When elder statesman Pete Kremen announced in March he would not seek re-election to the Whatcom County Council after 31 years in public office, political observers expected the open seat to attract several candidates.
Sure enough, Kremen’s spot as a representative of south Bellingham and the south county drew four aspirants, who must be whittled down to two in the August primary.
The candidates — Bruce Ayers, Todd Donovan, Theresa Sygitowicz and Emily Weaver — reflect political diversity from council District 1, which on the whole is the county’s most progressive district.
Only residents in District 1 will vote in the Aug. 4 primary. The top two vote-getters advance to the countywide ballot in the Nov. 3 general election.
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Rural conservatives in the county have defined this year’s political conversation, mainly through the work of the Charter Review Commission. The commission’s signature achievement was to place on the November ballot an amendment that would change the way the County Council is elected.
Conservatives want to switch to district-only voting for council to boost rural representation on the county’s legislative body. They are responding to the 2013 elections, in which progressives swept all four council seats on that ballot, riding anti-coal terminal sentiment and a strong turnout by liberal voters who are largely based in Bellingham.
The Bellingham Herald sent the primary-election candidates questions that can be seen as litmus tests of their place on the political spectrum. With “urban vs. rural” partially defining the debate in Whatcom County this year, at least among some conservatives, the council candidates were asked to weigh in on district-only voting and how much development to allow in rural areas.
Sygitowicz, 65, ran for the same seat in the 2010 special election but didn’t make it out of the primary. She expressed an interest then in protecting the property rights of rural residents, and she continues to stand for that now. Sygitowicz is supported, along with Ayers, by the Whatcom County Republican Party.
Rural development in the county has been controversial, and disputes have come before state hearings boards and judges. Environmentalists claim that a proliferation of rural residences in Whatcom County, and the accompanying wells, are jeopardizing stream levels in the Nooksack River and its tributaries. A state rule restricts water use in the Nooksack basin to protect flow levels for the benefit of salmon and other wildlife.
“Rural property is key to any water policy of the future, including those of conservation and quality,” Sygitowicz said. “It is important that all stakeholders be included.”
One of her goals, she said, is “to end ‘closed-door’ meetings between the County Council and special interest groups,” by which she means the environmentalists who are now in court against Whatcom County over rural growth.
As for district-only voting, Sygitowicz said it isn’t as important to rural interests as getting out the vote. If the council now is over-represented by liberal interests centered in Bellingham, that hasn’t always been the case, said Sygitowicz, who has lived in the county all her life.
“I remember when just the opposite was true,” she said.
If Sygitowicz is this race’s rural candidate, Emily Weaver is the throwback candidate. Weaver, 61, seeks her second term on the council, having served from 1988-91. In the 1991 election, Weaver, who was Emily Jackson at the time, was one of six candidates to oppose incumbent Shirley Van Zanten for county executive. Weaver came in third in the primary.
Weaver is skeptical of a proposal from progressives to redistrict the county and draw up five districts instead of the current three.
“If we spent more time getting people to understand the issues and get out to vote, and less time trying to ‘change the rules,’ we would be more effective legislators,” Weaver said.
When it comes to rural growth, Weaver emphasizes farmland as an essential part of Whatcom’s economy.
“Investment in (preserving) land is really hard in an area that is highly desired as a new home for many newcomers,” Weaver said. “We are just now realizing that our Pacific Northwest climate, and rainwater and ground water resources, may even have more pressure going forward.”
With an address on Bellingham’s Samish Hill, Ayers, 64, is the county Republicans’ urban candidate. He served on the Bellingham City Council in the 1990s and managed Sheriff Bill Elfo’s 2011 campaign.
A political veteran, Ayers is well versed in the district-only debate and the questions around rural growth.
Ayers supports district-only voting and doesn’t buy into the urban-against-rural storyline.
“The issue of fair and equitable County Council representation is not a rural vs. urban issue,” he said. “We have a diverse county with large and small cities, and a large unincorporated community. It is important that all of our citizens are represented on the County Council.”
Ayers said government can do more to protect the environment in rural areas by refraining from doing more.
“Adding more government regulations and restrictions on top of existing regulations and restrictions is not always the best way to protect our water quality or quantity,” he said. “Individual land owners can be the best stewards of the land, if allowed to do so, in collaboration and cooperation with government agencies.”
Western Washington University political science professor Donovan, 52, has said it is a point of pride for him that his students can’t tell whether he’s liberal or conservative. As a member of this year’s Charter Review Commission, Donovan was among the less strident partisans, but he generally sided with the progressives.
He unsuccessfully sponsored a charter amendment that would have created five districts in the county. The proposal was later taken up by the environmentalist group RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and placed on the November ballot by the majority-progressive County Council.
Regarding rural growth, Donovan disputed the claim by property-rights advocates that stricter zoning rules in rural areas are unfair to property owners who had invested in their land and its potential for adding a store or homes.
This belief has led the Whatcom council in more conservative years to resist orders from the state to comply with the law by doing more to limit rural growth.
“County councils have complicated this by granting or proposing ... inappropriate densities in places where such densities were not legally defensible,” Donovan said. “Rather than establishing certainty by adjusting policies to comply with state law, we have had councils drag the process out for years.”
Monday: The Bellingham Herald looks more closely at the four candidates’ positions on the jail proposal, and gives them a chance to highlight their own priorities.