If you stuck a pin in Whatcom County and balanced it on its political center, you would probably be poking somewhere near “Gary Jensen”. The two-term, outgoing mayor of Ferndale has cut a quite a square of political turf for himself in this county. The former plumber turned politician identifies as a Democrat, endorses local Republicans and federal Democrats, was heavily recruited to run against Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-Free Lunch) and now is running for Port Commissioner. Oh, and he brought a chart to the interview.
Mayor Gary Jensen
“This shows our solid waste in Ferndale for 2014,” he says, showing me a downward sloping line graph. “It’s good, people are throwing out less stuff.” Small changes that add up to a bigger impact is a key part of how he sees the role of government.
“So many of the decisions that I make on the local level aren’t partisan. I’ve raised taxes and spent money. Yeah, I’m guilty of that. But I’ve built a police station and a library. So some of the stuff we do is pretty cool.”
After eight years as Mayor, why the shift to Port Commission? “If you look at indirect jobs, they touch more jobs than anybody In Whatcom county and I’m not done wanting to serve.” He sees the Port as a avenue for tackling depressed wages and income inequality. “We have to improve income inequality – one way is a good wage and the port has a lot of jobs that do pay well.”
The opportunity to develop the waterfront and create something lasting also appeals to Jensen. “You look there,” He points towards the Bay. “Some day we are going to look at what’s happening a few blocks from here and your kids are going to say – hey that’s a pretty good thing. There’s a proverb, ‘A wise man who plants a tree whose shade he will never enjoy.’ I like that.”
He notes that family considerations played a part in his decision. “It is my own fault for creating a 60 hr per week job (as mayor). I didn’t want to say no to people. I think I’ve attend more meetings than the other mayors do put together.” He smiles, “But I promised my wife to cook dinner for her once and a while, the port isn’t as much time, there are not as many meetings.”
On a scale of one to ridiculous, how ugly is that giant house? Jensen cracks a big laugh. “I actually think it’s kindof cool. My problem is, would you just finish it?”
The house (pictured left) aside from being quite eye-catching in the middle of Ferndale, has been the subject of a bureaucratic tug-a-war between the property owner Artur Rojsza and the mayor’s office with the fines, mediation and threats of lawsuits flying back and forth.
“(Rojcza) will spend 20 minutes describing this brick. He wasn’t making it up, he was ‘feeling the vibration of the worker’. That’s great, but can you use the bricks to finish the house? But then he puts a flag and a cross on the pile of bricks and boom, its a 9/11 memorial. Who would of thought of that?” He gives a grudging smile. “He’s kind of brilliant.”
On to more serious topics, Jensen has been a vocal proponent of the Gateway Pacific Terminal project, is this run for Port a secret, backdoor attempt to install the project? He says that final project may not be as bad as people think. “I didn’t believe they are going to ship coal. Really, you think that Coal is a viable product? By the time the permit is going to go through – people smarter and bigger than you and I are jumping off that product. Even China is realizing they have to burn less. The problem in this community – oh you are a proponent of coal and that’s terrible. No one wants to burn coal! Burning coal is not a good deal!”
Jensen Endorses GPT
But back to the proposal at hand, “Where do (GPT) make the decision that this isn’t a viable proposition. I think that this election will come and go and that project will still be out there. It is zoned for that, people have a right to turn in a permit.” He says that the mitigation might be prohibitively expensive for the project. “If they say you can’t release a speck of dust, there’s no way you can’t do that.”
He says that the future of Cherry Point will be decided down the line. “Your generation is going to have a conversation about what we do at Cherry Point. Some people don’t want it zoned for industrial, some people do.”
He says this constant battle is wearing everyone down. “If we can ever calculate how much money has been spent on either side, on t-shirts alone, do we really want to go through that? Do we want zero things there, or do we need to rezone it?”
Considering the multi-million dollar battle played out in the 42nd district last year and the bloody County Council fight in 2013, I can see where he is coming from. Jensen notes the history of the location.
“It was a marina a long time ago. We used to camping there as a kid, it was a place where you could go crabbing for free. Hopefully we can sit down and have a conversation about where do we want to do there.”
One of the central conflicts for the Port right now is airplane noise. The Port oversees the airport which has expanded their flights in the last ten years thanks to booming Canadian traffic. As a result, some of the locals have complained.
Jensen says on this issue, his hands are somewhat tied. “There’s only certain things we can do since much of that is regulated by the FAA. You have to be aware of flight paths. I used to live right under the path.”
He described the planes coming close enough to make him do a double-take however he does not see it being a long-term problem. “I can’t see that airport being giant, like Seatac, but you always have to listen to people because it does affect them.”
He says a bigger concern are the oil trains. “You don’t realize the impact of an oil train until you are waiting for 15 minutes. This is a pain in the butt! People have to have a voice, and we have to listen to them. You can’t always make people happy but you can never stop trying.”
Gary Jensen being interviewed
Jensen leaves Ferndale without an anointed successor. Council member Cathy Watson has announced her intention to run but no one else has jumped in. Jensen says he probably would not endorse in that race but would work with whoever is elected.
“I would certainly work with them, but I think that I have a good staff – young talented people. When I came into office, the staff was still upset, they weren’t together. Planning and Public Works worked across the hallway from each other but did not talk. Ferndale still has some problems, and my to-do list is way bigger than what I’ve accomplished.”
Jensen’s proudest achievements as mayor? At first he defers, noting that it is never one person that makes something happen, “I don’t think that politicians should self grade their test,” but when pressed gives a few examples. “I’m proud of the Lean movement, that people’s voices are being heard. I’m proud that it is friendlier, that our council works together. If you had a permit in Ferndale, we work with you.”
“The city had worked for 29 years to build a police station. Things like that drive me crazy. I had a committee one time, they spent four meetings on a mission statement. I told them, you haven’t done anything other than argue about the mission statement. You haven’t done anything! Mission statements are important but can we get to doing something?”
He mentions the struggle with the City of Bellingham over locating the new Costco. In the end, Mayor Linville secured the new location with the city limits of Bellingham but Jensen was lobbying hard for them to relocate to Ferndale. “In the end, she smoked me.”
Speaking of local executives, what does Jensen think of Port Executive Rob Fix? “Rob? I’ve been in meetings with him. He’s talented, he’s a numbers guys. I will completely tell you what I think of him when I work beside him.” With that artful dodge, I wrap up the interview with a quick question about football.
What is his take on Ballghazi? “You can’t just bump them out of the Superbowl, but they should lose their draft picks and pay a fine. You couldn’t all of sudden disqualify a team and (Colts Quarterback) Andrew Luck can’t catch up that fast.”
While Andrew Luck may have trouble, Jensen’s luck continues to go strong as he prepares for his first County-wide election for Port. So far, he is the only candidate declared for that seat, but it is early and I will post updates as they happen.