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The Gristle

Five of a Kind

FIVE OF A KIND: Familiar faces leave public office at the end of 2013, perhaps to return again renewed. Others arrive. And in their passing through the Gristle might comment on policy triumphs of the year.

In their final meeting of the year in December, Whatcom County Council offered high praise to their departing president, Kathy Kershner, defeated in her bid for re-election in November. In her role as council chair, Kershner led members through one of their most contentious calendars as the county continued its struggle to come into compliance with state goals for growth management and resource protection. Calling her service “one of the most satisfying things I’ve done in my life,” Kershner remained polite yet firm with both a quarrelsome council and a frequently angry and boisterous public. She kept her powder dry on most policy matters and her opinions to herself until the final vote was at hand, often as a result finding herself the influential swing vote in the discussion. She appeared genuinely open to new evidence and new information, but she was not mercurial.

The Gristle has long been fascinated by those who are redeemed through public service—candidates activated and recruited for one purpose who arrive in office to find the issues are more complex and nuanced than they originally perceived, the history and process more robust than they expected, their allies and base of support perhaps not so insurmountably correct in their views as they initially understood. They are people with a strong personal integrity who care very much about a handful of issues upon which they will not be persuaded. On issues they care less about, they find they can be accommodating, perhaps even supportive. It’s a rare gift, particularly in these times when nearly every issue gets examined through the cracked, polarized lens of the angry culture war.

Kershner was recruited as one of a Gang of Four with an agenda to roll back the county’s progress on coming into compliance with state growth goals. She was elected largely through the windfall of a single special-interest donor. In office she quickly learned the county’s business and the public interests she represented are so much more robust than merely that.

It is ironic Kathy will be remembered longest and most fondly for the vote she was not elected or expected to make, her vote in support of the Lake Whatcom Reconveyance, ensuring that nearly 9,000 watershed acres will forever retain a forested canopy and therefore capacity to filter and purify a water resource for many thousands of people. Council requested the transfer of forested trust lands from the state in March; the state Board of Natural Resources approved the transfer in July. As we mentioned at the time, council’s vote was the county’s single most affirmative act to support Lake Whatcom in more than 30 years of policymaking. Even more important than her support in March was Kathy’s vote in 2012 that allowed work related to the transfer to continue, a terrible moment where the entire Reconveyance effort teetered on the brink of extinction.

Importantly, her vote was never about water quality. It was about the integrity of the process. In 2012, she did not support the county stiffing the state on many thousands of dollars the state had already spent auditing trust lands to determine their transfer value. In 2013, she made good on her position that, if she could be assured the Mt. Baker School District could be made financially whole in this transfer of trust lands, she would support the effort. When that obstacle was resolved, she was good to her word. Undoubtedly, she took a hit for this within her original base of supporters.

On Lake Whatcom, no elected official has ever registered more compassionate support for policy success, more scathing criticism of policy failure than Stan Snapp, similarly honored by Bellingham City Council in their final meeting in December.

Interestingly, Snapp entered office knowing almost nothing about the lake and its issues. He quickly became a virtuoso through tireless service on the council’s reservoir and natural resources committees and his voice on the Lake Whatcom Management Program team. Snapp leveraged his knowledge in partnership with County Council member Carl Weimer to form the Lake Whatcom Policy Group, the most important union of joint city and council legislative action, culminating in a strategic plan for the restoration of the lake approved this year.

Snapp was similarly tireless in his participation on the Whatcom Transportation Authority board (where he helped claw back much of the transit service lost to Bellingham in the 2008 financial collapse) and the parks and Greenways boards (where he helped ease the Chuckanut Ridge acquisition to its satisfactory conclusion this year). The at-times fiery former fire chief was also a key voice in the effort to preserve unified emergency medical services, an agreement council approved in the final hours of 2013.

City Council also gave a fond farewell to Seth Fleetwood, another influential voice on council’s reservoir and natural resources committees, and on the parks and Greenways boards, where he brought his long service in support of the city’s parkland and watershed acquisitions programs, including a profound interest in successfully resolving Chuckanut Ridge. His activism to save that property predates many.

The city’s contribution to Lake Whatcom in 2013 was the continued implementation of an ordinance banning plastic bags, which Seth championed. While perhaps not as stunning in scope as Reconveyance, the bag ban demonstrates it is possible to take decisive, progressive action without risk of collapse: At the same time the city imposed this modest duty on shoppers, retail sales revenues in Bellingham roared to volumes not seen since 2007.

Seth also brought something unique to Bellingham City Council, an innate understanding through his service on County Council of how the county approaches its business. While that is lost with his departure, it is found again in the election of Barry Buchanan, who brings a similar understanding to County Council from his years on Bellingham City Council, a transfer of knowledge and congeniality that can serve these bodies in 2014.

Truly, four kings and a queen.


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