Candidates for politicized Whatcom planning commission say they’re middle of the road

Whatcom County Council members will need to reach for something other than their go-to formulas when they choose the next planning commissioner.

Three candidates — two with connections to Ferndale City Hall, one a title officer from Blaine — have applied for the District 3 seat vacated earlier this month by Walter Haugen, who runs a small organic farm outside Ferndale.

District 3 is the northwest county, including northwest Bellingham and Lummi Island.

Haugen had received more votes than the other two appointees when council selected them in January because he had two desired qualities: he farmed, and he was left of center.

Progressive council members Carl Weimer and Rud Browne both said at the time that they wanted to bring political balance to a commission that up to that time was solidly conservative. Haugen’s farming credentials were especially coveted because two dairy farmers, Jeff Rainey and Rod Ericksen, were being ousted from the commission.

None of the current candidates have a farm: Ferndale City Clerk Sam Taylor; Michael Bersch, husband of Ferndale council member Carol Bersch; and Dean Prather of Blaine. Nor do they fit as neatly on the political spectrum as the current members of the highly politicized commission.

Council is scheduled to fill the vacancy on the nine-member board at its 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 28, meeting. The meeting will be held at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.

Taylor, 30, said on his application that he has “a record of being fair and objective,” and a familiarity with county code and state law that a planning commissioner would need. The commission makes recommendations to the council on decisions about development and allowed uses on land in the county.

Taylor said he talked to council members about his application, even listing three of them — Weimer, Sam Crawford and Barbara Brenner — as references. Weimer and Crawford, arguably the most liberal and most conservative members, respectively, both said they were happy to be references but wouldn’t necessarily vote for him, Taylor said.

As Taylor told it, council member Pete Kremen said he was happy to hear of Taylor’s application because he wasn’t partisan.

“That’s why I threw my hat in the ring,” Taylor said.

Taylor acknowledged he might need to step away from votes in which Ferndale’s interests are at stake, but he said in most cases this wouldn’t be necessary.

“I don’t think there’s a direct conflict because I don’t think I’m developing (land-use) policies,” the city clerk said. “As close as I get to this stuff is, I take minutes at council meetings.”

Bersch, 63, said he was a lifelong Republican but has distanced himself from the party label in recent years.

“The Republican Party, maybe five or 10 years ago, got captured,” Bersch said. “It’s not the Republican Party I was a part of, so I sort of became an independent,” Bersch said. “I like ideas on both sides.”

Bersch said he often argues with Republicans who want fewer land-use regulations. As a geologist who visits once-remote places that are now developed, he is keenly aware of global population growth.

“The more the population grows, the more rules that have to be put into place,” he said. “The world changes.”

As commissioner, Bersch might at least appear to have a conflict of interest with Ferndale business because his wife is on the council.

“It depends on how you define an appearance of conflict of interest,” said Bersch, who is a licensed attorney in Alabama and Washington. “It has to be pecuniary gain or some sort of gain that’s gotten out of something.”

Prather, 47, has embraced the “liberal” label, but with reservations.

“I tend to lean toward liberal, I suppose, but I have a hard time — people take that as a negative,” he said.

“I consider myself a fair person, and I can hear both sides.”

Any color to his common-sense, fair-to-all approach would be a tinge of environmentalism.

“I’m into the peaceful and clean survival of our community,” Prather said. “I want to make sure our kids can be raised in an environmentally sound and safe environment.”

Whomever the council selects, he will serve until January 2018.

In the next couple months, council will seek new applications for planning commissioner. The terms of conservative commissioners David Onkels and Ken Bell, both of District 1, expire on Jan. 31, 2015.

District 1 includes south Bellingham and the south county.

Of the eight current commissioners, six are conservative. The two selected this year are progressive: former county Democratic Party Chairwoman Natalie McClendon and former RE Sources for Sustainable Communities board member David Hunter.