Local Election

Port has key decisions to make, and these two candidates want the chance to make them

Port of Bellingham commissioner races may appear below-the-radar compared to other offices, but they have a huge influence in shaping the future of Whatcom County.

Want to know who is deciding the look of Bellingham’s waterfront district, which will have a major influence in other areas like the nearby downtown district? How about the environmental cleanup of Whatcom County’s waterfronts? What about blue-collar, maritime jobs? Or the future of the airport? If so, this year’s commission race is worth studying.

While the current board is often in agreement, there are only three commissioners. One vote can be the deciding swing vote.

The port commission will have plenty of important decisions to make in the coming years:

While a basic outline is in place for developing the waterfront district, only a few acres near the Granary building have projects going through the permitting process.

The port is working on plans for developing other parts of the district with several other entities, including Western Washington University and its Western Crossing plans; Harcourt and its proposed Boardmill hotel and convention center; and The Millworks LLC, a group of local organizations interested in putting in a food campus and affordable residential housing.

With upgrades completed to the Bellingham Shipping Terminal, the commission will have some say in deciding what is being shipped in and out of the area.

Commissioners also have a say in some basic infrastructure improvements, such as bringing fiber optic cable to rural parts of Whatcom County. That’s something that is expected to get started next year.

The port has an annual budget of around $49 million that is spent in a variety of ways, including more than $16 million in capital investments and more than $6 million in environmental cleanup in 2019.

General election ballots will be mailed Oct. 18. Ballots don’t need a stamp but must be postmarked by Election Day. Ballot drop boxes open Oct. 18 and close at 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 5.

Below are details on the two candidates running for the district 3 position, which is a nonpartisan office that carries a four-year term. Commissioners are paid $8,400 a year.

The information is based on questionnaires and interviews with each candidate.

Bobby Briscoe, incumbent

Brisco, 63, was raised in south Bellingham as a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. Has spent the last 45 years operating fishing business in California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska waters. Currently serving as president of the Port of Bellingham Commission.

City: Blaine

Funds raised: $7,275, as of Oct. 2, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

Expenditures: $537.

Largest contributors: The Landing at Colony Wharf LLC and Ingram Walt each gave $1,000; IAFF Local 106 gave $950.

Priorities if elected to the position: “As a commissioner it is essential I incorporate the wishes of the people of Whatcom County into my decisions at the port. Currently, we are in the process of planning the installation of fiber optic cable in Whatcom County so that broadband services will be available to all. We will be taking public comment on the future uses of the ASB pond site soon. Once the city approves the sub-area plan changes of the waterfront development district, we hope to increase the speed of future development on the waterfront district site.”

Issue of personal interest: “As a fisherman, I have vast knowledge of the waterfronts in both Bellingham and Blaine. Having focused on the marine area during the last four years, I would like to now focus on other issues in the county that haven’t been on my radar. Agricultural issues and business growth issues in the east county. As I have family and friends in the agricultural business they have pointed many issues out that the port could help resolve and we will.”

What makes him suited for this position: “I was raised on the Bellingham waterfront. I have worked as a longshoreman and warehouseman. I remain a fisherman. In my three-plus years as a commissioner the marine knowledge I have has been valuable to port staff and the commission in the decision-making process. The relationships I have with the tenants on port properties have been valuable in helping port staff understand individual business needs so they may correctly help them. My parents gifted me with good common sense and leadership abilities and the stubbornness to not give up until the issue is resolved. Last but not least I am a commercial fisherman by trade, not a politician. I was asked by my peers to become a port commissioner. I now work for all the people of Whatcom County. It is a job I am proud of and would like to continue doing.”

Endorsements include: Whatcom Commercial Fishermen’s Association- WCFA; IAFF 106 Bellingham/Whatcom County Firefighters Association; ILWU International Longshore & Warehouse Union Teamsters; Northwest Washington Central Labor Council; Whatcom County Association of Realtors.

Website: Briscoeforport.com.

Anthony Distefano

Distefano, 44, was born in eastern North Carolina and has spent most of his adult life working on the water as a marine engineer and sailor on deck. Background professionally is maritime, tourism, environmental advocacy/education and renewable energy projects.

Neighborhood: Birchwood neighborhood, Bellingham.

Funds raised: $1,834, including a $500 loan, as of Oct. 2 according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

Expenditures: $981.

Largest contributors: Nancy Distefano and Kenneth Ferguson, $500 each; SEIU 1199NW gave $250.

Priorities if elected: “My campaign has three priorities as we move forward, the first is environmental. Climate change is real and it’s happening on an unprecedented scale. The time for action is now. The port can take leadership by establishing solid and progressive environmental policy in all aspects of our future planning decisions, not just following minimum guidelines. We have an opportunity to set reachable goals for reducing pollution, greening our storm-water infrastructure, and reducing greenhouse gases by pursuing an environmentally sustainable vision and leading locally on a global crisis.

“My second priority is living wage jobs. As port commissioner my focus would be a longer-range view of how we administer our public lands. Preservation and expansion of our marine trades, cargo and fishing fleets to bring living wages to Whatcom, while at the same time bringing affordable housing for our working families should be at the forefront of our dialog — affordability over gentrification.

“My third priority is broadband for all. The port is the only governmental agency that can facilitate expansion of fiber optic broadband in rural areas. This provides a unique opportunity for supplying under-served communities broadband access in which the port builds a publicly funded infrastructure. I believe the port can facilitate every home and business in Whatcom being connected with fiber optic broadband. I propose an aggressive expansion of vision to prepare us for a sustainable economy.”

Issue of personal interest: “Expanding a fiber optic infrastructure to every home. In order to prepare for the coming future, we must have a competitive edge for economic development, while laying an infrastructure to establish a ‘green energy grid.’ By having every home connected we not only establish information access equality to our citizens, we can be prepared to use cutting-edge technology that will require all energy consumption to be looked at as a whole. Our ability to meet the future needs will be measured by our present-day policies and goals. Infrastructure also means jobs.”

What makes him suited for this position: “I believe that as port commissioner, having a wealth of diversity in marine-related, environmental, and policy experience, can provide the unique outlook needed to negotiate the port’s future, while we balance our obligations to the public, the environment, treaties, private-sector, and partnerships that the port serves.”

Facebook page: AnthonyDistefanoForPort.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.