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The Planner

David Stalheim wants to help guide Whatcom’s future

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

His desire eventually brought him to Whatcom County, where he led planning staff through a tumultuous period as competing forces seesawed for control of county government as County Council attempted first to comply and then to fiercely resist state goals for managing its resource lands. But whether there is a right way or a wrong way to approach such issues of public policy, there is certainly a lawful and unlawful way to approach them. Stalheim attempted to guide them in the latter respects.

In the end, council killed the messenger. He now works for the City of Bellingham, managing community development block grants.

His 30 years of planning experience includes a focus on main streets, from Port Townsend to Wenatchee, where he won the Great American Main Street Award for helping create a vibrant downtown. He has managed projects to protect watersheds and shellfish harvest areas. He was selected by Gov. Gary Locke to serve on the Washington State Transportation Improvement Board. He has served as president of the City Planning Directors Association.

Planning, he says, is integral to economic vitality. But his support for economic vitality alone does not fully explain the support he’s receiving in his campaign.

Cascadia Weekly: What issues are foremost on people’s minds?

David Stalheim: The number-one question on people’s mind is about the coal terminal. Many people in Bellingham I’ve spoken to are not familiar with county issues and county races, but they are really focused on the coal terminal.

I like to separate two issues out of that.

The first is the deepwater port facility proposed at Cherry Point. That project has been proposed since 1992, it’s a project that’s gone through a lot of review and—actually—a lot of agreement between the business and development community and the environmental community. So I think there is a good opportunity for a deepwater port there.

I think it is really unfortunate, and there would not be the present level of disagreement in the conversation our community is having right now, if the terminal was proposed to ship grains and agricultural commodities from eastern Washington, as was originally proposed.

In all the conversations I had with SSA Marine when I was planning director, there was never any conversation about coal whatsoever. All of a sudden we now get into this new proposal, and the landscape has really changed.

The concern that I have is that they are reviewed and held accountable for that change. Are promised jobs going to come at the expense of other jobs? What are the impacts of coal to the environment and health issues?

CW: As an administrator, how do you disentangle the two, the port that was agreed to versus the commodity that was not agreed to?

DS: As an administrator, I don’t think you can. You have application right now for a coal facility, and you have an administrative responsibility to the environmental review process. That must be conducted in a fair and open manner. Recommendations are then forwarded to the county hearings examiner, then on to the council. So I don’t think an administrator can make a difference at that point. You have an application, and you have a process for reviewing that application—and the applicant has a due-process right to have that properly considered.

Alternatively, though, the executive has the responsibility of looking at the issue of jobs and of trying to work with SSA Marine and organized Labor and the State of Washington to find other commodities that are a better fit for the community.

As I mentioned, when I sat down with SSA Marine as planning director several years ago, they were very close to having a different kind of port design without coal. They had commodities available to ship and apparently had the investments necessary to build the pier and infrastructure for it. So that still might come.

The job of the executive is to facilitate that.

In the large view, I think the coal proposal will be in litigation for years and years. By that time, China will likely have found another source for their coal consumption. I don’t see this getting through the permit process, one way or the other, and being resolved in a timely manner. Whereas I do think a port designed for a different kind of commodity would not face those hurdles.

The concern is not just environmental, but one expressed by the business community all along the Puget Sound rail corridor. Whatcom County has the potential to be challenged in court by Marysville, by Edmonds, by Seattle—a consortium of other jurisdictions are going to see no benefit to them but significant impacts to their community, so they will act to make sure their interests are protected.

CW: Beyond the issue of coal, what large issues will you address as county executive?

DS: Jobs is the big one. One thing I would like to do is help foster small business development.

Right now we are sitting on $10.2 million in economic development funds, funds sitting around accumulating interest when they could have been put to use for infrastructure development in Bellingham and the small cities. I would want to work with those cities and their small businesses and other interests to determine what infrastructures are needed to help the local economy.

At the same time, the executive should make sure our agencies are working together efficiently and cooperatively. I’ve heard concerns that there are not effective partnerships available for those looking at alternative and sustainable business models, too much emphasis on traditional businesses like construction. I want to look at the infrastructure needs of the agricultural community, to help them get their products to market.

CW: On the topic of jobs, much lip service is given by politicians to the agricultural community, but in a generation we’ve gone from having 1,000 farms in Whatcom County to around 100, an amazing transfer of productive land to nonproductive use. What can be done to strengthen the county’s number one economic resource?

DS: It is true that the past shows the way to the future, unless something changes that.

The lip service I’m hearing is that in order to preserve farms we have to preserve farmers—like we have to pickle our farmers.

In terms of real action and opportunity, we have purchase of development rights programs that need to be strengthened. Voters approved that in 1996 as a means to preserve and protect resource lands, but it has declined over the years. What the purchase of development rights does for the farmer is help get some cash flow, so they can reinvest in their barns and equipment. Those funds could also be bonded against, so rather than a piecemeal approach one might go to the voters for additional funds for a more strategic plan. This would allow us to block up lands and keep them in productive use.

There are many things we could be doing to assist farmers, and not just the county but cities as well.

In Bellingham, for example, we are looking at using grants to meet affordable housing needs for farm workers.

The big kicker is water rights. Many farmers do not have secured water rights, and that is a very big issue that needs to be tackled and resolved by the county and its cities, the tribes, and the State of Washington.

CW: From your experience as planning director, is there anything unusual or peculiar about the way in which Whatcom County approaches these issues? Are we ahead of or behind other areas?

DS: For as strong as an agricultural community as we have, I think we are behind other areas in our approaches. If you look at Skagit County, for example, and their efforts on behalf of the agricultural community, they are way ahead of Whatcom County.

Other areas, like eastern Washington, the growth pressures aren’t quite as severe and the threat of resource conversion isn’t as great as here.

With all the focus on property rights, I think we are definitely behind the curve on water rights. Many neighboring communities have worked through these issues because they understand they are paramount.

CW: Before you decided to run for county executive, you had intervened or joined challenges to county growth decisions. What were you hoping to achieve by doing that?

DS: Part of what I was trying to achieve was to make sure that the county complies with the law.

The current County Council was not focused on asking itself whether it was trying to comply with state law. Instead, they were focused on accommodating what several development attorneys had told them they’d like to see happen.

Citizen activism—wherever it originates, from the right or left—helps drive the conversation back to the center, to help find a compromise. My true interest, rather than legal action, would be to have people from many perspectives sit down and try to work these issues out. In other communities where I’ve worked as planning director, decisions have never been appealed to the state boards or courts because we were successful in working through the issues at a local level. That is not happening here.

So the strategy is to try to drive people to the table to have that discussion.

CW: Why should the county care if it is in compliance with state growth laws? What harm is there in remaining out of compliance with state goals?

DS: Well, state goals are a sound management framework for how we approach growth. The framework is designed, first, to provide sound fiscal management and fiscal accountability in government. You only have so much public money to spend on infrastructure, where should you spend it? Should you spend it on sprawling, low-density development in rural areas? Should you spend it converting resource lands, or on enhancing resource lands? So doing your plans and figuring out how much capital you have to implement your vision is one of the hallmarks of growth management.

If you look at the county’s capital facilities plan, you do not know what the priorities are for spending real estate excise tax, for example. Promises have been made to all kinds of projects on a piecemeal basis, but there is no real protection for the taxpayers in the long term.

The disadvantages are the exact opposite: Potential sanctions, as the county becomes no longer eligible for clean water funds, for public works trust funds and road administration funds—which might assist on issues like the Lummi Island ferry—also for any grants for parks projects in the county. Those are scored by points, and the county recently lost nearly half a million dollars because points were deducted for a grants application for Lily Point.

CW: On the topic of the potential loss of clean water grants, what are your thoughts on Lake Whatcom? How should the executive champion moving forward?

DS: First, completing the land transfer with the state.

CW: You support the proposed Reconveyance of state lands to county management?

DS: I do support that. It makes absolute sense. When you consider the amount of logging and roadbuilding that could occur within the watershed, the erosion that could occur with phosphorous going into the lake, it doesn’t make any sense to proceed with a logging plan. Instead, you can use voter-approved conservation futures funds for the acquisition and maintenance of that resource.

Some candidates are saying that the current forestry plan provides adequate protection. I wish I had photos of the amount of erosion that was occurring from logging and seasonal land clearing operations above Sudden Valley. People were calling and complaining constantly.

We need to figure out a long-term financing source to work on existing infiltration from impervious surfaces, roads and residences in the watershed. That is a very big topic.

CW: Are there improvements you might consider to the management structure in place to protect Lake Whatcom?

DS: City and county staffs work really well together. There is better cooperation at the staff level than at the level of elected officials. Even at the level of elected officials, the spirit is there.

Watching the county and city attempt to do the same things simultaneously, I have seen a lot of inefficiencies. I have to think there is a more efficient way of doing things, even to the level of co-locating staffs. We might consider additional interlocal agreements between the county and Bellingham that might make things more efficient.

One thing I bring is that I know and have worked with the staff at both the county and city. I respect them, and I think they share that.

CW: Speaking of interlocals and interjurisdictions, do you support unified emergency medical services in Whatcom County? What are the challenges there?

DS: Having a unified service is essential to the county. We have a world-class EMS, the envy of many places, that has worked really well.

I am encouraged that there are efforts underway between the fire districts and fire chiefs, as well as county and city administrations, to try to work out some of the future management and cost issues. I prefer that these issues are resolved by the firefighters and fire chiefs and emergency management officials rather than politically by elected officials. With sufficient agreements, I think the politicians would have no choice but to support those recommendations.

Underneath all of this is a power struggle between Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham. Let’s get over that. It is time to work together.

CW: Continuing on the topic of public health, I was surprised your campaign literature has come out so strongly in favor of Planned Parenthood—not because Planned Parenthood is not a worthy organization, but because much of its operation is beyond a county issue. What are your thoughts there?

DS: One candidate for county executive, Doug Ericksen, has made strong remarks against Planned Parenthood and its role. I think that deserves a challenge.

Do you want someone who is strongly opposed to a woman’s right to choose her manner and method of health care running the county health department? Do you want county health services politicized in that way? There are administrative decisions, budget decisions, that have to be made on how we offer or support these services for women.

CW: Related to public safety, what are your thoughts on the jail issue?

DS: I think it is sad we spent eight years and more than $1 million before asking the public what they think of the jail issue. I think some of the advice on how we should handle these discussions came from attorneys who advised that they needed to be held in executive session because they have to do with land acquisition. That is not true at all.

These are issues of choice, trying to narrow down locations to study. It is an issue of scale and scope, trying to determine the right size of the jail.

I am encouraged that there is no disagreement that a new facility is needed. But I do think we need to look closely at alternatives to incarceration, mental health issues, homelessness, drug and alcohol dependencies and how they relate to jail populations.

On the topic of location, the idea of siting a jail so far from a city center concerns me a lot. The jail needs to be close to support services, the courts, the public defenders and attorneys, and even to families of inmates. The travel costs of providing these services to a remote location wasn’t even factored in the original proposal, and I think those costs would be considerable.

The whole system needs to be considered.

One statistic I encountered recently suggests the homeless rate is approximately double that of the inmate population, and that may be a relationship we need to think about, that reducing the one may influence the other.

We have veterans returning from war in a terrible economy, with no jobs, sometimes facing stress and emotional issues, and perhaps facing homelessness. These are things we as a community need to consider and plan for.

CW: Among the candidates, you have the unique perspective of having worked as an employee of the current administration. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of that administration? What improvements might be made?

DS: First, I think the county needs a stronger management perspective, getting people to work together to resolve issues. The strategic plan created by the executive’s office was done eight years ago and has not been updated. We need to look at that again. It was frustrating to watch the budget issues arise, and yet the budget process always seemed a last minute exercise in terms of setting priorities.

The executive only manages certain departments. Other elected officials manage their own departments, but the executive is responsible for the overall budget. So conversations need to happen early, with better communication.

For example, three county departments are involved with permitting. When I was planning director, a number of calls we received, complaining of permitting issues, were the result of decisions from other departments. One goal would be to get these departments working together more closely.

CW: A big challenge to finding solutions comes from the habit of framing problems in an extemely partisan way—the environment versus property rights, for example. So you have the county furious because Bellingham passed an initiative to limit bag use, not even a county issue but it will certainly drive how people vote in county elections. How will you address issues arising from identity politics?

DS: It’s unfortunate things we talk about are framed as “culture war,” the urban-rural split. I think we create it. No “side” has all the right answers or all the best answers.

I had the opportunity when I worked in the county to work with many people from many perspectives, and I found people had great ideas, grassroots public participation types of ideas. I also found people who had ideas that were very similar to other people with whom they might, on the surface, believe they disagree.

It really comes down to values.

Farmers want to have stronger water rights. City people want farmers to be successful as sustainable businesses. We see shared values between them.

As public servants we have to understand those values and find common ground to enact it. Talk is cheap. Action is where it counts.

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