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The Gristle

Fugue State

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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