Iris Maute-Gibson, applicant to the City Council seat vacated by Cathy Lehman, started out our interview on the right foot – she brought annotated maps. “The 3rd ward includes nine neighborhoods, more than any other ward in Bellingham.” She notes the ward map on the city website was not drawn to scale so she had to recreate the route, street by street.
A slew of potential council members have applied to the vacant position, and the council will make their decision at the Dec 15th meeting. I am going to try and interview as many potential council-members before then as possible. Yesterday, I sat down with Iris Maute-Gibson.
Iris Maute-Gibson for City Council
Our mutual love of maps aside, Maute-Gibson is quite serious about making a difference on the city council. “When we engage in the local level government, we have the power to make life a little better for the people in our community. We can support wraparound services, support our nonprofit community, ensure access to affordable healthcare, living wage jobs and keep our environment free from toxins.”
Lofty goals, but Maute-Gibson remains undeterred. “Council can tackle these issues by engaging the community and using a transparent process.”
Why the city council in particular? Maute-Gibson sees it as an opportunity to bring more people, specifically young people, into the process of shaping their community. “As a city council, we have the opportunity to make people feel at home, to provide a quality of life and sense of place for Bellingham . . . and to help people take responsibility for that sense of place.”
She sees the council as missing a key perspective that is needed in our city. “42% of Bellingham is between the ages of 18-35 and there are zero people on the council representing that age group. Moreover, there are several issues that particularly affect people in our age group that are not well-represented.” She rattled off a laundry list including renters disputes, dealing with high-levels of debt and supporting businesses that provide living-wage jobs.
Maute-Gibson hosts “Coffee and Conversation”
Addressing her own age, she disputes the notion that her generation does not have the experience for public office. “Coming of age during the largest recession in almost a century – we have already faced some steep challenges, but our generation brings the progressive values of inclusion and a belief that we can change our community for the better.”
More directly, she sees this role on the council as a tool for change. “I’ve devoted my professional and personal career to getting to this place (council) to make a positive difference. This is not a stepping stone, nor a wild-haired idea, this is where I want to be.”
What are her key issues as a candidate? Maute-Gibson elaborates on supporting a “sense of place” for Bellingham but also the need to protect our environment. “I volunteer on the Lake Whatcom Watersheed Board because we need to do more than just protect our drinking water, we need to protect our areas of natural habitat and strengthening the biodiversity in our city.”
As a former board member of the Whatcom chapter of the Washington Conservation Voters, she sees this as a key issue for the future of our city. “We can do this by increasing the incentives for conservation.”
Buttressing this is her belief in supporting businesses that promote the values of our community. “We need more Blue/Green partnerships – more projects that support the triple bottom line of people, planet and profits.”
What does that mean when it comes to the waterfront? Maute-Gibson believes in a need to be very selective about the sort of developers that we involve in this project. “We need to maintain the environmental connectivity along the GP site.” She would work to include the voices of the whole community, especially the Lummi nation which has not played a large part in the discussion so far.
Iris with her partner, Rifka and dog, Scooter
Speaking to the waterfront development process so far, Maute-Gibson cites difficulties facing the current council. “When I have spoken with members of the city council, most share a feeling of frustration with the end result not being what they worked for. However we need to still continue to vocalize and fight for our values.” She carries this passion on a broader scale, “You can’t give up on an issue just because we won’t have an opportunity to weigh in!”
Turning to the issue of the day, landlord licensing, Maute-Gibson sees this as an opportunity to “lessen the burden on our overworked and underfunded non-profit community.” Currently, Maute-Gibson works for the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center as their Development and Outreach Coordinator. When landlords and tenants cross swords (figuratively) many of them end up at the Dispute Resolution Center.
“Obviously, we need safe and affordable housing for everyone, and part of making that happen means implementing a strong rental registration program.” She believes this will increase engagement from renters. “When your community shows that it cares about your home and safety, then you are going to act more responsibly towards your property and your city.”
There are benefits to the property owners as well. “Landlords should want to own property in neighborhoods that increase in value and when all the rentals in your neighborhood are maintained and taken care of, that increases your property values.” She notes we need to be a leader on this issue for the state. “Bellingham has almost 10% more renter occupied homes than Washington as a whole. We have a unique demographic and that means we get to be a leader on this issue.”
Part of the reason I decided to interview Maute-Gibson first was she has been the most aggressive in publicly campaigning for the appointment. Traditionally, an appointment involves intense closed-door discussions – the traditional smoky backrooms of political legend (or four years go, for the County Council). Maute-Gibson has run a very public campaign for this office, holding weekly “Coffee and Conversation” meetings with the public about the affairs of the day and launching a website and facebook presence.
Maute-Gibson doesn’t blame the council for the process. “Councilmembers have done everything possible on a personal level to get the word out about this position. I am disappointed that the local media hasn’t contributed to that effort. I’m hopeful that by being as transparent as possible about my interest in the position, it would encourage other applicants to be out there too.”
Well, consider this local media outlet having kicked off the effort. As I mentioned, I am trying to schedule more interviews in the weeks to come and will be attending the Dec. 15th council meeting.