Chamber hosts ‘one-sided’ candidates forum

ARLINGTON – “Forum” was a fitting title for Tuesday’s political candidates luncheon hosted by the Stillaguamish Valley Chamber of Commerce, since the prospects for open debate were off the table when some contenders for mayor and city council chose not to attend.

Barb Tolbert is running for a third four-year term as mayor, facing challenger Don Vanney Jr., who retired from an aerospace company purchasing and negotiations job last month after over 30 years. Vanney said he bowed out of the forum for personal reasons.

In the sole council seat up for grabs, incumbent Sue Weiss, a longtime accountant who also did not to attend, is facing rival Michele Blythe, a banker, both of whom have contributed countless hours of community involvement and committee work since retiring.

City councilmembers Marilyn Oertle and Mike Hopson are running unopposed. Hopson joined Tuesday’s forum to share why he is seeking re-election.

The forum was hosted by the Stillaguamish Valley Chamber of Commerce in the Byrnes Performing Arts Center at Arlington High School.

Tolbert extolled the virtues of an exceptional city with much to offer, from a fantastic school system and high quality of life to a “great character in our town with just a charming, small town feel of neighbors who take care of each other.”

Tolbert said working through a fiscal crisis and natural disaster brought out the resiliency and values of residents, which have shone through, and will be needed as change comes to the fast-growing region. She’s proud of the $18 million in debt the city has paid down in the last eight years, and reserves built up to pay for facilities like a future fire station in Smokey Point, while being able to weather the next recession.

Blythe said her banking and finance expertise will prepare her well for City Council.

“I thought that would be a wonderful transition to city government,” she said. One thing she has learned about successful governance is the importance of partnerships and transparency in the council working with various advisory boards and committees.

City Councilman Mike Hopson has no opponent, but he was invited to join the panel to offer his position on challenges Arlington will face as it copes with significant job and population growth.

He envisions a well-planned community that offers a variety of housing types for a variety of household incomes.

“Many household incomes today just don’t keep up with the cost of market-rate housing, and this is forcing many families toward homelessness, and especially the elderly,” Hopson said. He is championing a tax exemption program to “incentivize” developers to include units of affordable housing in their projects.

The candidates were asked to cite the most important challenges facing Arlington, and how to address them.

Tolbert said the rate of growth in Arlington means congestion looms and will continue in “the town surrounded on all four sides by state roadways” unless elected leaders focus on a longer-term package of road investments and work vigilantly to bring tax-generated grant dollars back into Arlington for those projects. City leaders two weeks ago pulled together a 20-year transportation investment plan.

She also cited strides in public safety represented by the embedded social worker program, which is getting treatment and resources to drug addicts and the homeless to become contributors to society instead of takers.

Blythe, whose extended family includes military members and a son in law enforcement, said she agrees with the goals of the embedded social worker program. She encouraged continuing to fund it, and wouldn’t mind adding another social worker if the program shows a demonstrated impact on lives over time. She is endorsed by the Arlington Police Officers Association and Arlington Firefighters IAFF 3728.

The candidates spoke highly of the Cascade Industrial Center and what it will mean to helping create a vibrant community and economy.

Tolbert said the designation means more than creating family-wage jobs and enabling residents to work in the same place where they live, play and shop. It also enables Arlington to compete for transportation and other funding that wasn’t open to them before.

She added city leaders are also focused on developing a thriving downtown, and just starting a public participation process for residents and businesses to draw up how downtown will look in 2045.

Blythe said it has been exciting seeing new businesses call Arlington home, from small businesses like Mo’s Espresso to the Coca Cola plant. She supports helping new small businesses more who are unfamiliar with the community when they open their doors.

Among audience questions, real estate agent George Brain asked about the candidates’ stand on minorities in the community, especially after backlash against an LGBTQ alliance of students in a recent high school parade and at a past MLK high school celebration, and deplorable social media posts involving a “pride flag” with the so-dubbed Pride Month last June and whether discrimination exists in local institutions and services.

Tolbert said if there were any instances of discrimination or prejudice in providing services or business service an employee of the city of Arlington, “There would be swift discipline for that.”

“We – every one of you – are responsible for the values of this town,” she said. “We are responsible to speak up when we see injustice happening. We’re responsible to call it out and say, ‘That’s not a value of our community.’”

She said the city has been working with the school superintendent’s office to partner on a cultural diversity fair next May.

Hopson was realistic about how growth will change the social fabric of the community.

“If there are remnants of prejudices from the past, I think those are going to be washed away over time as new people come into the community,” he said. Some will like the diversity that comes, others won’t.

Blythe said, “It all starts at home, and what we’re instilling in our homes and families. We have control over that.”

Absentee ballots countywide will be mailed Oct. 17.