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Politics of Whatcom Planning Commission hangs in the balance with upcoming appointments

The terms of two conservative Whatcom County planning commissioners are expiring, and the County Council will fill those seats from a pool of applicants from the county’s most liberal district.

Ken Bell’s four-year tenure on the Planning Commission will be over after the group’s next meeting, on Thursday, Jan. 22. Bell can’t apply for a second term because he hasn’t lived in Council District 1 since the boundaries were redrawn. The district covers south Bellingham and south Whatcom County.

“There is very little likelihood that I would have reapplied in any event,” Bell said Thursday, Jan. 15, in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “The important business that I expected to be working on never materialized.”

The Planning Commission didn’t embark on a major update of the county’s comprehensive plan, as Bell had expected. (That work will begin in earnest this year.) Nor did the commission endeavor to put the county code into plain language, as had been discussed.

The commission is a nine-member body that recommends zoning changes and other land-use rules to the council for final approval.

“Planning as well as legislating do run contrary to my constitution,” Bell wrote. “In my view, they tend to slow down progress and stifle competition as well as innovation.”

Bell was narrowly defeated in a race for Port of Bellingham commissioner in 2013.

Dave Onkels, the current planning commission chairman and a conservative, did apply for a second term — not that he thinks he will be selected.

When asked if he was vulnerable to being ousted, Onkels said, “Absolutely. I can count votes.”

The commission had been stacked with all conservative members, largely after a conservative takeover of the council in the 2009 elections. After the council tilted to majority progressive in 2013, seats held by three conservative commissioners have gone to two progressives and one seen as moderate.

Onkels, however, lumped in the presumed moderate, Sam Taylor, with the progressives in his assessment of how council members might reset the balance when they select two planning commissioners on Jan. 27.

“If they appoint two progressives, they would have a 5-4 majority on the commission,” Onkels said.

The two applicants besides Onkels fall to his left on the political spectrum.

Christina Maginnis, a stormwater specialist for the state Department of Ecology, lost in a close election to council member Sam Crawford in 2011. During her campaign, she spoke of her concern about illegal land-clearing by SSA Marine as it prepared to build a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point.

In an email on Thursday, Jan. 15, Maginnis said her expertise in natural resources would serve the commission well. She also acknowledged that she would bring the commission more into political balance.

“Having a more balanced Planning Commission will improve a crucial part of the commission's job — to engage citizens, listen and incorporate their ideas into the Planning Commission public process,” she wrote.

Applicant Susan Templeton said in an interview she didn’t identify as progressive or conservative.

“My political leanings are more toward practical and collaborative,” said Templeton, an assistant branch manager for Washington Federal.

She said she places a value on environmental protection.

“I think we have to be respectful of what we’re inheriting and what we’re passing on,” Templeton said, rather than governing according to “short term, personal bias.”

The council office will accept applications for planning commissioner from District 1 residents until 10 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 20. Applications and instructions are available on the county website, whatcomcounty.us. Click on “ Boards and Commissions.”

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