Whatcom charter review board targets environmental groups

Members of the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission discuss proposed charter amendments on May 11. From left are Richard May, Joe Elenbaas, Ben Elenbaas, Chet Dow, Cliff Langley, Alie Walker, Barbara Ryan and Thomas Stuen.
Members of the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission discuss proposed charter amendments on May 11. From left are Richard May, Joe Elenbaas, Ben Elenbaas, Chet Dow, Cliff Langley, Alie Walker, Barbara Ryan and Thomas Stuen. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Conservatives on the county Charter Review Commission and their allies have a strategy for fixing what they say is wrong with Whatcom County. In addition to recommending more local representation on the council through district-only voting, a task they finished in February, they seek to de-fund “special interest groups” that support environmental causes.

At the May 18 charter review meeting, Michelle Luke, who was endorsed by Republicans during her unsuccessful campaign for council in 2013, said district-only voting was needed to correct the excessive protections placed on rural land by conservation nonprofits.

Luke said as chairwoman of the county Planning Commission, she saw firsthand the harmful influence these groups had on county planning. Futurewise, specifically, sued the county to get it to reduce the amount of development allowed on rural land.

Luke cited examples of property owners who were counting on putting a business on their land as an income source, only to have the County Council prohibit that development under pressure from Futurewise.

“Special interest groups have dictated planning for decades, and unwinding that’s going to take decades. ... Until we have local representation, why would it change?” she said.

With district-only voting virtually assured to appear on the November ballot, the focus on May 18 was on reducing the influence of special interest groups. Conservative commissioners have tried unsuccessfully three times so far to advance a charter amendment that would cut their county funding.

The first attempt, put forward by commissioner Yvonne Goldsmith, would have put a blanket prohibition on county funding to all nonprofits.

The groups that dissented the loudest were the region’s food banks and senior centers. Despite the all-encompassing language of that first version, commissioners said it was never their intent to take funding away from food banks.

The second version of the proposed amendment targeted groups involved in legal action against county rules or “other legislative codes binding on Whatcom County land and water planning processes.” This amendment was withdrawn after it was deemed unconstitutional.

Language targeting groups taking legal action was removed for the third version, making it more palatable to nonprofit leaders. That measure was defeated on May 18, by a vote of 13 to 0.

Members of the commission’s conservative majority decided the proposal didn’t do what they wanted it to do.

“The concern that crosses my mind is that I see groups ... who take money from the county to do environmental education are the same group I see showing up trying to influence an election on who gets put in place to give them money,” said Ben Elenbaas, chairman of the commission and, like Luke, an unsuccessful conservative candidate for county council in 2013.

“That’s the question I have, how that happens,” Elenbaas said, “or how we continually give money to a group that then brings us to court. But I don’t think this amendment addresses that issue.”

In deliberations on May 18, commissioners Elenbaas, Ken Bell and Joe Elenbaas — Ben’s uncle — indicated they would be willing to consider yet another version of the amendment to restrict spending on nonprofits.

As of Friday afternoon, June 5, no new amendment had been submitted for consideration at the next meeting, which will be 6:30 p.m. Monday, June 8. The commission will meet at the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center, 8251 Kendall Road.

Commissioners on May 18 didn’t mention by name any of the nonprofits they were targeting, but it appeared they were referring to conservation advocacy groups such as Futurewise and RE Sources for Sustainable Communities.

“The whole thing was a veiled attempt to curtail their activities,” commissioner Richard May said in an interview on Friday, June 5.

Ben Elenbaas was asked in a text message on Friday, June 5, which nonprofits commissioners had in mind.

“Futurewise is probably who people are thinking of, but I don’t know if they have received county money directly in the past, the way RE Sources has,” Elenbaas replied.

Futurewise has leveled several challenges against the county’s development decisions, but a search of county contracts with Futurewise yielded no results. RE Sources is currently on a six-month, $12,500 contract to provide education about waste reduction and proper disposal to elementary school students. The group’s lawsuits are typically directed against industries, including Cherry Point coal terminal applicant SSA Marine and BNSF Railway.

Neither group supports particular candidates during an election, and as nonprofits neither is allowed to.

Before the vote on the most recent version of the amendment on nonprofits, Commissioner Joe Elenbaas on May 18 questioned whether it would catch agencies that take county money, then turn around and spend it on legal actions against the county.

County Financial Manager Brad Bennett said it wouldn’t.

In an interview on Friday, June 5, RE Sources Executive Director Crina Hoyer said the agency follows strict rules when carrying out contracts — especially with the county, which doesn’t pay until after services are rendered.

“We have to have a very strict paper trail to show we’re spending the way the donor or the contractor intended,” Hoyer said.

Commissioner Eli Mackiewicz admonished his colleagues for targeting certain nonprofits.

“We can ... pick and choose organizations that we like or don’t like, or voted for us or didn’t vote for us,” Mackiewicz said. “It’s something I can’t support because I think it’s singling out particular organizations ... the commissioners don’t like and trying to make their contracts illegal.”

Any amendments, such as district-only voting, approved by the commission will get final approval or rejection by the voters in November. The commission will complete its ballot recommendations next month.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog and follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.