A Mad Triad
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
A MAD TRIAD: The new axis of alignment on Whatcom County Council was on incandescent display last week as Council considered a contract extension for an educational program on recycling and waste reduction.
Since 2011, the program has been offered to students in local school districts and youth organizations. The item was on Council’s consent agenda, which means that the bulk of discussion of the matter had already occurred and it was merely a matter of approving it in a batch of budget requests from county administration. The county’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee had recommended increasing the program budget to increase the number of educational opportunities for elementary, middle and high school students by awarding an additional contract amount to RE Sources, the public policy advocacy group that offers the program to local schools. Notably, RE Sources was the only organization to respond to the county’s contract request.
Council member Ben Elenbass characterized the group as “domestic terrorists” and joined conservative members Tyler Byrd and Kathy Kershner to oppose the contract. Byrd and Kershner stated their objections to the policy advocacy of RE Sources.
“They interfered with the public process that set the way Council members would be elected,” Elenbaas complained of their tactics.
The characterization of RE Sources as a “domestic terrorism” group drew a rebuke from Council member Todd Donovan, who supported the contract based on the experience of RE Sources on matters of recycling.
“We don’t have anyone questioning their capacity to actually deliver the services in terms of recycling education,” Donovan observed. “A lot of groups have their nonprofit side, they have their political arm… and maybe some of that work has been involved with people petitioning and picketing—but to call that ‘domestic terrorism,’ that’s not a slippery slope. That’s like cascading off of a cliff.
“‘Domestic terrorism’ is coordinating militia groups and advocating violence against the government,” said Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University. “Circulating petitions, protesting peacefully, to call that ‘domestic terrorism’ is, well, frightening.”
“I stand by what I said,” Elenbaas replied.
Rud Browne and others spoke in favor of the contract, which passed on a 4-3 vote that will become increasingly common on County Council.
“I support the mission of RE Sources,” Browne said. “But if I fundamentally believe in the value of what the contract is, I am not going to penalize an organization because they may have opposed me, or have expressed their opinion to oppose some form of county government.”
Elenbaas’ comment drew an official rebuke from Shannon Wright, executive director of RE Sources.
“This is a baseless and irresponsible accusation made against fellow community members,” Wright noted in a letter to Council. “We are a by-the-book, mainstream environmental education and advocacy organization, as well as a reclaimed building materials business, the RE Store. We have operated in Whatcom County since 1982, and currently employ 35 people…. We advocate for environmentally sound land-use, energy and water policies in Whatcom County that support the long-term viability of our natural resource base and a diversified economy.”
Wright also pushed back on Byrd’s assertion that he did not want to give money to a group that had campaigned against seated Council members.
“We do not back candidates, ever,” Wright clarified. “We engage on the issues that relate to our mission—climate change, water quality, protecting forests and farmlands, protecting threatened and endangered species, availability of clean water, community health and safety, jobs and local economies—in a nonpartisan manner. We never endorse, back, or campaign for candidates or party platforms.”
The political arm of the organization did play a strong role in advocating for five county voting districts that were not all centered in Bellingham—without which, ironically, neither Elenbaas nor Kershner would likely be seated today. The “tactics” Elenbaas complained of are part of the redistricting that allowed him to be elected.
“We do all this through commonplace, established organizing tactics utilized by thousands of nonprofit organizations across our country and across the political spectrum,” Wright explained. “This includes social media and informational newsletters, online action alerts to email elected officials, letters to the editor and op-eds, public testimony and filing technical comments with city, county and state agencies on development proposals and policies, hosting public events and trainings, beach cleanups, citizen science programs and intertidal monitoring, pollution patrols of local waterways, litigation against major industrial polluters, lobby days at the state capitol, environmental education, and teacher trainings”—in other words, the legitimate tools of democracy and social engagement.
Perhaps what’s most exasperating about the Council’s Mad Triad is how rooted their opinions are in partisan and situational politics, anchored in the assurance that their opinions are insulated beyond the reach of 80 percent of county voters.
In 2018, the National Rifle Association provided $253,451 in grants to state programs, including private and public school programs on gun ownership and gun safety. The NRA also provided access to cash for Republican candidates. In recent years, Washington state regulators have lifted a cap to allow the National Rifle Association Foundation to raise even more money than law allows through fundraising raffles that can involve giving away firearms. We can imagine none of the trio would object to a proposed contract that would allow the NRA to teach gun safety in schools.
“We are all community members, even if we disagree strongly on policy positions,” Wright counseled in her letter. “We all have families, even if we don’t know each other. Even in these polarized times, it is critical that we operate with civility and respect.”
h/t to reader S Keithly for her NRA analogy