Gifts of the Three Magi
Wednesday, December 13, 2017
GIFTS OF THE THREE MAGI: Whatcom County Council used their last meeting of the year to employ departing colleagues and approve a number of familiar and long-hammered policy goals before their membership shifts a bit next year. These actions included the creation of a Lake Whatcom Stormwater District and along with that the financial confidence to approve $1.2 million in new money for water programs; the formation of a climate impact advisory committee; and Council expanded the scope for a legal review of what county government can do in response to new fossil fuel export proposals—the latter surely an area of study and recommendation for the new advisory committee. All of these issues were long and robustly discussed in 2017.
The Port of Bellingham intends to use their last meeting of the year in a manner remarkably different, to jam through—in the middle of the holidays—a brand new expedited plan for the central waterfront. At the last commission meeting, port staff sheepishly withdrew the deficient and ridiculed “napkin sketch” proposed by Harcourt Developments in October and announced a new plan, yet unseen, would be unveiled in the commission’s final meeting in December. The gambit takes advantage of a public distracted by the holidays and a commission diffident and decimated by departures—two out of three commissioners will not be around to be responsible for their actions next year. The gambit is also intended to take advantage of an expedited review that could place the matter in front of Bellingham City Council as early as April, with permits on the new (as yet unseen) site plan by the close of next year. Needless to say, none of these issues were long or robustly discussed in 2017.
Bellingham City Council ended their legislative year with a different imperative than other two local governments—they postponed decisions on a couple of complex matters of social and community justice until next year. These included some decisions on inclusionary zoning in residential neighborhoods and a series of protections intended for residential tenants. These are matters that will undoubtedly be discussed long and robustly in 2018.
Bellingham City Council set the overall tone for that discussion, though, in an approved resolution that outlined the guiding principles for justice and justice-related systems moving forward. The document is intended to lay out parameters that will guide the city as it works with local government and community service providers in response to the failed initiative to replace the decayed and overcrowded jail.
The immediate concern facing the city is a policy response to efforts or proposals (if any) to restrict bookings for municipal misdemeanors or to move booked misdemeanants to remote facilities as the county wrestles with issues of overcrowding and repair. Let’s be blunt about this: It’s pretty easy and uncomplicated to house these nonviolent offenders somewhere else and they may be, unless there is a clear policy not to send them somewhere else, far from their families, their community support, and their legal counsel. The city’s policy goal is that detentions are prioritized independent and regardless of the charging jurisdiction, which is at the center of their approved guidelines.
“I’m concerned that given the current situation at the Whatcom County facility, that the City of Bellingham, and other jurisdictions including all the Whatcom County cities, Lummi Nation, and the Nooksack Indian Tribe will be limited in the use of the facility,” Mayor Kelli Linville cautioned in a memo to the county administration. “Even with the City of Bellingham’s use of the Yakima County facility and using current incarceration alternatives, managing the inmate population will likely require a focused effort by all jurisdictions.”
One option, she proposed, is a meeting of a broad group of stakeholders early next year to discuss matters related to the operation of the jail.
Beyond that immediate expedient, the city’s guidelines provide a statement and framework for many social justice issues moving forward, establishing protections from “unfair treatment by promoting a fair and equal justice system that is free of discriminatory practices based on racial, socioeconomic, religious, cultural, ethnic, mental and physical disabilities, national origin, language spoken, immigrant status, political backgrounds, sexual orientation, gender identity or age.” These principles flow outward and press inward on an entire spectrum of issues related to social and criminal justice—from homelessness and housing security, economic justice and income security, restorative justice, and community response and engagement by the city and its partners and providers.
“I appreciate the high focus of these guidelines,” Council President Michael Lilliquist said. “I like the fact that this goes beyond jail planning to address community values.”
Council was responsive to a great deal of insightful public comment in their initial discussion of the guidelines earlier this month, as well as public comments in the same evening on tenant rights, access to justice, income security and housing equality—the foundations, as several citizens said, of a fair and just society.
For all their faults, the care of City and County policymakers—the degree to which they are willing to discuss issues at length among themselves, hold hearings and receive comment, delay action if necessary to encourage maximal benefit—stands in stark contrast to the Port of Bellingham and the manner in which that staff-driven agency attempts to slam issues forward with virtually no public process. The last several commission meetings have ended in the angry bang of a gavel, the critical discussion left unfinished. Transparency is an irritation to the Port of Bellingham.
Three kings they came, one not so wise and benevolent as the others. Two brought gifts, the other sand.