BELLINGHAM - Four years ago, Mike McAuley shook things up at the Port of Bellingham by unseating 16-year veteran commissioner Doug Smith. Now Whatcom County voters will decide whether to keep McAuley or replace him with Ken Bell.
Bell, 55, is owner and founder of Best Recycling. McAuley, 43, runs a home-building and remodeling business. Both men have stressed the port's primary role as a job creator.
Like any other governmental body, most of the Port Commission's actions are routine, non-controversial and approved by unanimous vote. But McAuley broke ranks with his fellow commissioners, Scott Walker and Jim Jorgensen, during the port's biggest uproar in many years: the 2012 ouster of Charlie Sheldon as executive director.
Walker - who leaves office when his term expires at the end of 2013 - began trying to get rid of Sheldon in October 2011. At first, Jorgensen sided with McAuley in supporting Sheldon, but Jorgensen changed his mind in April 2012, and Sheldon was finished.
Port tenants, fishermen and others in the community packed a commission meeting trying to get Jorgensen and Walker to reconsider, and McAuley made fervent arguments supporting Sheldon and denouncing behind-the-scenes maneuvering to undermine him. But Walker and Jorgensen stood their ground.
McAuley got back in step with his commission colleagues when all three commissioners made the surprise move of hiring Rob Fix, the port's chief financial officer, to replace Sheldon after a public review of executive director candidates that had not included Fix.
McAuley has had no dramatic public disagreements with the other two commissioners since then.
His campaign contributor list reflects a broad support base, including $4,000 from the Whatcom Commercial Fishermen's Association, and smaller contributions from several local labor unions, Bellingham Cold Storage CEO Doug Thomas, environmental activists Robyn duPre and Matt Krogh, and a $100 check from Charlie Sheldon.
But as of mid-October, Bell has outdone McAuley in the money race, with a total of about $28,000 to $18,000 for McAuley. Bell's campaign reports $1,000 contributions from real estate agent Troy Muljat's FWD Development; Airporter Shuttle owner Wickkiser International, and active local Republicans Dusty Gulleson and Joe Wilson.
Bell also reports $500 from ILWU Local 7, representing local longshore workers, and $400 from Whatcom Republicans.
Given the mostly conservative tinge to his donor roster, Bell's stance on waterfront cleanup is more than a bit surprising. In responding to The Bellingham Herald's question about the port-directed cleanup of the city-owned Cornwall Beach landfill area, Bell sided with the community's most uncompromising environmentalists. He questions the existing plan to leave a layer of Squalicum Harbor dredge sediment on top of layers of old city garbage, before covering the whole mess with material clean enough to allow the site to be converted to a park.
"I am not a fan of dumping and capping," Bell wrote. "My company cleans up contaminated soil as a business. I understand the ramifications of leaving contamination for others to address. Capping contamination is a way to push the necessary cleanup to other generations. ... There are too many risks involved in capping contamination as well as ongoing expenses that make cleanup more attractive."
Bell goes on to argue that if all the contaminants are excavated from the site, the land could be more productive.
"We get no return for the expense when we cap and place the land into parkland," Bell wrote. "We get a better return when we clean it and bring revenue generating business to that same location."
But the Cornwall Beach site is now planned for a park because of its attractive location and public demand for more waterfront parks, not because the cleanup plan would rule out other uses. The site has been envisioned as a big new waterfront park since the early stages of waterfront land use planning, before cleanup plans took shape.
And the land use plan now in its final review stage does envision using some small portion of the site for commercial development.
McAuley noted that the cost of excavating the old garbage and dredge sediment from the site would be colossal. He argued that while the port's dredge sediment now piled atop the garbage does contain measurable dioxin, it is present at very low levels.
"Of course, the preferred strategy would be a complete removal of the former landfill, but funding for that would never be granted under current state practices, and the port doesn't have a budget to do a removal some have estimated at over $100 million," McAuley wrote. "The bottom line is protection of human health. I believe that the (cleanup) design achieves that."
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This is one in a series of articles on races in the November general election. Other articles are at BellinghamHerald.com/elections.