The Greening of the Blue-Greens
Wednesday, May 31, 2017
THE GREENING OF THE BLUE-GREENS: The season for local elections has begun, and what a difference it is to see less stark polarization and more thoughtful nuance in issues that challenge the community. Oh sure, there’s some polarization in fiercely competitive county districts; however, the net effect of recent redistricting has been to ease the rural/urban divide, and to render candidates as representatives of their district’s issues and their district only. Ultimately, an unhappy price will be paid for the partitions and rigid divisions that discourage us from working together as a community to address problems, when we no longer have to speak to one another and work out our differences, but this season it will be interesting to see what happens when liberals and conservatives are no longer required to claw at each other across a chasm of intractable ideologies.
For this political columnist the most exciting race is the one that is typically the quietest, an August primary for two seats on the Port of Bellingham Commission.
The port races were not subject to changes that partitioned the county into five isolated voting districts, and port races continue to be drawn along three large pie-shaped district boundaries that converge—appropriately enough for this race—on Bellingham Bay and the central waterfront. Every district touches Bellingham Bay; and every district is touched by the politics of the bay. And we’ll argue that it is the quality of the current commission, the remarkable job they’ve done reorienting and refocusing the economic development engine, that has made it exciting and worthwhile to sit on the commission—and that, in turn, has drawn the interest of qualified candidates for the commission.
The Port of Bellingham was set on an almost irrevocable course two decades ago by the decision of the commission to condemn and seize the wastewater treatment lagoon that was the centerpiece of industrial operations on Whatcom Waterway. That decision helped set in motion the (inevitable) closure of paper pulping operations in Bellingham. The commission also decided to let that corporate partner, Georgia-Pacific, off the hook for cleanup costs, transferring that financial burden and environmental duty fully on to the port and its taxpayer base, with the attendant loss of flexibility to pursue other directives. And that commission also decided to invest heavily in airport expansion, gambling that they could set up a third node to compete with airport operations out of Vancouver and Abbotsford, British Columbia, by offering competitive airline packages for the Canadian dollar.
The airport gamble has not paid tremendous dividends—in part because of the boom-or-bust cyclical nature of the weakened purchasing power of the Canadian dollar, compounded by mercurial airline business plans, which create and cancel flight packages with a regularity that confounds long-range airport planning. The waterfront plan has dragged on interminably, and the commitments there have foreclosed on port finances and options elsewhere. After 20 years, port assets—piers and pilings—have decayed or fallen into disuse; meanwhile, the boutique economy envisioned by that commission foundered.
Interestingly, not one commissioner who made those decisions remains on the Port of Bellingham Commission; and even those commissioners who heartily agreed with those decisions, determined to stay the course, are mostly gone. They’ve been replaced by a commission that, for the most part, is committed to getting back to basics and retraining their agency on its traditional core strengths—support of small business with a marine focus. They turned the white collars back to blue.
The port authority itself hailed the return to blue-collar basics in a recent press release, noting, “The growth of the local maritime industry comes as no surprise to Jim Kyle, vice president of the Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County that represents over 100 marine-related businesses. ‘Our excellent harbors, strategic location, and large cluster of close-by marine businesses make Whatcom County the best place on Puget Sound to base a commercial marine operation,’ Kyle said. ‘And these companies produce mostly living-wage jobs, which are in short supply.’”
According to a report recently published by the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University, 6,033 jobs are created or supported by the marine trades representing 7 percent of Whatcom County’s total workforce.
Yet the Working Waterfront Coalition is only a portion, an important portion, of the total equation.
In 2013, a new entity and initiative formed, the Blue-Green Waterfront Coalition. The Washington Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and Jobs With Justice sent in the blue collar muscle; the green focus on environmental stewardship was provided by Futurewise and RE Sources. The whole was intended to provide an opportunity to clean up toxic material left behind from industry, turn the waterfront into an asset for the entire community, provide jobs and increase the tax base through economic redevelopment. The Blue-Green blueprint sketched out a clean environment, a sustainable economy leveraged on existing strengths, and economic justice for workers.
The current commission has focused primarily on the blue side of the blueprint, providing stewardship to marine-based industries; and they have indeed improved the port’s capacity to serve a genuine marine community and produce the revenues that may address the social justice aspects of waterfront redevelopment. Several new candidates for the commission promise to muscle up the green side of the equation.
Here’s the lineup:
Dan Robbins: In many ways, incumbent Commissioner Dan Robbins is the connection bridging a new commission and the old, with steady focus on traditional business management. He originally campaigned as a firebrand to shake up the commission, but in practice he has served to reinforce staff imperatives.
Nick Kunkel: Challenging Robbins is Nick Kunkel, a self-described small-l libertarian with extensive experience in fisheries management, habitat restoration and environmental remediation with organizations like the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) and Lummi Nation. Nick hits the sweet spot in being politically and fiscally conservative and an iconoclast who would challenge the agency to better stewardship of its best assets—an excellent choice for the commission!
Michael Shepard: Stunningly qualified and bringing a unique, valuable perspective, Michael Shepard teaches cultural and environmental sustainability at Western Washington University. He pledges to expand the emphasis of the port from tenants and rents to a true model of responsible stewardship and sustainable approaches to economic development.
Ken Bell: Running for the open seat vacated by Commissioner Michael McAuley, Ken Bell is another candidate who, like Robbins, bridges the new and old commissions. Politically conservative with extensive experience in small business management and environmental remediation, Bell offers a steady hand on the port’s tiller.
Doug Karlberg: Another self-described libertarian with a powerful focus on restoring and enhancing the port’s marine assets, fisherman Doug Karlberg promises a new era in fiscal transparency and public accountability. He would team up ferociously with fellow fisherman, District 3 Commissioner Bobby Briscoe, to vigorously return the port’s core competencies to its marine heritage. Woe to any staff that try to stand in their way.
Barry Wenger: Does anyone actually know more about the conditions of Whatcom Waterway and Blaine and Bellingham harbors than Barry Wenger? With a storied career as the point person on those waterways for the state Dept. of Ecology, Wenger would serve as an in-house specialist and consultant for the agency as they move forward on those remediations, a unique opportunity to bring that expertise directly to the commission and their decisions.
All of these candidates would be excellent on the commission. Some are a bit redder than they are blue, politically; and some are a bit greener, environmentally. Each would help usher in a new era, a commission now three generations removed from the Y2K gambles that set the port on its current path and that need to be substantially revisited.
We’re lucky to have them running.