PORT TOWNSEND — Housing issues dominated the conversation at a forum for the Jefferson County commissioner, Position 3 seat.
Democratic incumbent Greg Brotherton and Republican challengers, Jon Cooke and Marcia Kelbon answered questions during a League of Women Voters (LWV) of Jefferson County forum held virtually on July 13, All three candidates cited the lack of affordable housing a central problem in the county.
Washington’s primary election is Aug. 3, and ballots already have been sent to registered voters. The top-two primary will cull the choices down to two for the Nov. 8 general elections. For information, see votewa.gov.
County commissioners serve four-year terms, said moderator Renee Klein, and define high-level goals and long-range outcomes for the county and help choose the ways to achieve those outcomes.
“What can I say? I love my job, and I feel that I found my true calling,” Brotherton — who’s served since 2018 — said in his opening statement.
“I want to protect our ability to use our property and balance that with protecting our environmental and ecological health.”
Brotherton said in his tenure as commissioner he has helped forward the development of Port Hadlock’s sewer system, multi-family housing and improvement of the county’s permitting software.
Both Republican candidates were critical of the county’s building regulations, and said high taxes and a complicated permitting process were hampering businesses and homeowners.
“It breaks my heart to see our younger generations in Jefferson County not being able to succeed based on their hard work,” Kelbon said. “Sometimes working three jobs is still not being able to afford a place to live.”
Kelbon suggested removing permitting and policy barriers to “reasonably priced” housing such as rentals, multifamily units and starter homes. Businesses that could provide a living wage needed to be permitted as well, Kelbon said, but in a way that still protects the environment and retains the area’s rural character.
Cooke, who is a former chair and now a state committeeman with the Jefferson County Republican Party, also criticized the county’s tax and regulatory environment. He said the county should have a better approach to homelessness.
“I really feel the fiasco at the fairground said a lot about the way our county is going,” Cooke said. “Instead of looking at the problems there, we expanded it to a bigger problem.”
Cooke was referring to the Caswell-Brown Village, a homeless encampment off Mill Road near the fairgrounds. The site was cleared through a collaboration between Jefferson County and Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP). The county provided $600,000 to purchase the land.
Brotherton has served on OlyCAP’s board of directors since 2019, and currently serves as board chair. Kelbon said she appreciated OlyCAP’s work, but suggested Brotherton’s position on its board posed a conflict of interest with his position as county commissioner.
Kelbon is a former chemical engineer and attorney, and Cooke is a former educator and wrestling coach, who ran against Brotherton in 2018.
Questions were adapted from those sent to the LWV by the public, Klein said, and though candidates were asked about other issues, including their relationship with the LGBT community and environmental regulations, many of the questions focused on issues related to construction and growth.
“We’ve been in a housing emergency for five years now. We have people come in to work for the county who can’t find housing here,” Cooke said, suggesting the county start by refining its permitting process.
Kelbon suggested permitting light manufacturing businesses that would bring higher-paying jobs, allowing younger generations to buy homes and grow the county’s tax base.
In addition to regulatory changes, Brotherton said he wanted to work with communities to find solutions that could increase density, such as boarding houses or home-sharing programs where senior citizens rented to vetted tenants who can help with chores.
The video of the forum can be viewed at the LWV Jefferson County website, lwvwa.org/Jefferson.
Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.