With less than a week remaining before the election on Tuesday, the local race that has the most money pouring into it is the at-large seat on the Whatcom County Council.
As the County Council seat that all Whatcom County voters can weigh in on, it’s the one that could show how the Hirst decision will affect the council election, although those interviewed said a number of other issues could motivate voters.
As of Wednesday, contributions to Robinson were edging out those given to Buchanan.
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Robinson had garnered $52,687 while Buchanan had $49,511, according to Public Disclosure Commission filings.
The County Council seats are non-partisan, but each candidate has been supported by a political party.
Each also had large independent expenditures, which are made by third parties without a candidate’s approval or collaboration.
The Washington Realtors Political Action Committee spent $75,070 to support Robinson, who has a background in real estate, while the Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund spent $11,550 for Buchanan. The money went to direct mailers and digital ads.
Perry Eskridge, executive director for Whatcom County Association of Realtors, said the county organization asked the state organization for help with a race he described as a “toss-up.”
“There is an opportunity there to make a change,” said Eskridge, who also oversees government affairs for the Whatcom County Association of Realtors.
This election season will be the first to have new Whatcom County Council districts, which voters approved in 2016.
The terms are for four years. Other Whatcom County Council races are:
▪ Incumbent Rud Browne against Philip Morgan for the District 1 seat. Whatcom Democrats endorsed Browne while Republicans supported Morgan.
Hirst, Cherry Point
Issues raised during a May rally, called “Wake Up Whatcom County,” seemed to encapsulate the concerns in this election, at least in some quarters.
Rally organizers included Common Threads NW, and participants said then that the County Council’s decisions threatened high-paying jobs, property values and farming.
Concerns included the council’s decision to restrict new rural developments that rely on domestic wells because of Hirst by instituting temporary moratoriums as the council looked to Olympia for a legislative fix.
In its October 2016 ruling, the Supreme Court required the county to make sure there was enough water – both legally and physically – in streams for fish and those holding senior water rights before issuing building permits. The County Council spent $300,000 to fight the court case all the way to the state Supreme Court.
Property owners in rural Whatcom County have been upset and frustrated because they can’t build homes on their land without access to drinking water.
“You can’t just sit by and hope the Legislature does something,” Eskridge said.
Jim McKinney, Common Threads executive director, said issues cover the spectrum but Hirst is a concern for many.
“One farmer stated that given the impact of Hirst on so many in our rural communities, this issue may make it difficult for many Democrats to get elected in rural areas,” said Gerald Baron, executive director for Whatcom Family Farmers. “I don’t think many urban representatives understand the depth of rural frustration over this issue.”
Still, Baron said, recent conversations with most County Council members have shown increasing levels of support as members have become more familiar with serious challenges facing farmers.
On the other side are people who say senior water rights must be protected.
“I think it’s just common sense that all counties in Washington should consider water availability when issuing a permit. A water right is needed in order to obtain water and we support development of water supply solutions that will meet the future needs of fish, farms and people, and work for our community,” said Elizabeth Hartsoch, of progressive group Riveters Collective.
“The candidates that we endorsed all emphasized collaborative approaches to proactive planning for water, considering senior water rights, measurement, and climate impacts among other things,” she added.
Riveters Collective endorsed the same candidates for County Council as the Whatcom Democrats.
Policy affecting Cherry Point and industry there was another concern for those at the May rally, including the County Council’s decisions to approve temporary moratoriums on new shipments of unrefined fossil fuels through Cherry Point.
Council members have said they needed more time to consider land use rules and find out what they can legally do to protect people and the environment as demands push in on the county. They hope to get some direction from a $150,000 study.
Refinery workers and supporters have accused the council of hurting family wage jobs and making it tough for refineries there to continue to compete.
Environmentalists and other supporters of the moratorium cited concerns that included climate change and proposals to move more crude oil and other unrefined fossil fuels through Whatcom County via rail, pipeline and tanker – heightening local fears about safety, spills and impact to the environment.
Get out the vote
Tony Larson, president of the Whatcom Business Alliance, expected Hirst and Cherry Point to get more concerned voters from outside of Bellingham to turn out.
County Council member Carl Weimer, who is not seeking re-election after 12 years on the council, said the election “may come down to which side actually manages to get the people on their side to vote, more than on an actual shift in beliefs.”
In the remaining days, both sides are trying to get people to turn in their ballots when turnout in local elections in odd years tend to be low.
Environmental group RE Sources for Sustainable Communities has been busy trying to reach voters, knocking on more than 5,000 doors and having nearly 8,000 conversations about the importance of local elections on local issues, said Ann Russell, manager for the Clean Water Program.