Politics Blog

Top 10 Whatcom political stories of 2014

2014 was a year of transition for the Politics Blog. The blog and The Bellingham Herald lost John Stark to retirement in June. Since then, Samantha Wohlfeil has proven to be a highly capable replacement. She has the three qualities that, for my money, are all a journalist needs: smarts, a love of the job and a willingness to work hard.

Much of what we cover on the blog and for the paper are the sorts of things that unfold slowly, sometimes imperceptibly so: the waterfront redevelopment, the proposed coal terminal. I’m on as much of a learning curve as Sam, I suspect; one thing I came to realize is that blog readers don’t like when only one side of a story is presented. It’s a good thing our hottest-button issues are proceeding at a pace that allows us time to learn and grow.

Overall, it was a good year for the blog. For the most part, we asserted our position above the fray, as clear-eyed observers and reporters of the lively and messy political scene in Bellingham and Whatcom County. Stay tuned in 2015 for more — and better — of the same. —RS

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As Ralph noted, 2014 marked the end of the political reporting career of our respected colleague John Stark. (In case you’re wondering, he took off to one of Forbes’ 25 best places to retire.)

With Stark stepping down, I came onto the scene in June, and I was lucky enough to witness what turned out to be an exciting year in politics for Whatcom County.

I’ve enjoyed jumping in feet first, (hopefully not making Ralph’s job too hard in the process as I like to bug him and everyone within earshot about the stories I’m working on and reading about), and it’s been great meeting some of our community’s active political players. I look forward to working with you all more in the new year. —SW

Without further ado, these are the Top 10 Political and Politically Charged Stories of 2014, in no particular order:

Moving boxes, lobbyist meals: If you didn’t hear about the state Senate race between Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen and Democrat Seth Fleetwood, you probably don’t live in the 42nd District, watch cable, listen to local radio, or go on Facebook.

While Republicans Luanne Van Werven and Rep. Vincent Buys also came out victorious in their contests, the race between Ericksen and Fleetwood garnered special attention from outside interests as Democrats hoped to regain control of the state Senate.

Money poured in for both candidates, with totals topping $1.7 million between the two by election day. Ericksen came out on top with a nearly 18-point win.

Those readers who live in the 42nd were hammered with mailers, receiving a fat stack of glossy cards. Their targeted messages included interpretations of the candidates (think a Tom-Steyer’s-pocket-sized Seth in sunglasses and a tuxedoed Doug serving up a tray of oil trains and toxic toys). Fleetwood supporters touted Ericksen’s frequent dinner dates with lobbyists, while Ericksen supporters flaunted Fleetwood’s move into the district to run in the race and support from environmental billionaire Steyer.

Time for a meaningless but fun contest!

I’ve still got the lot (you mean you all just recycled your fliers as soon as you got them in the mail???), so for some end of the year fun, I decided to weigh the stack just to see how heavy constituents were hit with these messages. Wager a guess for how much the stack in the photo weighs in the comments below and I’ll post the answer Friday. -Sam

Waterfront cleanup, development: In February, the Port of Bellingham picked up negotiations with Irish development group Harcourt Developments, to hash out plans for the first portion of the former Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue site along the waterfront, which includes the Granary Building.

The talks are still ongoing, but Port Executive Director Rob Fix said a final plan for the first portion could come before the Port by Jan. 20, 2015.

The port also selected a cleanup plan for the first half of the old G-P site, and authorized beginning design work for the northern 31-acre parcel to start in 2015.

Other cleanup projects by the port and city of Bellingham continued to slog through the investigative and planning processes, and could start to see cleanup or interim work next year or in 2016. Some of those sites include the I&J Waterway, Cornwall Avenue Landfill, and RG Haley.

Farmers’ water: 2014 promised to be the year the county’s water-rights conflicts would get a lot of headlines. That did come to pass, although nothing much moved on the water front —except for rising public awareness of a certain reality: Not everyone’s use of water in the county is secure.

That especially holds true for farmers, many of whom are irrigating with inadequate water rights, or no water rights at all. There promises to be an accounting of exactly how much water everyone has to use, once the federal courts follow through with a request from Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe to quantify how much water must remain in streams for the benefit of salmon.

Farmers, recognizing their interest in water was vulnerable, took the most important action around this issue in 2014. After elections held in October, farmers established two watershed improvement districts, under the state’s irrigation-district law. Newly elected district boards will have the authority to levy assessments from farmers, to spend on projects that could secure more water for farmers. The four north-county districts will begin their work in earnest in 2015.

PeaceHealth taxed: Bellingham City Council voted 4-3 to end a religious tax exemption written into city code that did not impose business and occupations tax on PeaceHealth, the nonprofit Catholic-affiliated healthcare system that provides hospital services to the city and county.

Despite outcry from many hospital employees and opposition from Mayor Kelli Linville, the council eliminated the exemption.

About 70 percent of the hospital’s revenue is already not taxable under state law as it comes from federal payments by Medicare or Medicaid.

Starting in January, the health care giant will pay about $1.2 million annually in taxes due to the change.

Rental regulations: After taking up the issue repeatedly for more than a decade, Bellingham’s Council passed a rental registration and inspection program for the first time.

City planners are still working out the details, such as the cost to register rental units, how much inspections will cost and who will be able to conduct them, how often those inspections might take place, as well as what type of incentive will be offered for owners who are doing a good job.

City staff members have said they will present council members with those details before they make their third and final vote on the rental safety ordinance, which is a bit backwards from the typical way ordinances are passed. (At least the way Bellingham City Council does things, usually most discussion takes place before the first and second reading, and the third and final reading is a formality.)

Equal representation: An advocate of diversity in the legal system got the opportunity to exemplify her stated position, after Gov. Jay Inslee in December appointed Raquel Montoya-Lewis as Whatcom County’s fourth Superior Court judge. Montoya-Lewis, a Nooksack tribal judge, will become Whatcom County’s first Native American Superior Court judge when she is sworn in on Jan. 16. Her appointment came just two years after Deborra Garrett became the first woman to be elected to the county’s Superior Court bench.

“I think it’s really important that the state court system reflect the people that it serves,” Montoya-Lewis said on Dec. 15, the day her appointment was announced.

She also emphasized the importance of being unbiased, regardless of background. “I see my role as serving the entire county,” she said.

Out with the (not so) old, in with the new: Bellingham Council President Cathy Lehman, the third ward representative, announced in August she would step down a year early to take an environmental outreach job with the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters.

The somewhat rare move prompted City Council to set the process for replacing a council member in the middle of a term in the books (apparently it’d just been self-regulated previously). Two days after Lehman stepped down, the six remaining members heard from five applicants and selected Dan Hammill to fill her spot.

Bellingham resident for the last 25 years, Hammill served on the Community Development Advisory Board for the last four years, was the program director of the Volunteer Center of Whatcom County for nine years, and co-founded Bellingham/Whatcom Project Homeless Connect in 2009, to name just a few of his local achievements.

Hammill said he intends to run for election to the spot, which is up for grabs in 2015.

Press record: Bellingham Police Department started using body-worn cameras this year. After testing the cameras for the first quarter of 2014, the department announced Aug. 4 it would be handing ‘em out to about half the officers this year and the other half next year.

The announcement came just days before officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking national reaction, some of which included calls for transparency and more body cameras for officers around the country.

While public commenters seemed to be in favor of the Bellingham department using body cameras, they were not okay with the department’s plans to start using Intrado Beware/Address software.

City Council requested the department find something else to spend federal grant money on after the public spoke out during a hearing on the data service, which would have given officers the ability to login and search a database for a slew of safety information.. The system uses a proprietary formula to pull information from public and commercially available records, social media, the Internet and police databases to give officers a threat indication and hard-to-find information on addresses and suspects they are asked to deal with.

The department instead purchased body armor that is resistant to high-caliber rifle rounds.

Museum piece: Initiative 594, which passed in November and requires background checks on all gun exchanges in the state, seemingly targeted an innocent bystander when the Lynden Pioneer Museum said it would pull the guns from a World War II display. The museum’s board, and attorney, decided that would be the safer course after finding no exemption in the initiative for museums that borrow weapons from collectors for an exhibit.

The “gun-control law meets small-town museum” story had legs, getting the attention of Seattle television stations and Fox News, which posted the story on its blog under the label “outrageous.”

The media attention reached a pawn-shop owner in Bonney Lake, who offered to take care of the background-check paperwork for the museum. The display was salvaged, minus the weapons belonging to people who didn’t want to get involved in the paperwork.

Wags the dog: Discontent over a long-standing, long-unopposed Republican county prosecutor developed into perhaps the most unusual election in the state. Incumbent backlash led progressives to throw their support behind a nine-month-old Tibetan terrier named Nyima. Campaign manager and owner Frank James, and other Nyima supporters, approached the campaign with all the levity it deserved, but behind the running gag appeared to be a genuine concern for a democratic process that critics said was undermined by decades of uncontested races for prosecutor.

The Nyima sound bite that gained currency during the run-up to the Aug. 5 primary summed it up: “Running unopposed is just wrong in a democracy. There should be choices for all those that vote.”

Prosecutor David McEachran, having no one against him on the ballot, won his 11th term. Write-ins, however, got 5 percent of the primary vote. Assuming even 20 percent of those were for Nyima, which would have qualified him for the November ballot, the write-ins weren’t counted because Nyima didn’t qualify for the job. Turns out you need to have a license to practice law in Washington to be prosecutor.