A matter of style
A MATTER OF STYLE: Sparks flew last week after Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike sent a letter to the governor, requesting the state take the lead in the scoping and permitting of the proposed coal and commodities terminal at Cherry Point. Whatcom County holds the lead agency role for the state’s portion of the environmental review.
“The impacts of this proposal are far-reaching and are not unique to Whatcom County,” the mayor declared.
“Although I am quite appreciative of Executive Kremen’s apparent willingness to extend the reach of the scope of review to include impacts to the city, I am concerned that the SEPA environmental impact statement (EIS) will need to include more analysis of impacts beyond Whatcom County’s borders and include other impacts that Whatcom County does not have the resources to not have the resources to review.”
Only the state is equipped to conduct a full analysis of a project with such sweeping regional impacts, Pike asserted.
Well and good; however, the mayor’s letter appeared unaware that the county had sought a larger role for the state in the environmental review.
“Months ago, Whtcom County requested Dept. of Ecology to join as co-lead in the EIS for the Gateway Pacific Terminal,” the county prosecutor’s office retorted in a heated follow-up to the governor. “Though Mayor Pike’s letter appears to be in agreement, we feel we need to respond to his erroneous and malicious statements” regarding the authority and competence of the county to act as lead agency.
The county has not officially filed such a request, but in April announced intentions to do so.
“Setting aside Mayor Pike’s erroneous statements, political grandstanding and blatant disrespect for Whatcom County staff, we wish to continue our discussion regarding DOE to be in part or in whole the lead agency for the EIS,” the letter continued, detailing the relevant state statutes that direct the county in the siting process.
The mayor also requested the City of Bellingham be seated on the multi-agency permitting team (MAP) of state, federal and county agencies the governor assembled to assist with large-scale projects of this kind. In fury over Pike’s “malicious” salvo, the county protested the addition of COB to the MAP team.
“Mayor Pike’s opposition to the project prior to any environmental evaluation and his blatant disregard for the process makes the inclusion of the City of Bellingham on the MAP teams problematic and even inappropriate,” the prosecutor’s office stormed.
In a second round of retorts, the mayor noted (correctly) that several enthusiastic beneficiaries are already seated at the MAP table, including the railroad; the city’s role as skeptic is not improper.
The exchange was an unfortunate failure of diplomacy that telegraphed a message to the governor’s office that the city and county are further apart than they actually are on concerns about this project. One wonders how much more effective the response might have been had Pike just phoned the County Executive to jointly request Bellingham be seated at the MAP table. That in a nutshell is the strained relationship between the Pike administration and county government.
In May, the mayor’s office received a letter from county planners complaining of distortions and a lack of cooperation between administrations. The letter detailed unilateral actions by the city in the form of lawsuits and petitions filed against the county despite efforts to reach cooperative consensus.
“As a returning planning manager I am disappointed in our working relations with the city,” long-range planner Roxanne Michael confessed. “We have frequently reached out to the city.
“Pitting the Dept. of Ecology against the county is another sad example of lack of cooperation on the part of the city with the county,” she wrote. “The city and county staff had been working on the Lake Whatcom Management Committee in a collaborative effort to protect Lake Whatcom for some time. The first meeting I attended was disrupted by [Pike’s] announcement that the city was filing a petition against the county” to close the reservoir to additional withdrawals. “City and county staff appeared to be taken aback. I was,” she admitted.
The state—nonplussed the mayor would proceed with so little as a brief phone call to the county administration—punted the matter back to the correct order of process, to the interjurisdictional team on Lake Whatcom where disputes are supposed to be introduced and resolved; the Gristle expects a similar punt from the state on the mayor’s request to usurp SEPA at Cherry Point.
Unquestionably, these were bold actions by the mayor on behalf of the citizens of Bellingham. Yet both came as an unpleasant shock not only to county government, but also to Bellingham City Council, who were not briefed in either instance on the mayor’s plans.
This week, the state’s mayors are meeting in Spokane for the annual meeting of Washington’s associated cities, and Pike’s letter to the governor may serve as a call to those mayors for greater involvement in a project that threatens enormous impacts as nearly two dozen long, slow coal trains a day are added to the Puget Sound’s rail freight corridor. Indeed, if GPT impacts are to be adequately scoped, these cities need to add their voices to those of Bellingham.
If November’s election was held tomorrow, Dan Pike would almost certainly win based on the vigor with which he has voiced community concerns on matters of public health and safety. Nor is he wrongheaded in the belief that the county frequently deserves prodding to do the right thing in a more complete manner. But has the mayor built the kinds and qualities of relationships in the right order that would ensure success in achieving these goals?
The question is less of substance, than of style and effectiveness in achieving desired results.
When you’re the Mayor of Bellingham, style is the substance.
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