‘We’re In This Together?’
Wednesday, April 15, 2020
‘WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER?’: Whatcom County Council’s minority of three conservative members continue conduct themselves in a coronavirus pandemic in unhealthy ways. Their petty politics place lives at risk.
In an ugly and unproductive teleconference meeting on April 3, Council failed to get the required two-thirds majority support to fully fund the Whatcom Unified Command—the collaborative organization of local governments and departments dedicated to COVID-19 emergency response—and instead managed to fund it to only a fraction of the requested amount. Funds cannot be loaned from the county’s $13 million economic development fund (EDI) without Council approval. Tyler Byrd, Ben Elenbaas, and Kathy Kershner refused to approve the requested $4 million interfund loan.
“Right now, our main concern is to save lives,” Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu asserted in his opening remarks. “We are trying to provide the best health care wherever it is needed, to whomever it is needed.”
“The intent would be to create a Unified Command COVID-19 fund, and authorize an interfund loan utilizing dollars from EDI fund,” Deputy Executive Tyler Schroeder detailed of the loan request. “This loan would provide the cash flow needed for the community response—to provide for the cash flow prior to FEMA’s public assistance program’s reimbursement.”
Schroeder explained that funds authorized in the emergency ordinances would be spent on personal protection equipment (PPE), securing isolation facilities and preparing for a potential surge in medical needs. Federal emergency assistance could refund up to 100 percent of county outlay, he said.
“We need to remember that this event is unprecedented in terms of the potential for enormous loss of life, its financial implications, and that will continue well into the future,” Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo warned in his remarks.
Elfo recommended that full funding be made available so the county is prepared for rapid response to imminent threats to life.
Byrd commented that he didn’t want the money to be spent on marijuana or cigarettes for the homeless amid scattered remarks that he supported the efforts of Unified Command.
Sidhu pushed back that the reluctance of Council and their uncertainty of action—their micromanagement—was not helping the Unified Command.
“You are just nickel-and-diming us,” he exclaimed. “We’ve seen nothing but confusion from the Council” in two-hour meetings twice a week, he said. “We have an emergency on our hands.”
Council would release the full, requested amount after another lengthy and quarrelsome session only days later. The delay served no purpose other than to draw another three-hour meeting peppered with rightwing rants against profligate gummint.
The dribs and drabs authorized by these guardians of the public purse are each immediately inadequate to meet the Health Department’s own accounting and cash flow estimates, requiring a successive series of cumbersome teleconference meetings between Council and department heads. Under the guidelines of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, each “special meeting” requires a coordinated surfeit of Council support. None of this trio’s demands for transparency and accountability are particularly unreasonable in isolation; in aggregate, they result in paralysis and the waste of WUC resources better spent responding to a public health emergency.
Whatcom Unified Command also called on elected Council leaders to participate in a series of public service announcements intended to give guidance to county residents during the COVID-19 emergency. Byrd, Elenbaas, and Kershner declined to participate in the “We’re In This Together” video PSAs requested by Unified Command.
“We are thrilled to have some of our County Council members participate in the series with messages of unity and support in these trying times,” the WUC Joint Information Center team noted in a judiciously worded statement. “The invitation was extended to the entire Council and we had several members accept the invitation and participate enthusiastically. We are grateful to them for giving us their time and voice during this unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves, clearing their schedules to participate.
“While there were members of the County Council who did not participate on the PSA filming day, we hesitate to characterize it as a refusal on their part,” JIC members noted. “There are likely a number of reasons why they were unable to participate, and it is irresponsible of us to speculate what those reasons were.”
Just a coincidence that the same three demanding greater public accountability and transparency are also the three that could not be counted on to deliver a simple message that might enable more transparency? Just happenstance that the same three who swore they’d be on-call for any immediate, specific financial requests from the administration could not find time to agree to this small favor for WUC? They complain that the county is not making its intentions clear to the public, then boycott an effort to make those intentions clear.
They’re playing dainty political games while county employees are risking their lives to save the lives of county residents.
This is the folly and failure of district-only voting writ large: Not one of these three Council members would be in office without district-only voting, and they are each one are locked away in their little voter fiefdoms beyond the reach and wrath of 80 percent of County residents. They would not survive an open election. These saviors of democracy are each one in office because of a ferociously undemocratic construct that makes them non-accountable to the majority of county voters, and non-representative of the county in an emergency.