Whatcom County Executive

Candidates meet the challenges with ideas

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Rising homelessness and housing insecurity. Agriculture and industry in collision with natural resources. Social justice in collision with public safety directives. Uncertain water supply. Aging public infrastructure.

Whatcom County faces many challenges.

On the other hand, the county has a strong economy and its government is in sound financial shape and carries no debt.

It’s a good time for a change-up in county administration, after Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws announced earlier this spring he would not seek a third term. The vacancy drew four candidates, and three of them lean progressive.

Candidate Jim Boyle laid out the challenges that face Whatcom County:

“As a community, we must work together to address our housing crisis which ranges from homelessness, to substandard housing, to housing that consumes an outsized portion of the family budget. As a county government, we must provide effective public transportation for all county residents and improved access to services, including high-speed internet. For the region, we must build an equitable criminal justice system that seeks to prevent incarceration and fosters rehabilitation. For communities and people to thrive, health care, including mental health services, must be accessible and affordable, no matter where you live in the county.

“We are faced with complex problems,” Boyle admitted, “like decreasing quality of our drinking water, competing demands for limited water resources particularly at critical times of the year, increasing threats to the Salish Sea from pollution and marine traffic, and loss of air quality due to traffic and forest fires.

“There is not a simple answer to any of these problems, but all of us must have a voice in developing and implementing the solutions needed to keep Whatcom County as the ideal place to live and work,” Boyle said.

Boyle has worked as a teacher with at-risk youth, a firefighter for the Forest Service, and as a bison ranch manager for the Nature Conservancy. His career has also included working for the U.S. Department of the Interior on salmon-recovery issues in the Pacific Northwest, starting his own consulting company, and managing organizations as diverse as the Loon Preservation Committee and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Whatcom County. Currently, he is working on international environmental issues for the Organization for Tropical Studies.

Boyle is challenged by Karen Burke as well as by Satpal Sidhu, who currently holds a seat on Whatcom County Council. Considerably to the right of these three is Tony Larson, president of the Whatcom Business Alliance, an organization staunchly at odds with many of the Council’s land-use and social justice issues.

The imperatives of the state’s aggressive top-two primary combine with the county’s fierce political polarization to create a potent certainty that the strongly conservative Larson will carry through the August primary to face off against one of the other three candidates—Boyle, Burke, or Sidhu.

Karen Burke is also a social justice warrior, of sorts. She brings 18 years of executive experience as the director of Lummi Tribal Court and the executive director of the county’s Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services (DVSAS). She has managed multimillion-dollar budgets and overseen complex agencies through transitions. She is endorsed by the Nation Women’s Political Caucus of Washington and Washington Conservation Voters.

“I have always worked in the public sector, and that gives me a special perspective,” Burke said. “From my upbringing working in a family business, I very much understand businesses and for-profit businesses. In my career, I have always worked in the public sector—either in government, and in particular private government, or for nonprofits.

“The thing that is very particular about working for a nonprofit or government organization is that the money flows very differently,” Burke noted. “The money flows from lots of different sources and has many different strings attached. To be able to piece together that puzzle—what are your designated funds, when do they need to be spent, what are they designated for—that’s something that takes some skill sets and practice.”

Burke also sees many challenges that face Whatcom County. For her, the solutions should be based around people.

“I see that there is a lot of work getting done that is not being implemented,” she said. It’s an organization issue, it’s a priorities issue and, yes, it’s a leadership issue. Some of it is, literally, that we have many citizen advisory committees that are doing a lot of work that may or may not be lining up directly with a department, where there is somebody responsible and accountable to see that work gets done.

“A lot of it is empowering those committees and the people who are on the ground, to bring together all of the stakeholders, and then to adopt those plans and get them prioritized and implemented.”

Satpal Sidhu also feels his strong background as an engineer is well suited to lead the county administration. He is also endorsed by Washington Conservation Voters.

“My experience as a problem solver, including as an engineer, business executive, educator and small-business owner, is what Whatcom County needs right now, and that’s why I’m running,” Sidhu said. “The executive must leverage the county’s limited resources to effectively address housing affordability and homelessness, mental health and the opioid crisis, an ever-changing labor market, climate change, and water rights and water quality, among others,” he said.

With deep cultural roots in agriculture, Sidhu and his wife have lived in Lynden for 30 years, and their sons attended and graduated from Meridian schools. He grew up in India and spent some time working in Canada before moving to Whatcom County in 1988. He speaks four languages, was a Fulbright Scholar, and has experience as an engineer and senior business executive. He served as dean of Engineering at Bellingham Technical College.

In his current role as a County Council member, Sudhu is chair of the Council’s Finance and Administrative Services Committee and a member of the Natural Resources Committee. In addition, he serves on several community boards and committees, including the Council of Governments, Northwest Clean Air Agency, Reserve Officers Board of Trustees, and Whatcom Transportation Authority Board of Directors.

With his experience on county issues, Sidhu is very specific with his proposals. He takes particular issue with the characterization by Larson’s group that county policy has created a hostile climate for business and industry.

“If that were true, would we not see it happening?” he asked. “Our economy is strong, those industries are strong.

“The role of County Executive is significant in managing the county’s $400-plus- million biennial budget and wide array of departments. I believe my qualifications match that role,” Sidhu said. “Outside of providing people’s wages, most of the county’s money is spent on construction and engineering types of activities.

“In addition, my experience in this community—by serving on 12 different boards—gives me an understanding of the issues are we working on. It gives me depth on the different issues that face Whatcom County,” Sidhu said. “And when you are County Executive, all groups come to you.”

A great deal of that understanding, the three progressive candidates agree, is in the interconnectness of issues and solutions.

Illustrating that awareness, each of the candidates has come to understand homelessness and housing insecurity, long thought to be primarily an urban concern, is a countywide issue. That awareness is something relatively new.

“Homelessness looks very different in the county,” Burke admitted. “It is not as visible, but it is definitely present.

“A lot of people who are struggling in rural areas are migrating into Bellingham,” she said. “And as housing prices continue to go up, and as people who can’t afford to stay in Bellingham are moving into cheaper or less expensive housing in the county, then our more vulnerable people in the county are ending up back in Bellingham and its services. So there is this unintended migration happening.

“There are many homeless families throughout the county—people who are working but are camping, because they can’t afford housing, people who are living in sub-standard housing, people who don’t have access to water or utilities. Homelessness and housing insecurity is present in the county, but perhaps it is more visible in downtown areas.”

“Homelessness,” Sidhu admitted, “falls on the city more than the county, because most of the homeless need services and public transportation. But affordable housing is needed in the county.”

Sidhu supports a number of specific land-use reforms that could, where appropriate, consolidate tiny homes on properties throughout the county.

Each of the three understand the connectedness of homelessness to mental health, and the criminal justice system that is often the unsuitable arbiter of these issues. Two public initiatives strongly supported by the current administration to build a larger jail and justice center were rejected by voters, and the candidates were circumspect about the jail moving forward.

“One thing we’ve learned through 25 years of working in domestic violence and sexual assault—the whole movement has really learned—is that we want to focus on rehabilitation as much as possible because that’s what the families want,” Burke said. “Just assuming we’re going to arrest a perpetrator and put them away and the problem is solved is just not the case.

“When we can create safety in the community outside incarceration, it is preferred,” she said, citing her experience with Lummi Tribal Court.

“Brick and mortar to me is the last priority,” Sidhu agreed. “My first priority would be, how do we fund long-term care for mental health and addiction? Second priority, how do we fund a triage center on a continuous basis? We currently only have two years of funding.

“I think we have proven now, after two initiatives to fund a jail have failed, that our need for beds is much less than we originally proposed,” he said. “We had originally proposed 400-plus-beds of capacity with expansion to 800 beds. I think we can scale that down.”

Boyle, too, supports a more collaborative approach to these issues.

“Success as the County Executive,” Boyle agreed, “is based upon the relationships you can build.

“With open and honest communications, a cooperative and inclusive management style, and a willingness to listen to others, I will bring a different leadership style to county government that fosters a collaborative approach and embodies the belief that ‘we all do better when we all do better.’”

“I humbly admit that I don’t have the miracle cure to all the challenges we face,” Boyle said, “but I do believe that together we can move our county forward. What I do have is a curiosity to learn, a deep commitment to improve the world we all live in, and an unrelenting drive to make things better.”

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