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The Gristle

Fugue State
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FUGUE STATE: “Success,” President Barack Obama once observed, “is determined by an intersection in policy and politics.” Each shapes and is shaped by the other, and indeed one can’t get to the policy without the driving politics.

Despite that wisdom, with some of the most momentous policy decisions that have ever faced the Fourth Corner visible on the horizon, a curious sort of torpor has descended on the politics that shape the policy. Coal ports; waterfront redevelopment; watershed improvement mandates; countywide upzones; jail imperatives; capital facilities decisions within recovering municipal budgets… hundreds of millions of dollars of public investment at stake, yet filing week for elected office ended last week and fully half the positions in Whatcom’s cities drew no challengers at all. For positions that did draw challenge, a cordial sort of polite dance followed, where incumbents and open seats alike drew neatly paired competitors. Very few races attracted a diversity of viewpoints sufficient to warrant a primary run-off in August.

Perhaps emerging social networks and organized mailing lists early on and behind the scenes sorted and winnowed down multiple challengers for elected positions, warriors selected and paired in a private and provisional collaboration bubbling beneath the surface, replacing a more traditional selection process. Certainly vote-by-mail, electronic reporting, and a sophisticated array of private lists and networks have drained off the most public aspects of our political life and replaced them with the private clubs that gamble our future representation.

County races, in particular, are paralyzed in a static weariness, a dissociative fugue state unchanged in two decades.

We look first at the city races; and we see—across the board—candidates engaged in municipal policy, how best to apply state and local laws and limited resources to achieve city goals. Debate, certainly, about those goals and the means to achieve those goals. Not whether, but how.

We look next at county races; and we see continued acrimony—the same exhausted, tiresome debate about whether the county should obey state law that has paralyzed Whatcom County for 20 years since the passage of the state’s Growth Management Act. Not how, but whether.

Imagine, for a moment, if a political candidate disagreed with the state’s laws regarding driving while intoxicated. The candidate insisted righteously on the right to drive drunk and pledged county resources to defend others who drive drunk. The criteria by which a driver is determined drunk should be made at the local level, the candidate declares, and the state has no jurisdiction.

Absurd; but it suggests the analogous absurdity of the county declaring which laws, which rulings by state boards and courts it will ignore.

County races are defined by incumbents opposed to compliance with state growth goals versus challengers who pledge to correct that; or, in the reverse, mild incumbents who favor compliance versus challengers even more violently opposed to compliance than those seated.

With so much else at stake, why is this the defining debate in Whatcom County? It is certainly not a debate occurring on any scale elsewhere in Western Washington or, more broadly, North America. All other counties in Washington are in compliance. And half the county population wasn’t even here when Whatcom’s fever began.

Two challengers—Michelle Luke and Ben Elenbaas—arrive from the revolving door of the Whatcom County Planning Commission, and it is worth revisiting the closed loop that produced them.

Luke failed to persuade voters in 2009 that hers was a superior vision for Whatcom County Council. She lost. As reward, she was installed on the planning commission in a process gamed by a new majority on County Council. In a well-documented boondoggle of procedural folly, Council President Sam Crawford and interim appointed member Ward Nelson used straw polling to whittle down a broad list of qualified planning commission candidates to only those who agreed with their intractable positions on compliance. Among those installed were Luke and Elenbaas.

This amateur gang of planning partisans then used systematic ridicule and harassment for the next four years to shout down any dissenting, calmer views about planning and development, driving those voices from their meetings. Eventually, few bothered attending at all, resulting in a hermetically sealed echo chamber against reason and commonsense that culminated last March in the hysteria of a land-use attorney comparing county planning efforts to Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Any reasonably diverse commission would have sufficient faculty to object to the comparison and rebuke the testimony, but without such faculty the commission—presided over by Luke—just smiled and nodded, thanking the attorney for his comparison of county planning to, yes, the incineration of multitudes of people under Nazi rule.

From a commission intended to sensibly guide county policymakers on planning issues, County Council received a planning commission recommendation earlier this month to instead disregard a state finding of invalidity in the county’s plan for rural lands. A commission intended to assist the county come into compliance with state laws instead recommends ignoring state laws. County Council actually considered the recommendation this week.

As we’ve noted before, the county has already spent several hundred thousand dollars in direct costs fighting GMA, including legal and staff costs, and has lost tens of millions of dollars in indirect and lost opportunity costs pursuing similar truculent recommendations.

What would Whatcom County be at work on if it wasn’t paralyzed by a generation-old debate on the wisdom of breaking state law? It’s a question every voter should be asking this November.


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Past Columns

February 3, 2016

FICTIONS IN COLLISION: Whatcom County Council held a long and crowded, rancorous session on the update of the county’s Comprehensive Plan last week. The Comp Plan update is intended to… more »

January 27, 2016

‘YOU HAD ONE JOB’: Two weeks into their short 2016 session, and the Washington State Legislature is already bogged down. The 60-day session is ordinarily designed for adjustments to the… more »

January 20, 2016

A MATTER OF CONVICTION: Problems with the jail did not end when voters rejected a proposal to construct a new justice facility in November; in fact, the problems are just… more »

January 13, 2016

GO ASK ALICE: A groundbreaking study released this week finds that nearly one in three households in the Pacific Northwest struggles to afford basic standards of living, a remarkable commentary… more »

January 6, 2016

ALL CHARGED UP, NO GAS: A new year begins, and with it the oaths of office and the swearing ceremonies of new public officials elected last November. Among these, the… more »

December 30, 2015

AULD ACQUAINTANCE FORGOT: Will 2016 be the year Whatcom County finally achieves compliance with the Growth Management Act, enacted a quarter of a century ago? Perhaps; but it’s doubtful.

Whatcom… more »

December 23, 2015

COAL IN YOUR STOCKING: ’Tis the season for retail sales. Following that, the weakened Canadian dollar coupled with the closure of a major industry and its associated payroll could send… more »

December 16, 2015

Farewell: At the end of their legislative year, city and county councils took time to bid farewell to extraordinary departing members with whom they’ve collaborated and (at times, and with… more »

December 9, 2015

HOLDING PATTERNS: Fallout continues from the county’s calamitous failure to pass a funding package for additional corrections capacity. A 0.2 percent sales and use tax to construct a new facility… more »

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