Politics Blog

Top 10 Whatcom political stories of 2013

What a year it was for politics in Whatcom County.

Count it as a good year if you're left of center. Progressives reasserted their majority status in the county, as two liberal newcomers ousted two conservative incumbents on the County Council to tip the political balance of that body.

The state agency that administers environmental regulations -- now with a new, global-warming conscious boss in Gov. Jay Inslee -- put coal-terminal advocates on their heels with an announcement that it will require a sweeping review of the terminal proposal at Cherry Point, to include the climate-change impact of burning the fossil fuel in Asia.

These two issues go hand-in-hand and got national media attention, making them easy picks for Nos. 1 and 2 on the Politics Blog list of Top 10 political stories for 2013. The full countdown is below.

This list was created by Ralph Schwartz, having reviewed all the headlines written for The Bellingham Herald in 2013 by him and John Stark. They are ranked in order of significance based on a number of subjective factors, including the amount of heat/controversy the stories generated. Please add or subtract from this list as you please in the comments below.

And Merry Christmas, to those of you who celebrate or otherwise acknowledge the holiday. I hope everyone has a great day.

Top 10 Political Stories of 2013:

10) Battle of the state senators

The raspberry cart was most definitely upset when Republicans announced just before the start of 2013 that they had gained control of the state Senate, with the help of two turncoat Democrats.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, who represents southwest Whatcom County and south Bellingham, lost his chairmanship on the important energy committee. He took a minority-leadership role in the committee, which was chaired by Whatcom's other senator, Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale. Ericksen and Ranker talked about cooperation but ended the sessions on unfriendly terms politically. The senators had two signature achievements in the committee in 2013: (1) One bill streamlined the Model Toxics Control Act to make funding more readily available to projects such as the cleanup at the Bellingham waterfront. (2) The committee ironed out a bill introduced by the governor that created a climate change work group. Its job was to come up with a plan for implementing the state's carbon reduction goals.

9) Nooksack disenfranchisement

Since December 2012, Nooksack tribal Chairman Bob Kelly and his supporters have been trying to remove tribal status from 306 members who claim Annie George as an ancestor. The chairman's faction says George wasn't on a 1942 census used to prove lineage.

The group threatened with expulsion from the 2,000-member tribe based in Deming have challenged the disenrollment in tribal court, which has served to delay the expulsions. Few real victories have been won in court by "the Nooksack 306."

According to the group's Facebook page, four members have been expelled already.

8) Slaughterhouse rules

What appeared to the disinterested observer as a mundane policy change turned out to be anything but. New rules to allow slaughterhouses on land zoned for agriculture passed in September after going through multiple permutations for more than a year. (For one thing, the more popularly understood "slaughterhouse" was changed mid-stream to the more obscure but technically correct "packinghouse.")

Opponents to slaughterhouses were forceful in their language, accusing county officials of "fraud" and "crimes" for ignoring the "environmental disaster" that would ensue if slaughterhouses were allowed on ag land. Proponents have said the state has a good handle on regulating the waste that comes from these facilities. They've also said there won't be much demand to set up ag-slaughterhouses anyway.

Expect this issue to rear its decapitated head in 2014. Citizens filed a petition against the new ordinance last month, and one dissenter on the council, Ken Mann, has said he would like to bring the issue up again.

7) Reconveyance

Leave it to Whatcom to have a 12-letter word resonate so strongly in political circles. This complex land transfer between the state and the county had a simple bottom line for proponents and opponents alike: Some 8,844 acres devoted to timber harvesting would be converted to a park. This was championed by recreationists and challenged before a state board by foresters, who argued the county was not properly protecting their industry. The timber industry's petition was quickly denied; the state board said it didn't have jurisdiction.

6) Legalize it / Don't criticize it

Bellingham turned out to be pot-friendly after all, but it didn't look that way at first to those who would like to see a smooth transition from criminality to legality for the smokeable, mind-altering plant. The city initially threw down a gauntlet, enacting a 6-month moratorium on marijuana businesses with no notice to the public. Afterward, the council acted swiftly to allow all three types of pot businesses within the city limits -- growers, processors and retailers.

5) Yes, jail in Ferndale

After years of fits and stumbles, the county finally landed on a property it liked for a new jail. Council voted last month to buy 39 acres in Ferndale for the facility, which initially will have 521 beds, with room to expand.

Jail opponents approached from two fronts: the neighbors challenged the proposal for the undesired impact it would have on their community -- everything from eyesore to property-value poison to bail-bondsman magnet.

Another group, whose comments could be found along with those of neighbors on the No Jail in Ferndale Facebook page, wielded a much larger cudgel. This group opposed the jail on the grounds that it perpetuated the disgraceful "prison industrial complex" that grows as we speak in this country.

County officials say the current jail -- actually a courthouse lock-up and the work center on Division Street -- can't hold all the inmates it needs to, and the courthouse facility was poorly constructed and is a safety and security risk.

4) On the waterfront

Most years, this could be No. 1. Along with the jail and the reconveyance, the waterfront redevelopment plan lede reads, "After years of struggle, officials finally approved..."

Among other things, the new waterfront land-use regulations provide for commercial, residential and office development of land that had previously been zoned for heavy industrial use, as the former home of the Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue mill. The new plan keeps significant acreage in place for industrial uses, and envisions new public access points for recreation.

Critics were in full voice right up to the bitter end. They called for better environmental protections and livable-wage jobs. The latter never got any traction among decision makers. In response to environmental concerns, officials said what is planned is an improvement over what that site has seen over the past century.

3) Is there enough water for everybody?

This one's on the chart with a bullet and the early favorite for No. 1 in 2014.

The tribes want enough water in the Nooksack River for salmon. Berry farmers want enough to irrigate their crops. Cities need it for their residents, and rural dwellers need what they can get out of their wells.

Some farmers are using more than they have a right to, and rural wells have never been checked for proper water rights ever since restrictions to water-taking were placed on certain basins with critical salmon habitat.

This issue could be resolved by the state Supreme Court in a few years; a preliminary hearing in Appeals Court is expected early next year on a county appeal of a state order imposing strict rules on wells.

Meanwhile, a planning group (the so-called "planning unit") with the participation of most of the interested parties has gotten back to work trying to sort out the demand vs. supply question.

2) One word: coal

It will be years before the county receives any permit applications for a coal-export terminal at Cherry Point, but political awareness and action on the proposal ramped up from an already high level this year. After a public comment period on "scoping" for the proposal ended early this year, the Department of Ecology announced just how broad the scope of the environmental review will be. While the state's review will be far-reaching, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers disappointed environmentalists by sticking to the letter of clean water law, announcing it will review local impacts only.

1) Whatcom wins (if you're progressive, that is)

The four county council races got unprecedented media attention (The National Journal, MSNBC, Mother Jones, etc.) and attracted an unprecedented amount of campaign money -- $1.057 million in independent expenditures and donations to candidates. 

According to the wider media, and the campaign fliers of the Democrats and Washington Conservation Voters, nothing less than the future of the global environment was at stake. That remains to be seen; in the meantime, a lot of smaller issues -- but issues vital to the day-to-day life of Whatcom County -- will come before the council much sooner.

Look for them in a Top 10 list for 2014.

Honorable mentions (no particular order):

-- New agreement keeps Whatcom Medic One unified but also in financial straits

-- Lummi Nation and city of Ferndale fail to reach agreement, likely delaying major development on Slater Road

-- The county council at first supports, then gets cold feet over a stormwater project that is essential to getting a new Costco built in Bellingham. This could be resolved by the end of January 2014.

-- Whatcom Democrats approve a resolution calling for no new development on Cherry Point, in a show of allegiance with Lummi Nation. Party leaders later distance themselves from the resolution, which county Republicans use as political-flier fodder.

-- Ferndale responds to citywide criticism of bad-tasting or appliance-fouling well water, approves $2 million softening system

-- State orders Bellingham and county to drastically reduce phosphorus pollution (a byproduct of development) in Lake Whatcom. County responds by requiring no net phosphorus release from new developments. Much more will be needed.

-- The GMO labeling initiative could easily make a state Top 10 list. It's a candidate in Whatcom because of the intense interest the initiative drew here. (For instance, Bellingham is home of the Non-GMO Project.) The initiative lost in a close race statewide but got 53.5 percent approval in Whatcom.