Progressive Whatcom council thaws relations with environmentalists

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 27, 2014 

COUNTY OATHS

New Whatcom County council members Rud Browne, left and Barry Buchanan are congratulated by Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws after being sworn in the council chambers at the Whatcom County Courthouse Monday, Jan 13, 2014. In the background is Louise Bjornson.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Carl Weimer, the new chairman, called the Tuesday, April 22, Whatcom County Council meeting to order with "Happy Earth Day."

Given this chairman, and the council he now leads, the sentiment seemed sincere.

Environmentalists see reasons to be optimistic on the occasion of the new council's 100th day, which happened to fall on Earth Day.

The council's progressive majority - incumbents Weimer and Ken Mann, and newcomers Rud Browne and Barry Buchanan - swept the November 2013 elections with the backing of more than $1 million in contributions and independent campaigns. Most of the help came from Washington Conservation Voters and Whatcom Wins, an offshoot of the Whatcom County Democrats.

Victories by Browne and Buchanan tipped the political balance of the council. They replaced two members squarely in the conservative camp, Bill Knutzen and Kathy Kershner.

Progressive optimism may be justified, but the heavily financed candidates have turned into council members who think for themselves.

"It's accurate to say that Barry, Carl, Ken and I all enjoyed running alongside each other during the election," Browne wrote in an email to The Bellingham Herald. "But contrary to some of the things that were said about us during the election, we are not 'four peas in a pod.' ... Our voting record makes it clear that the citizens have elected four independent thinkers."

The only reliable left-of-center vote belongs to Weimer. He's the only council member this year who voted against paying Seattle attorneys in a lawsuit against environmentalists over water use and pollution.

When a proposal favored by low-income housing advocates to subsidize rental housing passed the council, Mann was the only one who sided with Sam Crawford, the most conservative council member.

"I'm pretty impressed that the system works, when you look at the net results," Crawford said. "There is a very deliberative and very cautious process to change law, and it's very difficult for one individual or even a majority to move forward as a coalition."

"They better have a very, very clear idea of what they want to accomplish, and they very deliberately must take small steps to get there," Crawford said.

Weimer took the deliberate approach to get his water action plan approved by a unanimous council in March. The plan included a five-page summary of Whatcom's water troubles, from bacterial pollution in shellfish beds and phosphorus in Lake Whatcom, to uncertainty over how much water is available for farmers, residents, industries and salmon runs - the subject of that lawsuit against environmentalists.

Weimer's outline of issues will be used to set priorities in the 2015-16 budget.

Kate Blystone, program director at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, said she sees promise in Weimer's water action plan, even though 100 days isn't enough time to evaluate the new council.

"There is a real potential with this council to be a leader in protecting water resources, and I hope to see, in the next 100 days or so, more of that," Blystone said.

Lisa McShane, a Whatcom Wins organizer, said Weimer's water action plan is the most important thing to come out of the council so far this year.

"I'm really pleased with the leadership Carl is showing," McShane said - a sentiment echoed by Mann.

"It was a side of him I didn't get to see during the last four years," Mann said, "because he did not have the ear of the majority at all."

Weimer was the quietest council member before this year. In part that was due to his personality, he said - "I tend to be a better listener than a talker" - but also, he said, political space opened up for him this year to step up as a leader.

"Now there's an opportunity to move things forward, so I'm trying to show some leadership - especially with the new members, to show how the legislative branch can do that," Weimer said.

In another significant step this year, the council's relationship with environmentalists has started to thaw. The council, through the county's legal office, has begun settlement talks with groups opposing the water protections and new slaughterhouse rules.

The idea of negotiations on water surfaced in 2013 but was dead on arrival. Kershner and Knutzen had contempt for Futurewise, the Seattle-based anti-sprawl group whose name is on the petition claiming the county is not doing enough to protect water quantities for salmon.

The people that appear most vulnerable in this case are rural property owners who would drill new water wells when the time comes to build a home. New wells could be restricted after this case is resolved, as they are already in other Washington counties.

By January the current council had entered settlement talks on the water dispute with Futurewise and four citizens - David Stalheim, Laura Leigh Brakke, Wendy Harris and Eric Hirst. Talks are ongoing. The parties were trying to pick a date in May to meet, according to emails related to the case provided by the county.

These negotiations are running parallel with the court case, now before a state Court of Appeals. The possibility of a settlement before a court decision worries conservatives in the county, including Whatcom Republican Chairman Charlie Crabtree.

"The party and conservatives are extremely concerned that the council would even consider settling on this issue," Crabtree said. "It's a statewide issue and would apply in other counties, depending on what the court says."

The chances of a settlement are unclear at this early stage. Predictably, Crawford and council member Barbara Brenner are opposed on principle to settlement. Mann sees a way toward settlement of the water-quality half of the dispute. The two sides aren't so far apart on Whatcom's water pollution.

"I actually don't disagree with what they're bringing up," Mann said of Futurewise, whose settlement letter, dated March 25, only addressed water quality, not quantity. "We have a lot of contaminated water bodies, and we want to fix them."

"The quantity issue, that's the one that a lot of people are up in arms about, and that's one I think we are being wise and prudent to continue the appeal, unless we get some rather profound settlement proposal from the litigants," Mann added. "I think we'll win in court, and I think we should want the clarity and certainty of a court ruling for something this monumental."

The council is also trying to appease challengers to the slaughterhouse rules: Harris, Nicole Brown and Tip Johnson. They filed their appeal in November. Three months later, the council had made rules for siting slaughterhouses on agricultural land more restrictive by requiring a public hearing on all applications.

Weimer said the council made this move to further settlement talks.

The latest draft of the slaughterhouse rules, scheduled for a public hearing on May 6, now includes an upper limit of six slaughterhouses or packinghouses on agricultural land. This move, too, was an overture to the appellants, Mann said.

"I am hopeful that including that upper limit will placate some of the people who are suing us, but I have no idea that it will," Mann said.

The four Whatcom Wins-backed council members can take credit or blame - take your pick - for initiating settlement talks in two hotly debated issues in the county. On the whole, though, the group hasn't dominated the council.

"This council is really thoughtful and works together as a council of seven to discuss things, and that's refreshing," Buchanan said.

Crawford said he's not frustrated to find himself so often in the minority. In 15 years on the council, he said, he has seen the pendulum swing both ways.

"I think we can and do operate as a legislative body that is mutually respectful and can work together," Crawford said. "I like that part of it, and I think we've got some good folks on the council who play well together."

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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