Whatcom council member: New hire could foster progressive agenda

For one Whatcom County Council member, the prospect of hiring a policy analyst to help the council understand complicated issues recalled a time when the council had fallen sway to progressive activism.

Council member Sam Crawford spoke against creating the new position at a meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 14, saying it could lead to an excessively close relationship between the council and the planning department. The work of a policy analyst employed until 2010, along with environmentalist David Stalheim, who was planning director at the time, and a majority-progressive council formed a policy-making force that didn’t serve the county well, Crawford said in a written statement he read at Tuesday’s meeting.

“This arrangement moved us toward a more land-use-restrictive regulatory environment based on, in my opinion, personal agendas and preferences both of some council members and some staff members,” Crawford wrote.

“An arms-length relationship between the Council and Whatcom County planning is vital to ensure any specific proposal or change will be informed by appropriate, impartial review and rigorous debate,” he wrote. “The hiring of a council analyst in the past created a process of cross-information and influence between planning staff and the legislative body.”

Crawford emphasized that the policy analyst at the time, Rebecca Craven, was impartial and was not the source of the problem.

Crawford formally asked council on Tuesday to reconsider a previous vote to hire a new analyst. The council voted him down. Executive Jack Louws has included the position in his 2015-16 budget, which will be released on Friday, Oct. 17.

While the council did reduce development options for rural property owners when progressives held office from 2007 to 2010, current members Carl Weimer, who was on the council those years, and Ken Mann, who was on the planning commission, didn’t share Crawford’s view of that period.

“I’m not buying it,” Mann said in an interview Wednesday, Oct. 15. “I think it’s far-fetched to think that a policy analyst somehow moved policy, in cahoots with the planning director, that the council itself didn’t want.”

“I don’t really agree with much of anything that Sam said about that,” Weimer said Wednesday in an interview. “He made it sound like it was some activist’s agenda. At the time he was in the minority. He might not have liked (policy decision-making), but it was the will of the council.”

Council needs a policy analyst, Weimer said, to do the thorough research that complex issues require. The executive’s staff can’t always devote adequate time to council requests for information, Weimer said. He also would prefer an independent analysis of the draft budget. Every two years council must approve a new budget, which is prepared over several months by the executive and his staff.

The budget is hundreds of pages long, and it is difficult to comb through all the details the administration decided to include in the budget, Weimer said.

“We need someone who can tell us what the overhead is for grants or how much it costs to put a phone on everyone’s desk,” Weimer said.