The Gristle

Gut Check
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GUT CHECK: “To the winners go the spoils,” Sam Crawford observed, after a rightward lurch in election results in 2009 allowed him—as council president and in control of their process and procedures—to pack the planning commission and other county appointments into an echo chamber of likeminded fellow travelers. But he was right, though; and it is with a small irony County Council in a new majority chose to replace Crawford himself, who resigned his position last month, with Satpal Sidhu.

All of the candidates council considered were excellent in their own ways, and Sidhu surely ranks as perhaps the most gifted in the most diverse ways—a farmer, an educator, accomplished business leader and genial representative of a large and underrepresented agricultural community in the north county. As the Gristle noted last week, county government is, by constitution and character, focused on rural issues and conservative in flavor. We’ve no doubt Satpal Sidhu will complement both.

Reactionaries met the appointment with the expected levels of rancor and churlishness, but—frankly—their choice, former Council member Kathy Kershner, failed to present her credentials to the council in person and sent to represent her in her place (in a poorly considered strategy) the spouse and in-law of two of the most vocal members of the Charter Review Commission currently trying to bludgeon the county’s governing documents into a shape that delivers permanent advantage to their political views. It was hardly an appeal to a broad base of interests, or reassurance that the long, angry cold war of county reactionaries might end.

The appointment does confer an incumbent’s edge to a candidate who may ask voters to ratify the temporary assignment into a full term on council in elections next fall; and this weighed on some Council members as they considered their selection.

“Any candidate that will make an ironclad pledge to not run for the 2015 District 2 County Council seat will have my strong preference,” Ken Mann noted in an email. Barbara Brenner similarly found that assurance compelling.

Only one of the three applicants, social justice advocate Jim Cozad, would make that pledge. Brenner honored that in her support of him.

Emerging from a decade of fairly static reelections of incumbents, November promises a moment of fine ferment—with new faces vying for positions on Whatcom County and her cities’ councils. The departures of veterans like Sam Crawford and Pete Kremen, each representing robust, mature constituencies, may draw heavy competition for their replacement—particularly Crawford, widely viewed as the last diehard conservative on the council. Jack Weiss similarly departs, leaving a gaping hole for an analytic representative for issues he’s championed on Bellingham City Council. Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen has applied for a lateral move to election to the Port of Bellingham’s board of commissioners, inviting brisk competition for his replacement.

With such ferment, the Gristle predicts a healthy turnout for November, good participation in our democracy.

Curious, then, the effort by the county to rush certain critical (and costly) issues to an August primary. This year, similar to last, the primary arrives very early in August; and this year, similar to last, there may be few things on that ballot—ingredients for low participation and turnout.

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws and Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo and their staffs met with Bellingham City Council in the mayor’s boardroom last week to advise city leaders on the status of the county’s jail initiative. City Council continued their discussion of issues in regular session this week.

“Here we get to the point where we all must take a deep breath,” Louws admitted, characterizing it as as a gut check. “The project cost for the new jail is $98 million.” Costs associated with demolishing the old jail and expenses related to the transfer and housing of inmates could increase the cost to $104 million.

“That’s the portion that we’re asking the cities to participate in to make this happen,” the executive explained. The addition of Sheriff’s facilities and ancillary costs are an additional $18 million the county can absorb without sales tax increase, he said.

“The operating costs of this facility over the next 30 years is going to be six or seven, possibly eight times more than the $100 million we’re going to pay to get it built,” Louws said, arguing for an increase in sales tax as a funding source.

The county plans for a $122 million bond based on sales tax to go on the ballot in August. Unlike a property tax increase that requires 60 percent voter approval, a sales tax increase can pass by simple majority of county voters. Whatcom’s cities must also agree they’ll contribute their portion of the sales taxes increase to the effort.

“It’s as much a political decision as it is a financial decision,” Louws admitted, noting there is tension in the community about the scale and scope of the project.

Cautioning against rising or lost opportunity costs for construction, Louws advised the council, “Our rough math shows that every month we wait costs us about $480,000.

“Time is money,” he said. “If we wait until November we’re going to lose three months worth of income next year because we will begin collecting it three months later, and that’s about $600,000 per month. Because this project is increasing in costs at about $480,000 per month and our absolute need of hitting the 2017 construction season, we’re hoping for that August ballot measure.”

It’s a vital issue. It’s a costly and complicated and contentious issue. But it deserves a maximum number of eyes and democratic action in support of it.

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Past Columns

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March 10, 2015

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February 10, 2015

ACES AND AUGHTS: Lummi Nation appears to have delivered a staggering, if not fatal blow to the proposed coal export pier at Cherry Point in their letter to the U.S.… more »

February 3, 2015

SAM ON THE LAM: Sam Crawford stunned listeners at the end of Whatcom County Council’s evening session last week, announcing he will resign from the council effective March 1. In… more »

January 27, 2015

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January 6, 2015

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