The Gristle

New Directions

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

NEW DIRECTIONS: Bellingham City Council President Cathy Lehman will resign her elected office at the end of this year, perhaps triggering upheaval in one of the city’s most engaged and active wards.

“I’ve made the very difficult decision to resign my position on Bellingham City Council at the end of this year, one year early, to concentrate on a new opportunity with Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters,” Lehman announced last week. “My job will be as their joint voter education and outreach director, helping to advance climate change policy regionally, educate and turn out voters for environmental priorities and candidates statewide, and hold elected officials accountable to their environmental values. Between now and the end of the year I will finish much of the work I’ve begun and transition my role as Council President responsibly.”

Lehman was elected to office in 2011, adding a fresh perspective and youthful dynamic to the all-male council, even a dash of humor to their sometimes dry and dour proceedings. She leveraged her background and training in sustainable business to lead the county chapter of the public policy and advocacy group Futurewise through its fledgling years, attempting to find the very difficult balance between accommodating growth and economic development and trying to direct its impacts into already developed areas. She brought this balancing act with her into city government at a moment when the city was rousing from a coma following the economic collapse of 2007, perhaps more cognizant than many about what a city can and cannot achieve. She was approachable on council and addressed city issues with an open mind.

In her announcement, Lehman sketched what she believes are her best achievements—“advancing joint policy between jurisdictions for the protection of Lake Whatcom, addressing more clearly how growth is considered and thoughtfully planned in our existing urban areas, and improving how downtown is perceived and prioritized for regional economic development opportunities.

“I’ve helped to set goals and determine rules for how the waterfront site is positioned to accept investment and environmental cleanup over the next few decades. I’ve made numerous decisions about how city resources are collected and spent, how future development patterns will play out, how the values of our citizens are reflected in city activities, and how we address issues such as roads, parks, libraries, fireworks, and much, much more,” she noted.

“My life’s work is, and always has been, one of public service and advancing practical solutions for our environmental challenges.”

Her moment on council was not without contest, as her preference for the practical—urban densities and infill, vertical over horizontal, her desire to accommodate the interests of business and investment—put her at times at odds with neighborhood ideals. At a critical moment in the latter half of 2013, as one of three members on the council’s Downtown/Waterfront Committee, Lehman searched for a way to meaningfully influence a flawed and wrongheaded master plan for the central waterfront, some mechanism that might demand more transparency and accountability from the Port of Bellingham to the city taxpayers who will finance that plan. In the end, she—like others on the council—surrendered to the inevitable.

City Council will appoint her replacement to represent Ward 3, a replacement that may hold a significant advantage as an incumbent in the 2015 election.

Positioned at the city’s core, Ward 3 gathers a piece of some of the city’s most politically active and organized neighborhoods; and the Gristle predicts the field of applicants to replace Lehman will be large, diverse and very likely scintillating with talent and experience in municipal affairs, some perhaps critical of city policy. Given Cathy’s replacement will be selected by this council, though, there’s little danger of a radical shift in the values or direction expressed by Lehman in her time on the council—she was more centrist than swing, more cautious than radical. The council will not betray voters by replacing her with an alien, but they might apply some creativity and install a skilled new member who might be difficult to elect by normal means.

Mayor Kelli Linville has proven remarkably strong in shaping city government to achieve her goals—“community development is the purpose of city government,” she commented recently, ”everything else you do feeds into the community you want to be”—and she will undoubtedly influence the appointment, even by means as indirect as encouraging certain talent to apply. Importantly, Ward 3 is geographic to two of the mayor’s keenest goals—the revitalization of the downtown core and completion of a redevelopment plan for Samish Way.

With the departure of Jeff Thomas, the director of Planning and Community Development, the mayor intends to breathe new life into the latter half of that department’s duties, moving staff who had worked directly out of her office into more coordinated positions within the planning department in her proposed 2015 budget. Staff moves include Tara Sundin, who had worked on special projects for this and the previous administration that included the Old Town and waterfront master plans.

In council’s last contentious vote before the close of the year, we hope President Lehman leverages her lame-duck status—answerable to no one but her own conscience—on the creation of an effective landlord licensing program that advances safety and social justice. It would be a fine legacy for her to leave.

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