Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Empty Chair at the Water Resource Table

The League of Women Voters hosted an excellent panel this morning.  Five experienced, knowledgeable speakers discussed water resource problems and issues from a variety of perspectives.  The Center for New Media taped the forum, if you missed it (here’s the link). 

Every issue that the panel discussed had to do with the area of the County in which Whatcom County is the sole local general-purpose government – that is, the parts of the County that are not within cities.

There was no representative from Whatcom County.

I do not believe that this reflects a lack of foresight on the part of the League of Women Voters.  Rather, it reflects how far Whatcom County is from playing a leadership role in water issues.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been asking people with various types of involvement in County water issues if they can tell me who the County’s overall water resource experts are.  (When I say “overall,” I mean “outside of Lake Whatcom.”)  The unanimous answer, from folks in all walks of life and with varied involvement in water issues, has been:

This is quite a recent development that reflects several strands of the County's dominant belief system over the past few years – a lack of a grounding in science (We have more salmon than we know what to do with!  There is no water problem!), opposition to the County’s environmental mandate and obligations (The state can't tell us what to do!  Leave water issues to Ecology!), and a sometimes raucously anti-government ideology (Water law is a communist plot to take away property rights!). As the County has increasingly limited its role to development services, its capacity to address natural resource issues has diminished to the point of -- well, to the point of the answer above.

But without dwelling on the past, the question is:  moving forward, should our most important local general purpose government, Whatcom County, take a leadership role in resolving water resource issues? Or at least be an active participant?

The reaction to a resolution proposed by Council Member Carl Weimer, which asks the County and its partners to develop a “water action plan,” will help to provide the answers to these questions. 

Everybody on the water resources panel seemed to think that it’s a good idea.  Perhaps, if other people support it too, the County will develop the capacity that it needs to be part of the solution. 

And then, perhaps, the League of Women Voters will be able to hold a Water Resources Panel that focuses on Whatcom County's intelligent, proactive approach to addressing its water resource challenges.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Whose County Is It, Anyway?

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

All right, Pacific International Terminal, Bill Lyne, Gordon Thomas Honeywell, and all you bigwigs who play in the big leagues.  We get it.  You’re big and important, and Whatcom County is small and insignificant.  We are Hicksville, way up in corner of the state, with hardly any people and no significance to your great big important world. Well, other than the fact that our marine shoreline could support a deepwater port that you need for North America's largest coal export terminal. 

But really.  You’ve seen the movie "Braveheart,” right?  You may see us as the rebels with our faces painted blue, beyond the pale of civilization up here in the far reaches of Puget Sound, but do you really expect us to surrender our County to you without a fight?

Let me repeat a fact that sometimes seems to get lost the discussion:  Pacific International Terminal has proposed to locate North America’s largest export terminal in our County. This is one of the biggest projects in the country.  The entire U.S. of A.  Right here in Whatcom County.

When an enormous project descends on a small community, it is not unusual for the enormous project to take over the small community.  After all, project proponents need to make sure that local concerns don’t get in the way.  They have a lot at stake, and the last thing that they need is for the local yokels to putz about, putting big plans at risk with their petty concerns.  And the big guys have the know-how and the wherewithal to keep the locals out of the gears of the machinery.  Right?   

Well, maybe not.  Not necessarily.  That is, if Hicksville really turns out to be Pretty Smart Community With a Bunch of Active, Interested Citizens.

Last week, County Council Chair Carl Weimer proposed a minor amendment to the County Code.  The Code already states that contracts “entered into by the county” (that means the County Executive) over $10,000 must be reviewed and approved by the County Council.  The Council's approval authority currently excludes “pass-through moneys,” or contracts where an applicant reimburses the County.  The Executive may approve such contracts – even if the contracts are in the millions of dollars – without any Council review.

Mr. Weimer’s amendment simply states that contracts “which involve externally funded pass-through moneys” should be approved by the County Council.   That’s all it does.  It eliminates a loophole in the normal system of checks and balances that provides oversight of large contracts.

Why did this simple amendment result in this splenetic three-page bloviation from the lawyer for Pacific International Terminal, the applicant for the Gateway Pacific coal terminal? 

 Why would PIT, a project applicant, insert itself into a matter that’s strictly local, relating to the process for approving a contract?

If everything is on the up-and-up, why would the applicant care WHO reviews the contract, or HOW MANY people review the contract?  

In short, why is PIT afraid of transparency?

According to an article in the Bellingham Herald, Council member Sam Crawford believes that transparency about PIT’s “pass-through” contract would be harmful because citizens aren’t smart enough to understand the role of contracts.  Oversight of pass-through contracts “could create the false impression that the public will be able to convince the council to halt the process over a small change. ‘I think that's too much and that's unnecessary,’ Crawford said of the proposed change to county law. ‘The public may ultimately end up disappointed.’"

So Mr. Crawford and the coal terminal folks just want to protect us from ourselves, to keep us from being “disappointed.”  That’s one possible explanation.  If you agree that the County needs to act in loco parentis, or in the role of a parent that needs to protect its child-like citizens from information, then this makes sense.  I suppose. If that's how you view the role of government.

A letter that David Stalheim wrote to the County Council last week may provide another explanation.     From the information that’s available in public records, it appears that the "pass through" contract doesn't work.  

The County has not actually billed PIT for much time spent on its application.  The record indicates that no county attorney has reviewed any contracts or other documents, the Finance Department has not billed for any time involved in processing contracts or paying bills, and the Public Works Department – which is responsible for stormwater, water quality, and transportation impacts – has spent less than five hours on North American’s largest coal terminal.

What does that mean?  It could just mean that the County’s not very good about keeping time, and that this record-keeping failure means that we the taxpayers are subsidizing PIT.  That’s not very appealing.  

Or it could mean that the County is just rubber-stamping everything that PIT wants to have done, without actually reviewing it or raising any questions.  That is even less appealing. 

Sunlight, which Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called "the best disinfectant," would reveal whether or not there is a reason for concern.  And sunlight, in the form of public transparency, could not conceivably hurt anyone involved in the contract – assuming that the contract is shipshape, aboveboard, well monitored, and in the public interest.    

So, if you think that it ought to be OK for the public and the County Council to see what’s happening in the contract between PIT and Whatcom County, please write to the County Council and support Council Chair Weimer’s resolution. The Council's e-mail address is

Or attend the Council meeting on Tuesday, February 11th.  The Finance and Administrative Services Committee will consider the proposed amendment at 11:00 (the public may or may not be allowed to speak, but you can at least listen to your policy-makers debate the issue), and open session will start shortly after the meeting begins at 7:00 in the eveningThe agenda is here 

If you think that PIT knows best how our County should be run, then by all means, support PIT.

Either way, we’ll know whose County this is.