Citizen Journalist

Wendy Harris receives the Paul deArmond Award

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Though tiny in voice and height, Wendy Harris is Herculean in her fierce spirit to make representative government more responsive and our community a better place to live. She watches the public process and she reports on it.

Harris will be honored in February by an award and private banquet of peers and supporters who want to thank her and encourage others to take up her important work. Award sponsors include the North Sound Media Alliance.

In an era when newspapers and other conventional news outlets are sharply diminished, their voices dimmed, the role of the citizen journalist becomes profound. Ironically, the very social media tools that have weakened the business model and profit centers of traditional media serve the citizen journalist well. The future of news promises to be decentralized and deinstitutionalized; but it will be informed or uninformed, reliable or unreliable, to the extent citizens are involved in reporting on it. Citizenship, in its most generous expression, is the essence of citizen journalism. And because that effort is honorable, we must honor it.

Harris was a skilled tax law attorney until medical disability reduced her professional capacity. As her health permits, she keenly observes the public process and alerts the community through social media to issues of concern. Her particular passion is the health of Bellingham’s two waterfronts—the lake and the bay—and the watersheds that feed them.

“The writing comes out of my activism, and both are limited by my health,” Harris admitted. “The activism is by my nature; the journalism is by default.

“I deliberately focus on issues that are likely to fall between the cracks,” Harris explained. “On issues like the Gateway Pacific Terminal, I know there are so many terrific people working on that and there will be good media coverage. So I will focus on something else—mostly those that focus on natural resources, and especially fish and wildlife.”

Animals and their habitat particularly fall through the cracks because there is so seldom an advocate for them, she said.

“Just as being an activist led me incidentally to writing, working on these issues led me into being concerned about public process issues. Following these issues, I see problems with public records, transparency, open public meetings and public policy,” Harris said.

“I really do try to stick to facts and cite statutes and accurate information,” she said, “and not make wild accusations because it is important to have credibility.”

Honored by the award, Harris said, “It is so important to get this kind of peer recognition, both to encourage others and give credibility to the work citizens do to make their representative government better.”

The pressure on citizen reporting is keen, she said, because professional staff are considered experts by default and the time citizens can spend learning about and reporting on the issues is always limited—whether by health, family, career or other pursuits. But one should not be shy:

“I didn’t know what a watershed was when I started,” she laughed. “You just have to care.”

The citizen journalism award is named in memory of Paul deArmond, a Bellingham icon who mentored many in citizen involvement and activism. For Paul, the social network was the campfire he hosted in his backyard, where neighbors and friends would jaw over public policy. Many efforts were spawned over those years of fires, issues like neighborhood recycling, and many people were coaxed from there into public office. Paul died in 2013 at the age of 60; but an award that honors his memory lives on, in part to encourage others to take up the challenging task Paul personified.

Toward the end of his life, deArmond was greatly diminished by prolonged illness, but the fire to know and inform still burned strong in him. Wendy Harris embodies this, too.

“I do push myself,” she admitted, “perhaps more than an average healthy citizen, because these issues matter and the time I have to comment on them is limited.”

When government officials see Wendy coming to the microphone, they swallow hard and get their papers in order. Not much more than that needs to be said about the importance of her work.

Cascadia Weekly: What led you to cover public policy issues in Whatcom County? What “activated” you?

Wendy Harris: I moved here to improve my health and my quality of life. When I moved a block from Lake Whatcom, I did not know what a watershed was, and I received a fast education after I attended a few neighborhood meetings. As I got involved, I learned that the lake was not the only natural resource that was threatened. Many of the things that attracted me here were being destroyed by poorly planned growth. I saw a lot of lip service, but very little willingness to make difficult land use regulation decisions.

CW: What role do or should citizens play in making sure public issues are transparent and public officials are accountable?

WH: It is important to look at this matter from the government’s perspective. What incentive does the government have to be transparent and accountable? They are working under deadlines, with a limited budget and staff resources. They are acting in what they believe is the public’s best interest. The public process slows things down and can derail their projects. Providing information to the public increases the chance of creating public controversy. So the burden is always going to be on the public.

If we want the public’s role to extend beyond voting for elected officials, we must remain engaged. Something as simple as attending a council meeting is important because it is human nature to be more conscientious when you know you are being watched and monitored.

CW: How have you been helped or thwarted by traditional media, and what must traditional media do in order to be more responsive to concerns you’ve noted and reported on?

WH: It is helpful when traditional media reports on an issue that I am following because it increases public awareness and reaches a much wider audience. This makes it more likely that what I am writing about will be of interest to, and resonant with my readers.

I do not hold out hope that traditional media will hold government more accountable. To be fair, they need to maintain good relationships with elected officials and cultivate inside sources for stories. They can not afford to burn too many bridges. I place my hope on citizen journalists, because we function without the same obligations and restraints. I am not accountable to anyone else. This gives me incredible freedom to take a controversial position or challenge a popular elected official. I hope that traditional media uses citizen journalists as a resource. I was happy to see a local Bellingham Herald reporter promoting Riley Sweeney’s blog as a source of good information.

CW: Are there themes or recurrent trends at work in the public sector that concern you?

WH: Yes, many.

Neglect of wildlife and habitat issues is a perennial problem. “Habitat Conservation Areas” are critical areas, but are often overlooked in the planning process. Habitat needs to be protected through a comprehensive, landscape plan that protects area with the highest conservation value and provides connectivity corridors between habitat areas. Instead, the city and the county address habitat concerns on a site specific basis during the permit process. This is ineffective because infrastructure, zoning, and density are determined before the permit process and do not address issues of connectivity.

When the county and city finally do review wildlife issues, they focus on federal endangered and threatened species, (primarily salmonid), ignoring common, abundant species necessary for biodiversity.

It is important to understand why these problems exist. The city and county have incentive to ignore wildlife issues because habitat protection and restoration reduces land available for development, and makes development more expensive. They need to accommodate increasing populations. So this problem is likely to continue unless enough people speak up.

I am concerned that the city and county parks departments have management authority over open space intended, in part, to protect habitat and provide connectivity. They are planners and do not have training in wildlife management. At best, they are insensitive to wildlife issues. For example, the city and county are in the process of adopting updated park plans and Comprehensive Plans which fail to reflect comprehensive conservation planning.

Neither the city nor county have any wildlife management polices or guidelines, which is a major problem. As we develop and lose habitat, local species increasingly rely upon public land. Human/wildlife conflicts will increase. Last summer, the county wanted to exterminate the Silver Lake Park geese as its first and only management approach. At a recent planning commission meeting, Whatcom County Parks Director Mike McFarlane referred to beaver, elk, deer and geese as “nuisance species” and joked about how geese are tasty.

CW: Other concerns?

WH: Local government is moving away from regulation, and moving towards incentives. For example, the Bellingham Planning Department did not want to impose LEED Silver Standards for waterfront development, even though it agreed it was appropriate, because they do not support regulations. I think this is the wrong approach. Regulations provide authority for enforcement that incentives do not and ensure that important public health and safety protections are mandatory. And incentives are not free. They have costs, whether it is public funding or impacts to the environment. And some of these incentives are being worked out in backroom deals, a recent example being the offsite wetland and stormwater mitigation and expedited road improvements provided to Costco.

I am concerned with the current emphasis on jobs, jobs, jobs, which translates into benefits for business owners rather than the unemployed. Economic development is primarily the responsibility of the private sector, but is increasingly being subsidized with public assets. Why is so much attention being focused on creating a “business friendly environment” when we lack resources to enforce regulations that protect public health and safety? Business and development interests are increasingly influencing public policy, and this is not transparent.

CW: You’ve expressed skepticism of the various intergovernmental partnerships that are the pride of those governments.

WH: I am not a big fan of the highly touted close relationships that have developed between the city, the county and the port. It certainly did not benefit the public with regard to the waterfront plan.

A certain amount of disagreement is healthy when it is discussed openly, because it indicates that more than one viewpoint is being considered, and it brings the public into the discussion. The 7-0 votes that are common on the city council make me uncomfortable because it reflects a culture where getting along is a primary value. Government planning is complicated, messy and inherently full of conflict. We all know that. So if our local governments are presenting a friendly, unified face, they are ironing out differences in private.

CW: Have there been notable successes or failures in recent public policy that you can comment on? How have elected officials and administrations responded to your reporting?

WH: The waterfront planning process was a phenomenal failure of public process, and I cannot understand why city residents are not rioting in the streets. This reflects the very worse kind of government abuse.

An extensive and already flawed public process was hijacked by the city and port administration and rammed through a compliant city council, ignoring public concerns regarding living wage jobs and habitat protection. Publicly owned tidelands are being lost, and the waterfront is being parceled and sold to private developers, who benefit from publicly funded subsidies. The public was never given a choice regarding marina development.

All I heard during the public process were strong objections. So I would like to know who is really supporting this. I could be wrong, but I find it hard to believe that elected officials would enact a plan lacking any community support.

CW: What, in your view, are valuable tools for the citizen journalist, and have you advice for others who want to learn more about public process and their role in making government more accountable? Many feel overwhelmed by it all. What can help?

WH: It feels overwhelming because it is. There are no really easy short-cuts to becoming informed. You need to read what is printed in the media, especially the alternative media. You need to attend meetings, or in the case of the city, watch the podcasts. Although I am accused of writing that is wonky and inaccessible, it is really important to understand the applicable laws and the land use process.

Without that, you are left relying upon the administrative staff’s justification for government action. But the city and county staff members are also project advocates, and there is an inherent conflict in their recommendations.

I recommend developing expertise on one or two issues that matter to you because no one can understand everything that the city does….not even the city or county council. That is why an educated and engaged community is crucial. We can help inform our elected officials. And that should be the goal really… being an advocate that provides informed and helpful information.

And it is O.K. if you do not have the time or ability to get this engaged. Supporting those that do is also important.

Being a citizen advocate or journalist is not easy. Knowing that I have community support, and I am helping to inform the public, if not our government, means a great deal to me. There have been times that I have wondered why I spend my limited free time and remaining health on these issues, and then someone will come up to me and tell me how much they appreciate what I do, and how helpful it is. That really keeps me going.

Cascadia Weekly Editor Tim Johnson served on the nominating committee for the Paul deArmond Citizen Journalism Award. Also on the committee are NWCitizen publisher John Servais, writer and former city council member Tip Johnson, author George Dyson, NWCitizen copy editor Deb Gaber, and North Sound Media Alliance organizer Suzanne Blais.

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