Napoleons In Exile
Wednesday, May 27, 2020
NAPOLEONS IN EXILE: In a vote split along familiar 4-3 lines, Whatcom County Council will reluctantly extend their interim moratorium on the acceptance of applications and permits for major unrefined fossil fuel export projects at Cherry Point for the eighth time. They could hardly have decided otherwise—the public process for considering these amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan is all but in a coma as council meetings are telecast amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and even the fossil fuel industry itself is coughing and sputtering in economic collapse. Nevertheless, the delay plays into a misleading narrative that County Council does not support heavy industry and job growth at Cherry Point.
Council member Kathy Kershner objected to the extension even being introduced—“during this time of absolute uncertainty with businesses, with the loss of a renewable fuels project [at Cherry Point], with the notification that Alcoa is going to be discontinuing their business in Whatcom County,” Kershner reasoned. “I don’t think that the County Council should be taking any action that would encourage our industries at Cherry Point to consider this as an unfriendly business environment. We should be walking very carefully through this process.”
Her motion to withdraw the item from the agenda was supported by Ben Elenbaas and Tyler Byrd.
Yet, inaction is itself action. Without consideration and vote the moratorium would simply expire without extension, sweeping four years of legislative process and volumes of public comment into the dustbin. The Whatcom County Planning Commission has not completed their own extensive review on the Comprehensive Plan amendments for Cherry Point.
“We have a situation where something that has been in existence for a long time, that was put in place to allow the Council to come up with new regulations, is on the verge of expiring,” Council’s legal advisor Karen Frakes explained.
“I would remind anyone who is concerned about this that the only restrictions these amendments have is on refineries being converted into transshipment terminals for the export of unrefined fossil fuel,” Council member Rud Browne noted. “I have a serious concern that without this legislation the refineries at Cherry Point could be sold because of economic pressures to a foreign entity that decides to simply use them for transshipments of crude oil, and do the actual refining within their own jurisdictions instead of ours—which could result in the loss of a thousand or more jobs at Cherry Point.”
Council’s Terrible Trio objected to the introduction of the item on grounds of procedure and public process, then immediately pivoted to a procedural and public process violation of their own—introducing a matter that was not even on the published agenda at all. This is a trio that grouses without end about surprise introductions of proposals and lack of transparency in legislative decisions.
As their meeting concluded last week, Elenbaas proposed sending a letter to the governor, demanding more local control on the reopening of Whatcom County’s businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a proposal that would essentially neuter the governor’s authority over public health initiatives related to coronavirus.
“We would like you to consider modifying your order to allow county governments which have well established health departments, administrations and functional legislative bodies to be more ‘in control’ of their own futures as we reopen,” Elenbaas wrote in his proposed letter to the governor.
Comically citing the state’s Growth Management Act as a model (a law the county refused to comply with for more than 20 years), Elenbaas noted “local control and planning is very beneficial as each county has its own strengths and unique challenges. We believe these challenges can be best met by granting local governments more leeway in determining their future. Please consider an option for counties to deviate from your reopening phases without a burdensome ‘ask permission step’ as long as we can document a thoughtful process and appropriate mitigation factors that pertain to the COVID-19 emergency.”
“That is a meaningless low bar, that every county in Washington would clear at any time,” Council member Todd Donovan noted in dissent to the letter, and would allow counties to reopen their economies without regard to data related to infection rates, hospital capacity and related outbreak concerns.
“My understanding was that Mr. Elenbaas was going to work with the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and Ms. Frakes” to prepare a more cogent letter to the governor for introduction at a later date, Donovan observed.
Elenbaas objected to the letter being reviewed by the county’s legal counsel. Elenbaas sent the letter to Council members mere hours before insisting on a vote on it. Council spent considerable time massaging the proposed text—mostly in deletions of its truculent and confrontational language—despite the inconvenience of not having the text actually available to them in advance for discussion.
“I wrote it with a theme in mind,” Elenbaas admitted.
“Fortunately, Council did remove from the letter references to conspiracy theories about reopening being linked to approval of the Green New Deal,” Donovan observed dryly. “But that remains the context from which this letter was approved.”
“I think Mr. Elenbaas’ concerns have largely been addressed,” Browne observed, “that if the county achieves a goal of lowering new cases, then we do get more latitude in our decision-making—and it is set by an objective measure.
The measure is R0, a mathematical term that indicates how contagious an infectious disease is—and Whatcom County is meeting its goals of lowering that value below R1.
“The letter is not specific in what it is asking the governor to allow us to approve,” Browne noted.
It’s a wonder Council approved the letter at all, given the unorthodox manner in which it was introduced and the lack of coordinated thought that went into its contents.
Napoleons-in-exile, the Corona Council is beholden only to their fiefdoms and the interest groups that are communicating privately with them. The absence of a public meeting space exacerbates their isolation and their scattershot approach to open meetings. It’s no substitute for government.