities for jobs through a vibrant and diversified economy; strong and connected neighborhoods; the protection and stewardship of the natural environment; and creating quality education and learning opportunities for all ages.

BM: Many people stop and ask me that, but it's usually phrased more like, “Why on earth would you want to do that job?” I'm running because I believe that I can make a difference. I think that a very large part of our population can relate to me in my love of the San Juan Islands and determination to own a home here and make a good living. But I have a great interest in public policy, economic planning, and the budgeting which bores most people to tears. I've made it through quite a few pots of coffee studying the Critical Areas Ordinance.

Weekly: What are the greatest concerns currently facing the county?

BM: As I meet with people and ask them to share their concerns, I hear the same complaint again and again. They all feel as if they are under attack from their government. Look at how few people filed for this election. I think it's a warning sign. People are feeling like victims and resigning themselves to it. We have an economic problem. Friday Harbor and Eastsound are becoming ghost towns all but three months of the year. We have an affordability problem. In the midst of high unemployment and recession abroad, home sales are at a crawl and prices have barely moved. We have a regulation problem. Existing businesses are discouraged from expanding, private property rights are a moving target, and rules on agriculture are contradictory and burdensome. We have a pollution problem. Unfortunately, new rules are not cleaning up old messes. Private landfills and junkyards are plentiful. Homes are left rotting into the forest and our marine ecosystem is still facing a constant runoff of toxic chemicals from messes decades old.

JS: We will have a big shift in the way San Juan County is governed and there are crucial transition issues that need to be handled. There are signs that the economy is improving but we still don’t have a very diversified economy. Huge issues are the possible impacts to our scenic landscape, shorelines, transportation, and recreation from increased coal and oil tanker traffic around and through county waters. We need to implement the Critical Areas Ordinances and Shoreline Master Plan update process. We must plan for the effect sea level rise will have on our long-range planning for roads, utilities, and other infrastructure needs.

Weekly: What are your solutions to those problems?

JS: The council should work proactively with the manager and staff to anticipate and address issues and be flexible enough to change if needed.

Completing the Economic Development component of the comprehensive plan would give us a plan for diversifying the economy. The budget is now stable for a couple of years and that gives time to plan for the future. I look forward to the “community conversations” that will help the council understand what the public thinks should be the scope and scale of county government; the priorities of government and how to fund it.

We need to make sure the needs and concerns of San Juan County are not lost during the Environmental Impact Statement Scoping process for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. Keep the public informed and participating to keep the process from delaying other issues.

BM: We need to restore the notion of self-governing. People are disenchanted with the government because they feel they have no involvement. We must return government to the people and restore a deeper sense of community. We're going to get back to regular open meetings where not everyone agrees – but everyone gets heard. The economic development in this county has been very uncoordinated. We must develop a popular vision of our communities for the future.

It is clear that agriculture and tourism are the sustainable industries which we most need to foster. High land costs, complicated land use rules, and pressure from vacation rental investment combine to ensure unobtainable home ownership for working islanders. The county should step in and develop land for new affordable housing. Citizens concerned about our environment have put so much of their money and energies into the legal process. I want to help them connect directly with the people and problems about which they are alarmed. We need to talk to each other and we need to be educated about the issues. Laws alone do not cause a change in behavior.

Weekly: How to you think the three-member council will work/or not and why?

BM: I think it is a good direction for the county to take. The islands have grown beyond part-time leadership needs. A full-time council ensures that we have leaders who are dedicated to the job and are not distracted by other financial commitments.

JS: I am running to serve the citizens of San Juan County and I believe everyone else is too. I can only do my best to perform my duties, including listening carefully to our citizens and fellow council members. In these changing times, it’s up to all of us to do this together. We are creating our future as never before

Contact Islands Weekly Editor of the Islands' Weekly Cali Bagby at cbagby@islandsweekly.com or 1-360-376-4500.




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