Consensus may be hard to come by in Point Roberts, but participants in a recent town hall meeting to gather input on a proposal to suspend the Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC) achieved a solid one. While many of the over 50 participants had ideas about how to improve how the committee works to bridge the gap between the community and the county, they were united in rejecting the idea of shutting it down.
“I think muzzling Point Roberts for a year is not really acceptable,” said Michelle Wallis at the February 10 virtual meeting.
PRCAC scheduled the meeting to gather input from the community in response to a January 27 memorandum from Whatcom County executive Satpal Sidhu. The memorandum suggested PRCAC suspend regular business in 2021 while the community and the county decide how to “improve the committee’s ability to effectively provide advice and recommendations to [Sidhu’s] office and the county council regarding needs and issues specific to the Point Roberts community.”
Some of the suggestions Sidhu made to accomplish this included establishing the legitimacy of the organizations who have a seat on the committee, giving council the role of appointing representatives from those committees to PRCAC and changing how at-large members are appointed.
Wallis acknowledged PRCAC needed some changes to be more representative of the community and effective in communicating with the county, but said shutting the committee down would not be a step toward accomplishing that. “We should have a voice. If he doesn’t like the one we have, we can work to improve it,” Wallis said.
“I think the call to suspend is completely wrong,” said Rhiannon Allen. “The committee has work to do. It’s the official voice that represents us.” Allen said PRCAC was the community’s conduit to weigh in on permit review.
Other participants brought up several areas the committee had been working on – including code changes, wetlands, flooding issues at Maple Beach, economic development and ecological protection – that shouldn’t be shelved.
“PRCAC needs to keep going and not be on hiatus,” said Louise Cassidy. “There are a lot of issues that have been brought up here over the years that still need work.” Cassidy said she supported having a larger committee with four rather than two at-large members, as recently approved by county council, so that subcommittees could be formed to work on specific issues.
There was little support for Sidhu’s suggestion that his office and county council appoint members to the committee but strong support for at least some form of community-wide electoral process. “Informal voting like we have been doing at least gives some community input,” said Jane Donaldson.
Wallis suggested PRCAC members be an actual elected office. “People would feel more represented – heard – by an elected official, and the county couldn’t just wave them away as crazy Point Roberts. We need to make it seem like PRCAC is more than just a club, which has been the impression so far of a lot of people.”
Under Whatcom County Code, there isn’t any mechanism that would allow for a real election to an advisory board. While the state of Washington may mandate certain types of advisory committees and permits others for counties and cities, there is no provision for election of members – they are always appointed by the legislative body overseeing the committee.
Other speakers shared Wallis’ concern that county council members and the county executive were dismissive of PRCAC’s efforts and undermined the committee’s legitimacy by taking up issues with constituents directly and not sharing those dialogues with the committee.
“Listening to county council members speak, it seems like they are getting these emails and people here don’t know anything about it,” Donaldson said. “Could they share the emails they get with PRCAC?”
Bill Zidel suggested the county executive do the same and direct community members to PRCAC with their concerns. “He shouldn’t become a selective ear because it fragments and destroys the whole concept of what we’ve built here.”
One of the goals of making changes to PRCAC, suggested David Lee, needs to be setting up a structure that county council and the executive are strongly supportive of. “They need to be fully on-side and right now they’re not,” he said.
Zidel and several others were in support of Point Roberts pursuing incorporation, and changes to PRCAC should at least reflect that move toward a greater degree of self-governance. “I would like to see us set ourselves up and act more like we are an incorporated city or town,” Cassidy said.
However, under state law, an area needs to have a minimum of 1,500 inhabitants before it can become incorporated as a city. No new towns may be formed; in 1994, the state legislature increased the population required for incorporation from 300 to 1,500 and since a town, by definition, must organize with fewer than 1,500 inhabitants, it is no longer possible to incorporate as a town.
Establishing a system of governance that respected the role of Canadians in the community was also a priority. Sidhu has suggested one PRCAC member be a Canadian resident of the Point, but Donaldson pointed out that did not give a voice to Canadian property owners.
Recent appointees to PRCAC after coming out with the most votes in an informal election, Katherine Smith and Grant Heitman emphasized improving communication with the community and with the county as the top priorities for PRCAC. “I do see there is a communication problem with the county and it’s more than a public relations problem for PRCAC,” Smith said.
“A lot of people don’t know what we do or that we are supposed to be their voice with the county. We need to spread the word that we are their gateway to the county.”
She added that she would like to see the community’s tax dollars at work in the form of a county employee working regular hours on the Point.
Representing the executive’s office, Jed Holmes said, “Executive Sidhu’s proposal was in recognition of the fact you are not being well served. We want to improve that.” Holmes said whether it was a return to the status quo or taking steps to improve the situation, “We are open to all we’re hearing here.”
Ben Elenbaas was the only county council member who attended the town hall. “Whatever you guys want, I’m going to help advocate for. My challenge is I’m not always clear what you guys want,” he said.
Elenbaas acknowledged he hears from community members directly. “I’d like to think I’m getting a representative sample, but I don’t know if that’s happening,” he said.
“With a fully functioning PRCAC, I think it would help me advocate for what you guys need.”