Sen. Jan Angel, Republican state senator from the 26th Legislative District — who also served as a state representative — is retiring from public service as an elected official when her term ends at the end of next month. Angel also was elected as a Kitsap County commissioner in 1999 and served two terms in office. The Independent’s Bob Smith sat down with the state senator at her Port Orchard home as she recalled her life as a public official in South Kitsap and Olympia. This is the second part of a series on Angel’s public service experience.
PORT ORCHARD — As is often the case when individuals enter the fishbowl world as a public official, Jan Angel found her introduction to life in 2000 as a Kitsap County commissioner a tad bumpy.
While she would eventually serve two terms at county offices up on the hill in Port Orchard, Angel said she felt at times like the “odd duck out.”
“[The other commissioners] would laugh at my ‘no’ votes,” Angel recalled. “They’d laugh at comments I’d make. Heck, I hadn’t been in politics before, but we just kept doing what we were doing. It was really interesting, but at the end of eight years, when I started getting angry with the people I was going into meetings with, well, that’s not healthy.
“It was hard. It was very difficult.”
Particularly difficult was the subterfuge she says she experienced while in office. She discovered her office had regularly been gone through in her absence.
“I found out that the mail I thought I was sending out was pigeon-holed,” Angel said.
“You didn’t expect stuff like that. One of the women there had gone through my office — a 20-some year employee — who was supposed to be part of our staff. I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fire her, but I wouldn’t have her in the department any longer. I got her moved. She knew what she did and I knew what she did, but nobody else needed to know that, other than the people who made those decisions.”
Calling herself a “creature of habit,” Angel said she routinely puts things in the same places.
“I knew something was going on and then one young woman came into my office just as I was leaving and said, “I don’t care if I get fired, but you need to know that there’s been people here after you’re gone [who] are going through your office.”
Angel thought to herself: “What are you looking for, guys?”
Despite this low-level bit of cat-and-mouse play, the commissioner said she found her county work to be satisfying.
“It offered a lot of good inroads to the constituents,” she said, “but I had to fight like heck to get them. People noticed that I was fighting for them.”
A couple in her district came to Angel with a dilemma: they had moved to the area because they owned a horse. The couple said they wanted to build a house and a barn, but the county wouldn’t permit the arrangement because the barn roof violated code restrictions with its impervious surface.
“I would sit down with staff and say, ‘They came here and their intent was to have a place where they could have a horse and a barn. Now you’re saying that can’t happen. Their original intent in buying this property now doesn’t exist. The response was, ‘Well, they can have trails’ — but they don’t want trails.’”
Angel was able to find a way around that restriction. She also said that restrictive signage county codes, also threatened to derail the expansion of the Subaru dealership’s service department some years back.
The county commissioner again was able to find a way to navigate county code statutes that satisfied the business’s plans. But it left her with the nagging thought: “Why does the county commissioner have to go tear apart the code and teach staff how to [work with constituents]? Those kinds of things were difficult, but we made inroads.”
After deciding not to run for a third term as county commissioner, Angel set her sights on playing more golf, not running for another public office. Others, however, had future plans in mind for her.
“People from Olympia came down and asked me if I’d consider running for the state House of Representatives,” she said.
“I remember saying to one of the gentlemen, ‘Why on God’s green earth would I want to do that?’ He started laughing and said, ‘Jan, everything you have worked on, especially land use that you couldn’t affect on the county level, you could affect on the state level.’”
But the Olympia delegation also added what turned out to be an empty promise, said Angel’s husband, Lynn Williams, laughing: “They said it would give you more [personal] time.”
Ultimately, Angel served in the state Legislature for 10 years, beginning in the House in 2009, where she served for five years, then another five in the state Senate.
Even though Angel wasn’t a political neophyte by the time she entered the House, her introduction to the ways of Olympia was brutal.
“When you hit the halls there, it’s like drinking out of a fire hose,” she said. “Everybody is so busy that I had trouble getting someone to tell me where the pencils could be found. You’re really out there on your own.”
On her first day in office, she said, 600 emails on her computer awaited a response. But through persistence and with the help of her able legislative assistant, Debbie Austin, responses were sent out that day. And that set the stage for an element of her time in the Legislature that she’s most proud of: working with district constituents.
Angel said she makes it her top priority to answer every email and letter that comes to her. That, and listening to constituents. In fact, she routinely schedules constituent meetings just about every day in 15-minute increments when she isn’t busy with committee sessions.
“Absolutely. I think it’s so critical,” she said.
She also takes pride in her work helping veterans in the area and the state. “So many vets would tell me they didn’t know where to go for services,” Angel said.
Her last bill in the Legislature set up the framework for a model program similar to one in Texas in which volunteers help veterans navigate the ins and outs of government and nonprofit social service programs in order for them to get help.
Angel also points to an unsexy issue — septic tanks — that nonetheless affects many Kitsap County residents. She sponsored and passed a bill that allows septic-tank users to fix their own systems if they aren’t near an existing sewer system.
But she leaves office noting that important issues remain. One issue Angel adamantly opposes is the establishment of a state bank, which she says is “a bad idea.” Also left undone are changes to the state’s Growth Management Act that she says are essential to growth — and fairness to property owners — in Kitsap County.
But having just turned 72, and her husband now 81, Angel said her retirement at the end of this session fit with the couple’s personal plans.
“I’ve prayed about it and believe it’s totally the right thing to do,” she said.
“You know, this isn’t going to be easy. I’ve done this for 18 years and it’s pretty embedded in me. But you know what? I feel a release in thinking that I can be an activist for this community in telling you what we need, why we need it and people will believe [what I say] without having any political motive.”
While Angel has deep roots in the community, she’ll soon be just a part-time resident. The couple will soon establish winter roots in the Scottsdale area of Arizona, where they recently purchased a fully furnished home. They also have family members who live in the area.
And while leaving her political life will be difficult, the public servant also said her new personal life change also gave her pause.
“My two daughters are here in Port Orchard,” she said. “I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Gig Harbor. And I was afraid what my kids would say [about the move]. But both of them said, ‘Mom, you’ve earned this. It’s time for you — and it’s OK.’”
In Angel’s final e-newsletter to her 26th Legislative District constituents, she wrote: “It has been an amazing journey of public service for this past 18 years … I have done my very best to represent you, putting you first. ‘Good Government’ policy should be ‘of the people and for the people’ and I truly hope that I have done that.”