District 2

North Bellingham’s heated political exchange

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Amy Glasser did everything right.

“Bernie Sanders came along and said, ‘We’ve all got to get involved. It’s us, not me,’” Glasser says.  “And that inspired me.

“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.”

I have followed and reported on local politics for 25 years, and if I were to advise a candidate I’d say get out there early, be enthusiastic,  announce your intentions soon, frame the issues, map and seize territories, take temperatures and pulses. Be bold. And all that she did, announcing her intent to run for Whatcom County Council District 2 immediately after the national election last November. And she signaled her eagerness by being one of the very first to file her candidacy at the opening of official filing week in May.

It’s what I’d advise. In any election other than the one following a redistricting.

You see, Whatcom County Council incumbents themselves had a little Monte Carlo of their own to perform. Four incumbents found themselves in the same redrawn district following a county redistricting in 2015, and needed to sort out among themselves—and to the extent they could, within an open government paradigm and legal requirement that forbids clandestine serial meetings—what future they each would pursue. The redistricting was imposed on county government by a vote of the people; the boundaries of the district were imposed by a bi-partisan redistricting committee using the ballot language voters approved to guide them.

Among those four, the fundamental fear and elemental concern, the driver for coordination, was that they not run against one another, that they not face off against one another in a primary election, because they’ve worked together as a team and as a partnership on many matters over the years, on strategic issues related to rural growth, environmental policy and economic issues related to resource lands. Their concern needs to be understood in the context of not wanting to campaign against each other, and wanting to position themselves to remain viable strategically as a caucus moving forward, and not out of concern for who might run against them in this cycle.

One chose retirement. Another chose to run at-large. A third chose to run in what may ultimately prove a very difficult and challenging redrawn district for anyone currently seated on County Council. The fourth chose to run in North Bellingham, Amy’s district.

But that decision hadn’t been made when Amy announced, the Monte Carlo was not complete, and in her enthusiasm Amy drew County Council member Todd Donovan.

“I decided to run last December,” Glasser explains. “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 reeleection; 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,” she says. “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.”

“No,” Donovan countered. “She hadn’t talked to any of us, because at that time we really didn’t know ourselves what districts or futures we would pursue.

“We hadn’t talked among ourselves about any of this,” he explained, “because it is actually discouraged under the state’s open meetings laws. We just don’t get together to talk about this, nor should we.

“The claim that I came in at the last minute, well—that’s true,” Donovan admits. “Satpal originally filed, then changed his mind and decided he would wait to run in another district.

“And she is free, anyone is free, to run for office. But I think it should be understood in the context of taking someone who is on the Council off the Council. Because that is the effect. No way she can run in District 2 without taking someone off the Council. It is not like redistricting has created an extra seat.”

There’s a third candidate running for District 2, Daniel Collick, a plumber and plumbing supplier, who has received limited financial contributions from county conservatives and the Whatcom County Republican Party. Collick did not initially respond to requests for an interview. At press time, he indicated he would receive questions in writing and he would respond within a day or two after he’d had time to familiarize himself with the issues.

We may have time for that.

The nature of our winner-take-all, top-two political system suggests (although it is not at all certain in this new, untested district) that Glasser and Donovan will peel votes away from one another and only one will emerge to square off against Collick this fall. And thus this is a very heated primary for two progressive candidates with some notable differences who seek to move forward.

They both have a lot in common, and a lot to talk about.

Focus on the issues

Moving past the primary, Glasser brings a focus and an emphasis not currently found on council. She sees issues of criminal justice and social justice as inextricably linked. and sees connection between the issue of a new jail and that of affordable housing and homelessness.

“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,” she says.

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

“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,” she says.

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.”

For Donovan, his emphasis for the coming years is financial—a more responsible approach to county revenues that are not currently keeping pace with population growth or desired levels of service. Voters in north Bellingham could give him the stability to pursue a topic of more equitable taxation that is not popular in the rural county.

“The county hasn’t even taken even the 1 percent raise in property taxes they’re allowed under state law in 20 years,” Donovan notes. “We have all kinds of deferred maintenance issues. We have huge capital needs. We haven’t even recovered from the loss of personnel from the Recession. And there are more people in the county—and more need for social services, health services. Staff services, so we can write the grants that can bring us dollars from other resources.

“A one-percent increase is something like $300,000—so it won’t solve our problems, but it does accumulate year over year. And I did get four votes on the Council to take that increase, but it was vetoed by the County Executive. The issue eased a bit when the Emergency Medical Services levy passed, and Council members lost momentum on overriding the veto, but EMS a dedicated fund and it is not going to fix our problems.

“But I think that’s the first time the Council has even tried to take that 1 percent in 20 years,” Donovan says. “It’s created conditions where we can’t even talk about property tax as a potential source of revenue.”

Both candidates take a stance against a proposed sales tax to construct a new jail.

“Last time this went to a ballot,” Donovan notes, “it was too big. It was too far away. There was no firm commitment of money to go to incarceration prevention and reduction. There was a controversy between the cities and the county about the financing.

“The financing issue seems to be settled or getting settled,” he admits, “but it is still basically the same size. It is the same location. The concerns voters had the first time at the polls haven’t been met in the second time at the polls. We’re still locking up 30 years of public safety sales tax for a really big facility that is being justified by the fact that we have failed to invest in the facility that we have, that we have allowed that facility to deteriorate and become unsafe.”

“I have a lot of issues with the plan,”Glasser agrees, “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’re putting the cart before the horse,” she notes. “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?”

There’s synergy on other issues as well.

On Cherry Point, Glasser praises the work of the current County Council but believes more should be done.

“They were put in a horrible position early,” she admits, “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.”

Her solution to issues moving forward is to give the matter to the tribes for consideration.

“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,’ she says. “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.”

Donovan believes the issue of Cherry Point is complex, but begins with a better understanding of the powers local governments have to influence projects with potentially large impacts to the health and safety of citizens and the environment.

“I believe all seven of us understand that it is our job to manage competing interests and interests that are in conflict,” Donovan says. “We have a duty to protect the environment, to protect human health and safety. And even on the economics side is an understanding that allowing raw crude oil exports overseas could actually undercut the refinery jobs we have.

“Let’s have that discussion.

“I think there is a fairly large consensus in the community that we don’t want the use of those facilities to transition to something that’s just raw materials going out, no value added for Whatcom County, and with increased health and safety threats. But, what have we got as far as tools for achieving that?” he asks, with an interest in exploring the answers.

Read the full interviews:
Amy Glasser
Todd Donovan


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