By Meg Olson
The proposal to increase the sales tax to generate funds for a new jail in Whatcom County emerged as the top issue at the Point Roberts Registered Voters Association’s candidates’ forum, to the surprise and vexation of some in the audience who wanted to focus on local events.
The 10 candidates on the stage for the October 8 event included: county executive candidates Jack Louws and Joy Gilfilen; county council candidates Todd Donovan and Bruce Ayers (District 1), Satpal Sidhu and Kathy Kershner (District 2), and Barbara Brenner (District 3); Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo and Port of Bellingham commissioner candidates Bobby Briscoe and Gary Jensen.
Everyone but Gilfilen expressed strong support for the new jail. “I wouldn’t put my worst enemy in a place like that,” Brenner said of the old jail.
Elfo, sheriff for 12 years, said he had seen reports going back before he became sheriff that the jail was inadequate, inefficient and not meeting the needs of staff or inmates. “We have counselors whispering through a chow hatch in a door,” Elfo said. “The jail was designed for 128 and it’s held 321.”
The top local issue was the proposed AM radio tower array, which recently lost its latest bid for approval in Skagit County Superior Court, and the county’s responsibility to pay for effective legal counsel in future appeals. “Will you use the full resources of the county to pursue this?” John Lesow asked.
Whatcom County planning and development staff had initially recommended approval of the towers to the county hearing examiner, but the Cross Border Coalition to Stop the Towers hired their own legal representation. The coalition’s lawyer’s argument that the towers did not meet zoning height restrictions, which contained no exception for radio towers led to the hearing examiner’s denial of the project’s application. That decision was later upheld by Whatcom County Council and most recently the Skagit County Superior Court. The coalition paid for their own lawyer in each of those cases, and has spent about $200,000 in donations.
“It’s very obvious planning and development services (PDS) erred,” Louws said, adding that the county had brought their own legal staff on board defending the hearing examiner’s decision. “Whatcom County will continue to pursue its interest in this case, which is that decision.”
Arthur Reber pointed out that with the failure of PDS to adequately review the project, the community had no choice but to secure their own legal counsel and point out their error to the hearing examiner. “The prosecuting attorney stood up and said ‘I have no dog in this fight,’” Reber said, and even in defending the hearing examiner’s decision in subsequent appeals, Reber described the attorney’s efforts as lackluster.
“The well is dry. We’ve squeezed every dime we can out of the people of Point Roberts and Tsawwassen,” Reber said.
Louws said the decision was up to the prosecuting attorney, but he and other candidates said they would support the idea.
Reber also brought up the issue of the dock at Lighthouse Marine Park. “It was supposed to last for years and it lasted one month,” he said.
“It appears the engineers were supposed to design for an 8.5-foot wave and that wasn’t done,” Louws said. “Right now we’re working with our legal department.”
Reber said other projects at the park are also languishing, such as maintaining the usability of the boat launch by not letting it get graveled over, and replacing sections of the boardwalk. “That never happened,” he said.
Louws said he was constrained by the capital budget, adding, “I’m not happy.”
The recent enforcement of the county’s leash law didn’t come up until the end of the meeting. “I want to know about a deputy’s discretion,” said Mark Robbins, chair of the local parks board. “The law is the law and it’s a good law if there’s a problem. Was there?”
Elfo confirmed the deputies did have the discretion to issue citations or not given the situation. “In this case, we’ve had complaints,” he said. “We enforce the law but we’ll see if there are changes needed.”
“Give yourselves a round of applause,” Jack Louws told the audience regarding a recent Superior Court decision to uphold the denial of BBC Broadcasting’s application to build a tower farm. “Our planning and development department would like to do that over again. We got off to a rocky start but the decision has now been made.”
“We spend an enormous amount of money on law and justice,” Joy Gilfilen said, “Which means the rest of the county gets very little.” Gilfilen said she would not support the new jail, and would “rebuild the county from the ground up.”
“Water quality is an issue I’m passionate about,” said Todd Donovan. “I’m excited about the future of the economy. In 1991, the number one employer in Bellingham was Georgia Pacific. Now it’s software companies.”
Originally from the Winthrop area, Bruce Ayers said he would fight for more local control for the unincorporated areas and small cities. “Once you’re small town, you’re always small town,” he said.
“I bring a voice of diversity to the council: educator, businessman, farmer,” said incumbent Satpal Sidhu, an engineer and founder of his own solar company, a former dean of Bellingham Technical College who hails from a family involved in agriculture. Sidhu was appointed to his seat on county council in 2015 to replace Sam Crawford, who retired.
“You want someone who is a good steward of your tax dollars,” said Kathy Kershner. Kershner served on county council from 2010 to 2014 until Barry Buchannan defeated her. She also applied to fill Crawford’s position in 2015, but councilmembers chose Sidhu.
Longtime councilmember Barbara Brenner highlighted her track record as a populist. “I’ve never belonged to any party. I’ve never taken endorsements or money from people,” she said.
Port of Bellingham candidate Bobby Briscoe said, “The first thing the port needs to do is listen” when a community asks for help with economic development. “If you come through the door with a plan we need to discuss it.”
Gary Jensen said the port could only support projects that would be profitable. “They need more marketing for the airport, they need more marketing for you.”