By Lisa Byers
In a recent letter to the editor, Mike Carlson asked a number of questions about what I believe to be the role of government. Other individuals asked similar questions. I will do my best to address this complex topic in a concise manner.
I believe that government has a limited, but important role to play in society. Government is not the answer for resolving many of society’s needs. Many needs are best addressed through volunteer efforts, or by for-profit or non-profit businesses. But when government does provide services, it should do so efficiently and effectively.
When we, as a community, grapple with an issue, I believe that government is well-suited for convening people, setting common goals, and then developing incentives to implement solutions. I believe that some of our best innovations have come about through thoughtful collaboration between government and individuals working through for-profit and non-profit businesses.
When we choose to adopt regulations, they should be designed so that businesses that follow the rules may thrive, and property owners may have flexibility in how they use their property. One of the challenges of government is that regulations stay on the books after they are no longer useful, thus becoming an impediment. We must be diligent about pruning out old rules that no longer serve us.
It is very important to me that government officials recognize that uncertainty has a significant detrimental effect on business and residential development. The length of time that it took this county to get through the required update to the Critical Areas Ordinance is a case in point. Nine years is too long. The uncertainty had very real economic costs.
Mike, you say that you have made a living in the islands without government help. I have a feeling that you don’t mean that in the literal sense. You travel on roads and ferries. You know kids or have kids who have gone to school and gotten an education. You’ve probably used maps and weather forecasts. You’ve had a clinic or hospital to help you through an illness or accident. Put simply, at some point, you’ve been helped by your neighbors. And government is, at its most simple, one of the ways that we come together to make our society function.
I know what it is like to work hard, save money, and buy property. I know how scary it can be to think that you won’t be able to provide for your kids. I know how difficult it is when you’ve been running your business successfully, but then the rules change and you have to change in order to survive, let alone thrive. You wrote in your letter that you thought my response to an issue was cavalier. I’m sorry you got that impression. I think that people who work with me would tell you that is not their experience of me. I think they would say that I am thoughtful and balanced. I hope that you will give me the opportunity to re-shape that perception.
My work has involved hiring people and worrying about making payroll. I have taken risks in order to keep people employed, because I know that without a job they would suffer, and they might move away. We need good jobs, with good wages in our community so that people may thrive.
I think our economy in San Juan County is transitioning. We will continue to rely on construction and tourism, while at the same time there are more people employed here who are exporting their ideas and creativity. They are writers, artists, scientists, educators, consultants, and more. This is a place where people come to relax, to learn, and to be inspired. The more we can capitalize on that—by continuing to value this unique environment—the more our economy will thrive.
I believe that we do need regulations to protect our environment. That is a consequence of having more people. I believe that the Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) passed by the county council last December was a valid attempt, within the requirements of existing state law, to find a way to allow property owners as much flexibility as possible. However, it is important with any regulation that we understand how it works in real life. We need to gather case studies of on-the-ground experience, and then make changes to improve the application and predictability of regulations. Within the context of state law, we should strive to make regulations as clear, consistent and as flexible as possible. If state law makes that impossible, we should work together to change state law.
Finally, I believe that my work experience makes me very well suited to be a county council member. I have worked with others to build housing for almost 5% of Orcas Island’s year-round population. The construction of that housing created jobs, and the finished product—the houses—provide a home for many people who work at jobs we depend upon on a daily basis.
Through collaboration, hard work and innovation, I have led an organization, using a using a mix of private and public financing, to do something that many thought was not possible. I hope I am able to bring those same skills of hard work and collaborative problem solving to the county council.
— Editor's note: Lisa Byers is a candidate for the District 2 (Orcas) County Council position.