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The Gristle

Fugue State

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

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
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Zombie Stumbles On

September 14, 2016

Drip-drip-drip:

September 7, 2016

Much ADU about nothing

August 31, 2016

A Matter of Equity

August 24, 2016

A Lock on the Crypt

August 17, 2016

Zombie Terror

August 10, 2016

A Raucous Caucus

August 3, 2016

Lockup Lockstep

July 27, 2016

Polar Wastes

July 20, 2016

Chapter Two

July 13, 2016

Close the Schools!

June 22, 2016

Closing a Circle

June 8, 2016

Roads to Nowhere

May 25, 2016

Trails versus Jail

May 18, 2016

‘We Draw The Line’

May 11, 2016

Events
Today
A gold medal standard

4:00pm

Eat Local Month

4:00pm|Bellingham and Whatcom County

Connected by climate

10:00am

Bard on the Beach

2:00pm|Vanier Park

Little Women

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

The Miracle Worker

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Skagit Garage Sale

9:00am|Skagit County Fairgrounds

Oktoberfest Cruises

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Love, Loss & What I Wore

7:30pm|Heiner Auditorium

The Music Man

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

The Music Man

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

A back-to-school guide

8:00pm

Welcome Back Students Shows

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Community Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Lynden Community Center

Ferndale Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Hall

Anacortes Farmers Market

9:00am|Depot Arts Center

Mount Vernon Farmers Market

9:00am|Riverfront Plaza

Twin Sisters Farmers Market

9:00am|Nugent's Corner

Farm Toy Show

9:00am|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Skagit Valley Giant Pumpkin Festival

9:00am|Christianson's Nursery

Harvest Festival and Pumpkin Pitch

9:00am|Skagit River Park

Oyster Run Motorcycle Rally

9:00am|Anacortes

Sumas Writers Group

10:00am|Sumas Library

Whatcom Water Week

10:00am|Whatcom County

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Blaine Gardeners Market

10:00am|Peace Portal Drive

Fall Family Fun

10:00am|Glen Echo Garden

Run with the Chums

10:00am|BP Highlands

Harvest Field Day

11:00am|WSU Washington Research and Extension Center

Wild Foods

11:00am|Deming Library

Food Truck Roundup

11:00am|Civic Stadium

Making memories at Make.Shift

12:00pm

Council of the Animals

12:00pm|Larrabee State Park

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Museum Day Live!

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum

Family Trees

1:00pm|Mount Vernon City Library

Holly Street History Tour

1:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Fingerpainting for Grownups

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Trio of Writers at VB

2:00pm|Village Books

Salute to Satchmo

3:00pm|Sudden Valley Dance Barn

i.e. Reception

4:00pm|i.e. gallery

Artist Talk

4:00pm|Smith & Vallee Gallery

The Ferndale Challenge

5:00pm|Ferndale Senior Activity Center

World Peace Poets Read-In

5:00pm|St. James Presbyterian Church

Democrats Dinner

5:30pm|Silver Reef Casino

Irish Concert and Workshop

7:00pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

Contra Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Night Hike

7:00pm|Tennant Lake Interpretive Center

Village Books Northwood Steak and Crab
Tomorrow
Eat Local Month

4:00pm|Bellingham and Whatcom County

A gold medal standard

4:00pm

Connected by climate

10:00am

The Miracle Worker

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Little Women

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

Love, Loss & What I Wore

7:30pm|Heiner Auditorium

Whatcom Water Week

10:00am|Whatcom County

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Bellingham Bay Marathon

7:30am|Gooseberry Point

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Veterans Breakfast

8:00am|VFW Post 1585

Starry Night Chamber Orchestra

3:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

I, Angus

4:00pm|Village Books

Art of Jazz

4:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Sunday Night Fusion

7:00pm|Presence Studio

Deobrat Mishra

7:00pm|Majestic

Culture Shock

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Standup Comedy Showcase

8:30pm|The Shakedown

Swinomish 2016 Artifacts Wine Bar
Monday
A gold medal standard

4:00pm

Eat Local Month

4:00pm|Bellingham and Whatcom County

Whatcom Water Week

10:00am|Whatcom County

We Grow Market

3:00pm|Northwest Youth Services

Yoga for Outdoor Fitness

6:00pm|REI

Candidate Forum

6:30pm|PUD Building

Cooking with Sea Vegetables

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

The Happy Elf Auditions

7:00pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Open Mic

7:00pm|Village Books

Poetrynight

8:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Guffawingham

9:30pm|Green Frog

see our complete calendar »

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