The Gristle

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REALIGNMENT: The Gristle’s gloomy assessment going into this election was little would change on Whatcom County Council. Incumbents would be reelected. As campaign strategies unfolded, however, the possibility became clearer that candidates run together, financed together, promoted together, supportive of each other’s positions, would be elected together; and that the population center of Bellingham would hold a key to that outcome.

The little secret of the current Whatcom County Council is, they are not terribly out of alignment with one another. One is bag-lady crazy. Another is a blockhead. The rest are in degrees pliant to the issues, or at least open to persuasive argument. Even a modest replacement in the first two categories might produce a remarkable, productive change on council. The razor risk in this election was the addition of even one additional crazy blockhead, driving them even further to unfortunate policy and outcomes.

Results on election night confirm there has been a progressive shift on Whatcom County Council, restoring a balance on council we’ll argue has been missing since 2009.

In that year, at the end of a long cycle of trying to come into compliance with the requirements of the Growth Management Act, a conservative backlash succeeded in shifting the balance on County Council. Key to that shift was a $20,000 private donation to the campaign efforts of Kathy Kershner, who was able to leverage that to a seat on the council by a little over 300 votes. That private donation seems almost bucolic four years later, as more than $1 million in outside money flooded into an election framed almost exclusively as a referendum on coal.

The 2009 election of Kershner and Knutzen, each defeated this week, triggered the abrupt resignation of County Council member Bob Kelly. As Kelly explained, he had no interest in relitigating the council’s years of work on GMA compliance issues and, as a Nooksack tribal leader, was engaged in other matters that required his attention.

Kelly’s departure opened a hole filled, first, in the white-heat of a tea party surge in county politics, by publisher Tony Larson. Larson was defeated in reelection by Pete Kremen, representing—again—a shift back to the centerline by Whatcom County voters. Filling the hole on council between the departure of Kelly and the special election of Larson, however, then-County Executive Kremen appointed Ward Nelson, who had indicated in 2009 he wanted to retire from his position on council but was willing to fill in for nine months.

Early in that interim, council considered the appointment of a record number of applicants to the Whatcom County Planning Commission, qualified applicants from across the political spectrum. Whether by accident or design, Nelson in tandem with then-Council President Sam Crawford were able to skew those appointments to commissioners aggressively against compliance with state growth goals, thereby unwinding much of the advances of the pre-2009 council.

As Crawford crowed, “To the victors go the spoils.” Yet they were victors only by the appointment by the executive (then considering a run for reelection) of conservative Nelson to the seat vacated by progressive Kelly, tipping the balance.

Like so much about the tea party movement, the “mandate” or purpose for a radical approach to governance never existed—the apocalypse never called.

Adding insult to injury, those appointments included the slate of candidates who had lost the 2009 election, ensuring their voices would endure in county politics, despite the clear preferences of voters. Among them was Michelle Luke, who again lost this week in a bid for election to council, but who continues to serve as chair of the planning commission.

We’ve detailed the horrible consequences of this planning commission—from their recommendation that destroyed potential for wind energy and associated businesses here, to a disastrous slaughterhouse ordinance that was so poorly conceived it took even a willing County Council more than a year to beat it into a shape less ugly. They have been, in a word, unhelpful to council. Overarching all is the silly and destructive stance of these angry tea party ideologues against the very concept of planning, period, whether in abstract or specifics—a planning commission that does violence to the very thing it is commissioned to do: Inmates in control of the asylum.

Last June, after the state hearings board had again rejected the county’s comprehensive plan as being non-compliant with state growth goals, this group of angry nitwits advocated that council should just ignore the board’s findings based on no reason or evidence at all! Deafened in their own echo chamber, a council majority agreed.

Under Washington code 35.63, a planning commission exists for the purpose of research and fact-finding in order to dovetail local planning policy with state growth goals. The commission serves at the pleasure of County Council to help County Council. By recommending the county simply ignore and nullify the state’s findings, the commission instead nullified their own reason for continuing to exist.

Based on this, County Council in June should have asked the outlaw commission to resign. Council did not; but the Gristle will suggest in the reordering that should occur following this election, a new council should dissolve this planning commission and realign to the planning commission tipped over in 2009 by the departure of Bob Kelly. Commissioners can reapply; but they’ll have been served notice a new order has been reestablished on council.

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