FERNDALE - Candidates and the audience members who asked them questions shied away from the coal issue during a Whatcom Tea Party forum on Wednesday, July 17.
Still, the seven Whatcom County Council aspirants on stage in the Ferndale High School auditorium had plenty to discuss.
The forum, almost four months from Election Day, served to frame the issues county candidates will address between now and Nov. 5.
Incumbent Kathy Kershner and her challenger, Barry Buchanan, were asked to name the biggest project facing the county in the next four years, not counting the coal export facility proposed for Cherry Point.
Buchanan went first, but both of them would have said the new jail. The county is studying the viability of a 40-acre property in Ferndale that it could purchase before the end of the year as a jail site.
"We have to make sure we're not putting too much taxpayer dollars in a facility that is incarcerative in nature ... (and) start looking at rehabilitation programs," Buchanan said.
Not wanting to be repetitive, Kershner opted for an issue that was at least as important to her.
"We have got a big problem with water. We need to get that problem solved. Our farmers need to know they have water to run their farms. Our businesses need to know they've got water to run their businesses," and residents need to know they have clean drinking water, Kershner said.
She said she took the lead on programs intended to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Whatcom from stormwater runoff.
Clean water for Lake Whatcom shared center stage with the current tension between Indian tribes and farmers over water rights. The tribes are claiming the highest-priority water right and want to reserve some stream and river flows for salmon. Other water users aren't sure how this will affect their supply.
All candidates who spoke about the dispute said affected groups should get together in a cooperative spirit and resolve it. Incumbent Bill Knutzen (whose opponent, Rud Browne, did not attend the forum) and Ben Elenbaas, who is challenging Ken Mann, said there's enough water to go around. Both mentioned the county's record-breaking snowfall and regular rain.
"I have a really hard time with either-or propositions," Elenbaas said. "Either we're going to have water for farmers or we're going to have water for salmon - and I think there definitely is water for both."
Mann at first guaranteed the water dispute would be decided in court, not by local interest groups. Then he shifted to a more optimistic position that echoed Knutzen and Elenbaas.
"The best thing we can do is work with the First Nations, work with all the water users ... to figure out a way to avoid litigation because there is enough water. If we're smart, if we work together, we can have enough for everybody," Mann said.
The proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal got short shrift at the forum, probably because the politically astute audience knew the candidates wouldn't express an opinion on it. Potential council members cannot appear prejudiced on the issue because they will decide in the years ahead whether to grant two permits for the project.
Audience members did raise some questions about coal. Incumbent Carl Weimer and his challenger, Michelle Luke, were asked about the possible benefits of the terminal for agriculture because the terminal had been touted as a facility that could export wheat and other crops.
The two candidates showed little difference of opinion in their answers.
Weimer said council members need to wait for the release of a highly anticipated environmental study and other reports "that actually bring us the facts."
"At this point we're just hearing opinions from both sides," Weimer said.
"I'll agree about waiting to get the facts," Luke said. "It is interesting to hear about all the potential opportunities that there could be."
Three races - a Bellingham School Board position, a Bellingham City Council seat and a Blaine City Council seat - are on the Aug. 6 primary ballot in Whatcom County. For information on those candidates and their answers to questions about issues in their areas, go to our online Voter Guide. Look for stories on those races in upcoming editions of The Bellingham Herald.