Local Election

Fleetwood’s running for mayor to aid housing, preserve what’s unique about Bellingham

Politics has been his life for as long as Seth Fleetwood can recall.

As a boy, he remembers family visits from community leaders such as Barney Goltz, a former Western Washington University administrator and later state legislator who represented Whatcom County from 1973 to 1987.

“I spent every Fourth of July and Thanksgiving at the Goltz’s house, listening to the adults discuss the politics of the day,” Fleetwood said in an interview at his law office, a second-floor walkup at the corner of 12th and Harris in Fairhaven.

Those intellectual conversations shaped his childhood and youth, Fleetwood said.

“I’ve always wanted to do public interest work and that’s why I went to law school,” Fleetwood said. “People like to make fun of lawyers — and I get that — but it’s a good education for government work.”

Fleetwood, 56, was born in Bellingham, lives in the South Hill neighborhood, never married and has no children. He graduated from Sehome High, the University of Washington and earned his law degree from Willamette University in Oregon.

He served two terms each on the Whatcom County Council (2002-2010) and the Bellingham City Council (2010-2014).

In 2014, he lost to state Sen. Doug Ericksen for the 42nd District Senate seat that Goltz once held. Since then, he’s been practicing law and serving on local volunteer panels, such as the Neighborhood Advisory Commission and the Climate Impact Advisory Committee.

Bellingham mayoral candidate Seth Fleetwood outside his Fairhaven legal office Sept. 18. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Feared Seattle sprawl

Now, he’s running against April Barker for Bellingham mayor in the Nov. 5 general election after they were the finalists in the August primary, where the top two candidates advance. Fleetwood edged Barker 29% to 27% in the four-way race.

Mayor of Bellingham is a non-partisan, full-time administrative post, responsible for the city’s day-to-day operations and managing various city departments with about 900 total employees and a 2019-2020 budget of $637 million. It’s a four-year term with a 2019 annual salary of $165,600.

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Ballots will be mailed to registered voters Oct. 16 and must be postmarked or in ballot drop boxes by 8 p.m. Nov. 5.

Fleetwood’s campaign had raised $57,000 through Oct. 9, mostly through individual donations and spent about $26,000, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

During his years away from Bellingham for school, Fleetwood spent time in Mexico and Europe, and it was the European countryside that helped shape his vision for environmental protection. Bellingham at the time was an “undiscovered rainy mill town” and he feared it would become urbanized like Snohomish and Skagit counties.

“There were distinct boundaries of cities and countryside, whereas in the West we have sprawl,” he said. “We must maintain livability and, more importantly, recognizability. What makes Bellingham unique is what surrounds us. These are things that we need to preserve.”

As a member of the City and County Councils, Fleetwood had a hand in setting policies for growth, housing and transportation that influence current decisions.

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Mayoral candidate Seth Fleetwood, left, chats after a June 19 candidate forum sponsored by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership at the Whatcom Museum. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

‘Reflective approach’ to policy

Carl Weimer, director of the Bellingham-based Pipeline Safety Trust, worked with Fleetwood on the County Council and supports Fleetwood’s campaign, citing his familiarity with topics affecting city government.

“I endorsed Seth because I have known and worked with him for years and have come to appreciate his well-thought-out, reflective approach to so many serious policy issues,” Weimer said in an email to The Bellingham Herald.

“He has shown quiet leadership on housing, water, green space and parks, and climate issues,” Weimer said. “While there have been many great candidates for mayor this year, none of them compare to Seth’s extensive experience across so many different issues and jurisdictions.”

Fleetwood was an early champion of Bellingham Greenways, the tax levies that funded parks and trails across the city starting 1990.

“He guided us for a year and a half,” said Julianna Guy of Cordata, who served on a Greenways committee with Fleetwood in the early 2000s. “Whenever we needed an expert, he knew who to call.”

Fleetwood provided gentle direction to the committee, said Guy, 94, who is a retired accountant and worked in broadcast media.

“There was never any grandstanding. He impressed me quite a lot,” Guy said. “When you see him in public at a gathering, he doesn’t take over. But when you turn to him, he always has something to say,” proving that he’s been paying attention.

‘Preparing for the future’

As the housing crisis has emerged as a key issue in the current campaign, Fleetwood points to his experience as co-founder of the 2007 Countywide Housing Affordability Task Force and the 2004 Bellingham Growth Forums.

“The whole theme of my campaign is preparing for the future in the context of where people are going, to continue to move ahead,” he said.

“Housing is unaffordable for half the people who live here. That’s a crisis,” he said. “(We must) increase housing yield in multi-family zones.”

Fleetwood also said he’d like to develop more public-private housing partnerships for housing, a subject that was a campaign issue for Garrett O’Brien, one of two candidates for mayor who didn’t advance in the primary.

“I’d like to consider whether we can marry some of those with the urban village concept,” he said.

He’d move forward using the city’s current comprehensive plan, infill and expansion of urban growth areas “without over-reliance” on sprawl, and continued development of the city’s urban villages, “where all neighbors have a place that they can walk.”

Among the mayor’s primary duties are preparing an annual budget and hiring department heads — the city will be looking to name a parks and recreation director, fire chief and director of public works.

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Bellingham mayoral candidate Seth Fleetwood, center, with supporters on election night at the Boundary Bay Beer Garden in Bellingham Aug. 6. Paul Conrad For The Bellingham Herald

Support of former mayors

“Your local firefighters endorsed Seth based on his vast civic-minded work experience and his history of collaborative leadership,” said Dave Pethick, vice president of the firefighters union.

“Our city is growing and with that growth comes challenges. He is the candidate that will help find solutions to our public safety needs; ensuring that we have the staffing and equipment to keep Bellingham citizens safe,” Pethick said.

His other endorsements for mayor include the Bellingham Police Guild, the Sierra Club, the 42nd District Democrats and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville — as well as former mayors Dan Pike, Mark Asmundson and Ken Hertz.

Fleetwood said his management reflects a democratic style.

“The mayor should be a leader and you hire qualified and competent managers,” Fleetwood said. “You’re in lots of meetings on a range of different subject matters. I always try to be thoughtful; I try to be respectful of expertise. I ask lots of questions and I always try to coalesce different viewpoints.”

To balance his desk work, Fleetwood is an avid mountaineer and has climbed all of Washington’s volcanoes — including Baker and Rainier.

And next year will be his 30th time competing in Whatcom County’s iconic Ski to Sea race.

“I do the cross country ski leg. That’s the first leg of the race,” he said.

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Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.