Whatcom County Council

Interview with Amy Glasser

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Amy Glasser is a licensed independent clinical social Worker with 39 years’ experience working to protect the poor and the most vulnerable.

“I am not a politician,” she says, “simply a citizen stepping up to offer a voice to the voiceless and speak to the concerns of North Bellingham residents. 

“The Council needs to reexamine their priorities and start putting people first. Over half of our county budget goes to locking people up. I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We’d do better financially and morally to redirect some of that money to proactive and preventive services like homes for the homeless, comprehensive triage and enhanced drug, mental health and family courts. These initiatives will dramatically reduce our jail population so we won’t need the overpriced jail and new sheriff’s office. It is time for a fresh approach. We can save money, lives and our dignity by providing a hand up.”

Cascadia Weekly: What inspired you to seek a position on Whatcom County Council?

Amy Glasser: Bernie Sanders came along and said, “We’ve all got to get involved. It’s us, not me.”  And that inspired me. When he lost, and then when Hillary Lost (which I thought was going to happen), it was even more important to step up and do something locally.

I’ve spent my life being an advocate and an activist, and being about to actually get in there and change the rules and laws is amazingly exciting.

On County Council you don’t rule the world, but you get one-seventh of a very important vote, and that can effect change.

CW: What do you intend to do there?

AG: The first issue that is being thrown in our face right now is the big new jail the county wants to build. I have a lot of issues with the plan, starting with the location in Ferndale—that piece of property that we spent way too much on, that was acquired through closed doors, and that requires another $10 million for mitigations because it is surrounded by toxic industry and a corner that is contaminated. The proposed location is a horrendous place, I don’t know why they bought it.

We need to sell it immediately, and get back to the right idea, which is you site your jail with your court services in your main city because that is where everything is.

It can’t be big. It has to either be a redo of our current jail, or it has to be nearby, and built as a small jail for a few people who are a danger to society. It needs to be a good contained facility—I’m a realist, I’m a social worker, I know we need that—but we have a facility at Division Street to handle those who are not a danger to society. Between those, everyone else should be out.

So, no big jail, which leads to my other main issue, which is housing.

If we provide homeless people with housing, we are going to eliminate a huge revolving door of people who wind up in jail or at the hospital—which costs taxpayers a ton of money—toxic cleanup of the woods and streams where they live. So we have financial issues, medical issues, environmental issues, criminal justice issues with the courts being clogged up with people who are mentally ill and have substance abuse problems. But criminalizing that, to me, is wrong. If you’re stealing, that’s one thing; but if you are acting out or in possession of drugs, as a social worker I understand you can’t criminalize out of people. They still deserve a house, a place to be.

Tiny homes are my answer to a big portion—not the only portion—that everybody deserves a place to feel safe, to keep their possessions, to have a permanent address for jobs and services.

It costs about $10,000 to begin a program that would allow us to start to building little homes, which is a drop in the bucket compared to housing them in jail, or treating them at the hospital, or cleaning up camps. The last cost the city $300,000 last year.

Those are my two main issues.

As with most other members of the current Council, I don’t want a fourth pier at Cherry Point, I think we should restrict fossil fuels there.

We need to respect the Hirt decision on rural wells. I disagree with any Council decision to go back to court to fight that. We can’t fight our way out of a water shortage! We have to work our way out of a water shortage.

CW: Let’s circle back to issues you’ve raised and tackle them in one by one. The jail issue looks like it may peak and be decided very soon, at the same time you’ll be running for election in November. What advice do you have for County Council as they decide to place the issue on a ballot? What would be your decision if you were on the Council now?

AG: No. We’re not going for .2 percent public safety sales tax.

We spent money on Vera Institute consultants on how to reduce incarceration and what we’re doing wrong. We also put the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force together a couple of years ago, and haven’t implemented their recommendations.

We’re putting the cart before the horse.

We shouldn’t even be looking at a tax until we start reducing the jail population based on those recommendations. At that point, we can ask with confidence what we’re reducing, where our resources need to be spent, what’s our goal and what do we actually need?

We know we need something, because the old jail is not safe. But is it really structurally deficient and we must build a new one, or is that just what the people who want to build a new jail want?

We need to fix the old jail anyway, it will take a few years before we can build anything anyway. How about we put $10 million into our old jail, and make it a good place for the 50 to 75 people who require a strong containment. Everybody should either be out or over at Division Street.

There is no way that the 212 people who are currently sitting in our bad, unsafe jail are that much of a public danger. I don’t believe it. They’re there for poverty; they’re there because they haven’t paid fines, because of mental health issues. Shouldn’t be there in the first place.

CW: An argument that the county administration has made is that some portion of the public safety sales tax will go toward building those alternatives to incarceration and diversion programs.

AG: Can you hear me laughing? Ah ha ha ha.

Some of it.

I’ve read what the draft resolution says at the very bottom, which is, “and other things as necessary.”

I know “whatever things as necessary” means “whatever the Executive wants to spend it on.”

And that’s not even what the public would be voting on, let alone expecting.

It concerns me if we do not have specifics.

Nice pie-in-the-sky idea, but when the executive and sheriff and prosecutor are all myopically looking through incarceration, gotta get ’em in—all that money is going to go toward jail cells.

It’ll go to the pods they want to build in Ferndale, and they’ll grow it so big they can actually rent out the beds for extra detention space—Homeland Security, immigration enforcement, you name it.

It’s a setup for us to become a detention center or a dropping point for other counties, the state, the federal government for their prisoners.

It is a horrendously bad idea.

CW: On the issue of homelessness and affordable housing, what role can county government play? Homelessness, housing density are traditionally thought of as urban problems, a problem for cities.

AG: The county hasn’t dealt with homelessness at all. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard them once talk about the issue at a Council meeting.

We have to address it as a county issue. It is not a Bellingham-only issue.

I’ve been all over the county. I’ve seen the homeless in cars, in old RVs, under trees, on people’s couches, in dangerous situations. I’d say there are at least three or four times as many homeless people in the county and its cities than are accounted for in downtown Bellingham.

I as a County Council member would start with the idea that we will use our economic development money to help cities begin to build small shelters and tiny homes; and services within those cities so that every person in need doesn’t have to go to Bellingham. Perhaps we as a county can help identify county buildings that can be used by social service practitioners.

My tiny homes project—which I think the county should be putting law and order money into because putting people in homes does a lot more for public safety than putting them in jail—I think we should be building small developments of tiny homes throughout the county and cities. These would be clusters of six to eight homes around a service building. And then there is a place for private practitioners, for social workers, doctors, group counselors, medication managers.

I think our county government has to take the lead in this mental health and substance abuse problem. It shouldn’t be dumped on just Bellingham.

CW: I would speculate the state’s Growth Management Act might discourage these clustered of developments outside of urban growth areas.

AG: Six to eight tiny little homes, means six to eight people, I don’t call that density. That’s actually equivalent to just one large home.

I don’t want to place these anywhere there’s closed watersheds, or anywhere where a well is required.

But attaching to a water association or a municipal water supply, I would say that’s doable.

And the alternative is people are living in rural areas anyway. They’re living in the woods and along streams. But they’re not safe, and they’re not getting better.

People are more aggressive when they do not feel safe, and that feeds back into the crime issue.

Studies have shown that when  we provide people with basic needs of homes, security, health care, they’re not as aggressive.

CW: You’ve brought up land and water resource issues. How do you think the county should move forward on the issues of closed watersheds and residential wells? I think the current Council desperately wants to lift the moratorium on building permits. What needs to happen?

AG: I can point fingers of blame, not at this Council but at previous ones that, for 20 years, ignored the problem. I can point fingers at the realtors and building industry that did not warn people that they were wanting to build in areas of limited stream flows and closed watersheds.

But I do think we as a government have a responsibility to the people who are already in process to allow them to build homes based on wells.

The current rules permit withdrawals of up to 5,000 gallons per day—which is an enormous amount of water. If we reduced that allowance to 1,000 gallons a day, that might put limits on things like hobby farms, but it would approach a solution to the problems. Rain collection and containment system could help out in dry months, We can ask water associations to connect more homes so they are not dependent on wells. And then we just have to say “no.”

It’s not our right to give away first water rights and say, “Let’s figure out a legal trick to get this done.”

We have screwed the Native Americans enough.

Treaties gave them a little tiny piece of land, their water and their fish. By God, we have to respect that. It is the right thing to do.

CW: On the topic of past county governments, the Growth Management Act passed in 1990. It was discussed in detail by the state Legislature for ten years prior to that. For nearly 40 years the county has been out of compliance with GMA, the only county that falls under GMA requirements that is also out of compliance with the law. If you’re elected, will you help bring Whatcom County into compliance with this law?

AG: Yes; we have to do it.

I think one thing that has to happen is we have to work with farmers.

I think the county is intimidated by the economy of farms and does not want to make waves. If we don’t work with farmers on water issues—metering and measuring, we have to do that—I can’t see how we’ll get there.

I actually think if we start by trying to address the rights of Lummi Nation, we’ll have a much easier time meeting the Growth Management Act because we’ll be saying “no” a lot more. We’ll be thinking of fish, and building more buffers and stream habitat.

CW: Your newly redrawn district borders on Lake Whatcom, the only Bellingham district to do so. So that puts the reservoir under your personal gaze on County Council. What are your thoughts about the lake and Bellingham’s drinking water supply?

AG: We’ve been given a 50 year timescale to restore it. Fifty years? Ha ha. That’s like saying we should be given 50 years to start dealing with climate change.

Where I grew up, the reservoirs where people drew their drinking water were not allowed to have anything in it. No boats. No homes on the lake shore. No peeing kids or dogs. No resorts. They’re fenced.

We have to reduce the number of motorized boats on the lake, not increase the number. We have to reduce the amount of insecticides, herbicides and lawn products entering the lake, no increasing it.

It’s our drinking water.

CW: You’ve raised the issues of tribal treaty rights and the future of Cherry Point. The Council has authorized a study to give them some guidance about potential uses and restrictions of use for certain industries there. What needs to happen in and with Whatcom County’s land supply for heavy industry? What did Council do right, what did they do wrong, and what will you do differently?

AG: They were put in a horrible position early, which I would have fought at the beginning—that restriction on their ability to meet with the public, to hear from the public, about anything having to do with that area. For people not to be able to talk to their elected representatives about the biggest project in the history of the county was just crazy.

Given the constraints they had, I think they did pretty good.

I don’t think we have to spend $150,000 on a study if we do the one thing we should, which is give control of the area to Lummi Nation.

One thing we don’t have to fight if we codify it is, we give Lummi Nation the opportunity of the first right of refusal for any industry that wants to operate on the piers. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified Cherry Point as an area of importance to Lummi Nation, their territory, and Whatcom County will never have to fight with an industry again because we will have something codified that says Lummi Nation gets to decide whether to accept the proposal or not. If yes, then it will go through our process of EIS, environmental checks and permits. If no, we can say easily then that it is not our decision.

I think that would limit of angry discussion—it’s mot our issue, until Lummi gives it to us.

Saves us time. Lummis have control over what they should have control over. And I think our planet will be a lot cleaner because I doubt Lummi will allow unrefined fossil fuels to leave from there because it affects their treaty fishing rights.

CW: When I say that the County Council’s actions at Cherry Point is killing jobs, sending a hostile message about economic development, and that Council members are job killers, what’s your response to that?

AG: Regarding Cherry Point? Oh, yeah. It is. It is killing a certain kind of economic development.

We have an environment there that supports an ecosystem that supports many, many jobs. But some kinds of economic development will destroy that environment and ecosystem.

I’m not going to be one of those idiot politicians who says, “Oh, no. You can do a lot of things there and just have to be conscious of the environment and taxes. for the damage you cause.

It’s part of my east coast upbringing that I don’t bullshit around.

When it comes to fossil fuel export, we as a county should be saying, “No more.”

We’d better begin to take care of this spot ourselves.

CW: I’ve focused most of our attention on actual issues, which is appropriate, but I did want to ask you about the tone and tenor of this race and campaign. It’s been pretty edgy. What are your thoughts?

AG: I’ve been very depressed about it.

I decided to run last December. In january I found out through the grapevine that Barry Buchanan was going to run for the At-Large position; that Ken Mann and Carl Weimer would not seek reelection; that Satpal Sidhu would run for District 3. He filed with the Public Disclosure Commission in January. The only person on the Council who lived in District 2, then, would be Todd Donovan.

He has two more years left in his term. Never said a word to me—and my feelers were out, and I wanted to talk to anyone who was considering—so he had two more years and an At-Large position to slide into as very popular guy, who could win an at-large seat a lot easier than me.

That was the plan back in December.

I travel along in my merry way. Middle of May, Todd notified me that I was jumping into a race in a district where he’s lived for 25 years and I was being very wrong.

Within a week, he filed and he is running in District 2.

I am so bummed.

When I heard carl was leaving, all I thought was that, with Carl leaving, I could get in there and work with Todd and the others on environmental issues. They’re going to be the leaders now. I was excited by that.

Evidently, I have offended Todd’s campaign a couple of times with my direct style of thinking things could take a different route, but I thought that was what our job was as seekers and leaders of public opinion.

Now the message is, “I’m taking his job away.” He’s not even done with his term!

I want to work with Todd!

CW: Well, people have a right to file and run for office, and you don’t need anyone’s permission to do so. Are you saying that you would have been more comfortable running against Satpal Sidhu?

AG: Oh, no. I would have been uncomfortable running against any incumbent.

That was the plan, everybody had a spot.

If Todd would have come to me in December and January, and said, “I think it is in my best interest to run for District 2, let’s figure out how to fit you in”—honestly?—I wouldn’t have run.

I really respect him as a Council person and wanted to serve with him.

But, May? Come on, six months I’ve basically been job interviewing for this position.

Somehow I’ve been turned into a bad person.

I’m a social worker, and the Council needs a social worker. Because we have mental health problems in our community. I’m a progressive female. The Council has no progressive female. The only female is Barbara Brenner, and she is not progressive. She’s a wonderful person, very approachable with fine qualities, and she has helped me personally and professionally on my cases many times. But she is not progressive.

I’d love the opportunity. I’ve always said, “I’m not running against Todd. He’s a good guy.” I’m running to bring what I’ve got.

CW: Do you have any thoughts or insight into the third person who is running, Daniel Collick? While lots of attention is being paid to your race and Todd’s race, his has been pretty quiet.

AG: I’ve not heard a peep from him. I tried to find details on his positions, but I didn’t find much.

Whether or not the Republicans said, “We’ve got to have somebody running, just throw your name into a hat and we’ll give you money,” I don’t know.

The primary should be a choice between Todd and myself, and then the public decides what to do.

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