Posted by: sweeneyblog | January 9, 2015

Roxanne Murphy considering a run against Dan Hammill

Councilwoman Roxanne Murphy

Councilwoman Roxanne Murphy

The ink barely dry on his appointment and already new Councilman Dan Hammill has a potential challenger for his seat. Roxanne Murphy, elected to the Bellingham City Council at-large seat in 2013, is considering filing for the Ward 3 position this upcoming year.

Murphy currently lives in the 3rd Ward and winning that race would ensure that she only needs to run once every four years, rather than the rapid two year terms of the At Large seat.

Hammill was appointed, unanimously, to the City Council last month to fill out the remainder of Cathy Lehman’s term which expires this year. He is planning to run for election this year, setting off a potential showdown between Hammill and Murphy.

Murphy confirmed that she is considering the seat switch but has not made a firm decision.

An interesting side effect, this would leave the At Large seat wide open for anyone within the city limits who wishes to run. Let the wild speculation begin!

Posted by: sweeneyblog | January 2, 2015

Time for the 2014 Reader’s Survey

It is 2015 already?!

It is 2015 already?!

Okay, Champagne corks have been popped, top whatever of 2014 lists read, it is time to reset the dynamo and begin 2015.

First, it is time for our 2014 Reader’s Survey! Every year, I solicit feedback from you, my loyal readers, about where I should spend my time and energies for the next year. Last year, your feedback (and financial support) allowed me to provide expanded legislative coverage. So where shall we go in 2015? Click the survey below and help us decide!

2014 Reader’s Survey

 Thank you for all your feedback. This weekend, I will be sharing my 2015 preview and looking ahead to upcoming legislative skirmishes. Stay tuned!

Posted by: sweeneyblog | December 24, 2014

Riley’s Top 5 Whatcom Political Stories in 2014

Ralph Schwartz and Samantha Wohlfeil offered their “Top 10 Whatcom Political Stories” in 2014. Take a gander at their list, they have some good picks.

In a sign of the ever-constricting economics of newsrooms, some of these stories (most notably the City Council vacancy, the newly appointed Justice Montoya-Lewis, and the PeaceHealth tax) only warranted one or two 350-word articles in the Herald, and these were the most important stories of the year. Just to be perfectly clear, Ralph and Samantha do a good job, but with dwindling space for news in our daily paper, they can only do so much.

That said, here is my picks for the top five political news stories of 2014. Obviously, Seth versus Doug captivated everyone but here are some other stories that didn’t make the Herald’s list.

Rep. Jason Overstreet

Rep. Jason Overstreet

1) Rep. Jason Overstreet is pushed out/unexpectedly resigns. Local gold-enthusiast and incumbent legislator Jason Overstreet announced his retirement from public office rather suddenly. His calls for WWU President Bruce Shepard to resign were not well received by the Republican leadership and long-time party activist Luanne Van Werven was tapped to run in his stead.

2) The first retail marijuana store in the state opens in Bellingham. We don’t often get the spotlight but when Top Shelf Marijuana opened at 8am on July 8th, we had a flurry of attention. With only one other store (Seattle) opening on the first legal day of Pot Sales, Bellingham got to bask in a green glow. I was there on the scene reporting on the chaos.

3) PeaceHealth shuts down services to vulnerable seniors, blames Obamacare. When PeaceHealth decided to shut down their Adult Day Health Center they placed the blame on budget woes from the Affordable Care Act – saying that fewer people are seeking expensive hospital treatment since they now have insurance to seek preventative and palliative care earlier in illness. Which is a bad thing? Oh, and the Bellingham branch of PeaceHealth pocketed $39 million in profit in 2012.

Alabama St.

Proposed C-Curb

4) Roosevelt Neighborhood Opposes C-Curb on Alabama StreetHundreds of Roosevelt neighborhood residents rallied at a neighborhood meeting, protested on the city streets and lobbied the city council to keep a C-Curb from blocking most left turns on Alabama Street. In the end, they were partially successful, blocking some of the C-curb from disrupting their neighborhood – although they are still installing one in front of my street.

5) Open Carry Advocates March in Bellingham Pride Parade. In the light of multiple mass shootings in the last couple of years, Open Carry advocates applied to march in the Bellingham Pride Parade, a move that generated a little furor – especially after they planned their social event at the same time and place as the Pride Family picnic. Gun advocates denied any attempt at intimidation – but in the end, they simply staffed a booth at the Pride festival without actually marching.

Honorable Mentions: The county tried to buy a toxic morgue from its own coroner, a move that is almost as incestuous as it is environmentally troubling and the County Planning department hires the former lead permit guy for the Gateway Pacific Terminal as a senior planner.

As always, you can support alternative citizen media by clicking here. Merry Christmas and stay tuned for a 2015 preview in the next couple of days.

Hello Loyal Readers,

Welcome to the Friday Odds and Ends - all the news that’s fit to print, but not big enough for its own post. Hold on to your hats, this one has the unintentionally comedic theme of “elected officials using the internet!” so you know it is going to be lively.

First, we have a new city councilmember, Dan Hammill. Having had the pleasure of interviewing all the candidates, I tried to keep my personal preference out of my reporting. This selection (read my liveblog of the proceedings here) was the safe choice. Hammill is smart, ethical, and ready to step into the role.

Lehman on her last day as a councilwoman

Lehman on her last day

That said, I hoped the council would be a bit bolder – grabbing someone who could represent the evolving face of Bellingham (Iris), the often-neglected activist core (Michelle) or push for bolder, progressive policy changes (Andrew). Hammill is a fine choice, but a continuation of the status quo.

However, the status quo can change quickly. On the exact date that the Bellingham City Council was selecting Cathy Lehman’s replacement, she sent out a email request from her new employer, the Environmental Priorities Council titled, I kid you not, “Today is not like every other day”.

The email referred to Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed climate change legislation, not her departure from the council. She documented that departure with a selfie from the City Hall bathroom (see right).

Barg and the Beard

Barg and the Beard

Now I get to use this picture as my transition. Scot Barg applied for the council . . . he currently works with Dan Pike . . . Dan Pike did something interesting . . . ergo Dan Pike is Kevin Bacon.

Dan Pike posted on his blog, Bona Fide Leadership, a deeper look at the City Budget in response to my recent article, A Simple Walkthrough of the Bellingham City Budget. As he pointed out with his trademark tact and diplomacy, “Sweeney’s analysis fails to present much meaningful information, instead obscuring understanding.”

Ironically enough, I really appreciate his write-up. He separates out capital expenditures from general fund and zooms in on our spending on Police Personnel to make a point about trends and long-term budget costs. Despite his salty demeanor, I’m glad that he decided to share some of his expertise – that’s always the goal of my blog, to help illuminate public process and local government.

Rep. Jeff Morris

Rep. Jeff Morris

Jumping back to legislative politics, Jeff Morris took a swing at early proponents of Jay Inslee’s climate change proposal (for those of you saying, “WHAT? THERE’S A PROPOSAL?!”, I say, “Stop shouting at your computer and tune in this weekend”). Anyway, Morris took to twitter with a late night tweet to criticize other Democrats for sponsoring Inslee’s proposals, and even unleashed a Broncos BEARS metaphor in doing so. He later deleted the tweets from his feed.

Finally, you might recall that my Dad has written for this space as the Policy Junkie, but lately he’s been pursuing his passion for music, particularly New Orleans music on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa. His most recent entries have been on the wide variety of new music coming out of his hometown in 2014. He also does a radio show where you can hear the music he writes about.  Less humor than this blog but much better writing.

And for those who missed it, Alan Rhodes wrote up a lovely interview with me for this week’s Cascadia Weekly. If you haven’t had a chance, check it out on page six here.

This weekend, I plan to take a closer look at the coming legislative session, and cheer on the Seahawks for a victory of the Cardinals, whichever comes first.

Posted by: sweeneyblog | December 17, 2014

City Council Appointment Live-Blog

Welcome to the City Council Appointment Live-Blog! As always, you can support our efforts here at the Political Junkie with a donation by clicking here.

In a fitting metaphor for this whole process, the doors to City Hall were locked when I arrived. After sweet talking a lovely cleaning lady, I was able to gain entry and ensconce myself in the “News Media Seating” chairs in the council chambers (I don’t anticipate much company in these seats but remain hopeful).

Marie, the city clerk, is already here and politely informed me that the front doors are supposed to automatically open 30 minutes before the meeting. There is some dispute over whether that actually happened or not. Either way, I’m in and patiently waiting . . .

Okay, not so patiently waiting for everyone to arrive. I ask Marie for predictions but she demurs, “You will get nothing from me.” Ha! Well-played. I notice that Cathy Lehman’s nameplate has already been moved.

In a burst of activity, Dan Hammill and Iris Maute-Gibson arrive within moments of each other. Iris brought a slight entourage with her. Next Michelle Magee with children in tow and Scot Barg with his partner Becky. Meanwhile Pinky Vargas, Michael Lilliquist and Terry Bornemann. Michael, a father himself, takes the opportunity to let the youngest Magee’s sit in the council chairs.

Gene Knutson has a weary air about him as enters. I ask him if he is ready for the excitement and he chuckles. “I’ve been through four of these, so it should be fine.”

We strike up a discussion about what would be an appropriate hashtag and local social media expert Rifka MacDonald (and partner of Iris) recommends “#applicantthunderdome. Andrew Reding is in Washington, DC and unable to attend.

Samantha Wohlfiel from the Bellingham Herald has arrived and set up – I’m no longer alone in the press box! With a final swirl of her poncho, Mayor Linville arrives and we are off to the races.

Terry Bornemann, in his taciturn baritone, outlines the schedule of the evening. The applicants will give a little time on the microphone to make their case, then the council will go into executive session (“super secret time away from the public”) to discuss qualifications. After that, they will return and open the floor up for nominations. The first person to get four votes shall be victorious. “With that said, let the games begin!” said Bornemann.

Scot Barg

Scot Barg

Scott Barg is first up. He cites his experience with the waterfront and his love for the town, “I love this town so much I moved here twice!” He talks about his experience with the PDA where he worked to deliver a “Community-based vision” of the waterfront.

“Leadership is not about getting people to do what you want them to do . . . it means listening.” He talks about the need for moving beyond inclusion to engagement. “I don’t know how we can do this but if we work together, I know we can do this.”

Linda, assistant city clerk, is flagging down speakers with colorful cut off cards. Gene suggests that they use the cards during council meetings.

Iris Maute-Gibson takes the stage and uses the power of multi-media. On the big screen, her endorsements from local movers and shakers (Chuck Robinson from Village Books kicks off the list).

Iris says she is willing to stand alone on issues if necessary before seguing into her pitch for the need for millennial representation on the city council. “I’m a young professional, feminist, queer, “Smart Trips” using, outdoor enthusiast, and I grew up here in Bellingham on reduced lunch.” She closes with a brief story of encouraging a frustrated citizen to be engaged in the rental licensing process even though they were on opposite sides of the issue.

Dan Hammill, sporting a sharp purple tie, calls for “wise choices” around land use, environmental protection and affordable housing. He name-checks the comp plan and calls the work of engaging the public, “the spade and shovel” of public service.

He mentions his work on the Bellingham Home Fund (a subject I wish I could have covered in more depth when it was passed in 2012). His rapid-fire approach makes him the swiftest speech but he packed a great deal of material into that couple of minutes.

Michelle Magee kicks it off by identifying herself as a “Mom, Super volunteer and social activist.” She said that her daughters advised her to tell the council about them. “As a single parent on a limited income in a small apartment, I know alot about working on a budget with limited resources.” She cites her experience standing firm working with difficult bureaucracies. She speaks about her experience with domestic violence and the value of community. “When you’ve walked through fire, it is hard to see anything as hopeless.”

“We want to be people who create a little more luck for more people.” She also mentions her hundreds of supporters and her core values of social justice and activism.

With that, we are back to the council. “The presentations, unfortunately, did not help whittle it down. No matter who we appoint, there are going to be four other very qualified people who are not.” Gene Knutson asks for a round of applause for the applicant, a request the audience eagerly indulges. With that, the council slips out to a separate chamber for a discussion.

I ask if anyone in crowd is taking bets. I quickly shoot a nervous glance at Mayor Linville, she says that there should be no problem so long as she’s not taking any of the money. Linville says that she, “made (the council) promise not to make her choose.” A deadlocked council kicks the decision to the mayor’s office.

A scant fifteen minutes later and the council is back. Terry reassures the audience that they only discussed qualifications in the executive session, noting that there was no talk of who was supporting whom.

Gene Knutson speaks first after the chair, he nominates Dan Hammill. No one else was nominated, leading to an extended awkward silence. With that, it is an unanimous vote.

Now it is time for the reassurances. Lilliquist and Vargas offer their thanks and stress how difficult the decision was and how proud they are for stepping forward. “There are elections next year, so it ain’t over.” Vargas said. “I encourage you to keep moving forward.” Roxanne Murphy talks about how she lost her first election. “There will always be seats on councils and there will always to be seats to run.”

Terry Bornemann reminisces about his application for the vacancy when Joy Keenan stepped down, many years ago. “I knew that I was the best candidate but I didn’t get it.” He makes the point that this isn’t a popularity contest. “Who can we feel can step in and fill out a remaining position. Who can be up to speed the quickest?” Bornemann speaks to Dan’s diverse experience.

Knutson thanks the council for how they handled it. “There was no clear front runner. There are no winners and no losers, everyone is a winner. I wish Dan the best serving with us.”

Next up, Dan signs the oath of office. After he signs it, he will officially be a council member although the swearing in will be in front of the judge later. Pictures are snapped on a couple smart phones, documents are signed and the crowd gets restless. Hand shakes commencing and the gavel bangs the meeting closed.

Posted by: sweeneyblog | December 16, 2014

Interviewing Scot Barg for City Council

Scot Barg is a man who lives up to his resume. Skimming through the highlights, graduate of the Havard Kennedy School of Government, then assistant director of research there, it is clear that Barg has spent most of his professional life firmly at the intersection of public policy and academia. Now he is turning his eyes to the city council.

Scot Barg

Scot Barg

“I have something to offer. I don’t have a big agenda, because this is an appointment, not an election. The agenda for all the applicants should be to learn, apply the skills you have, take a look at the issues in front of us and try get the best value for the city.” Barg says that his interest is in economic development and sustainability becase, “Too many of us are using too much, too quickly.”

He has some experience with the public policy side of economic development. As the chair of the recently deceased Public Development Authority (PDA), Barg worked as an intermediary between the Port and the City. The group was disbanded a few years ago by the city council – a decision that Barg says is “disappointing” in light of the recent movement on the waterfront development.

“I still think a PDA is actually a great way to run a project like this. Urban intensive development is not in the Port’s wheelhouse.” Barg contends that the PDA added “a lot of value”.

As for the issues the current council faces, Barg is a bit blaise. “(the council) doesn’t have any on-fire issues, a lot of issues at a similar level of percolation.” For instance, Barg notes there are some “big decisions” coming on Lake Whatcom. “I support doing whatever it is we have to do, maybe that is a more aggressive schedule. We need to look at the cost benefit analysis and get resources from the state or the feds to help.” He shakes his head. “We only get one Lake Whatcom, we don’t get a second try. Once it is not usable, it is over.”

Barg shares Michelle Magee’s depressed slump over the waterfront. “We have a waterfront plan. It is better than the one we had. It is a compromise like all these things need to be.” He says that the key change was the amount of infrastructure investment. “The city was on the hook for hundreds of millions of infrastructure, with very little assurances that anything would get built.”

He says part of this is looking at the costs. “Sometimes the benefits and the costs are not financial, they are environmental or social. We need to look at things in a complex way.”

This methodology is key to his partnership with former mayor Dan Pike. The two of them are currently involved with Huxley College, developing curriculum for executives around sustainability. “Dan had made some big changes in city government in terms of sustainability and moving that forward on the city agenda – so he wanted to share lessons learned and his vision of things. I had this experience bringing people from the different levels of government, private sector, academics, and so we came together on this project.” Barg sees it as a rare opportunity, “When the traditional sort of barriers break down, when you are all in a room . . . in a learning environment, we found an amazing sort of synergies, cross boundary relationships begin to develop.”

I jokingly ask if his candidacy is a secret attempt by Dan Pike to sneak back into public office. “Believe it or not, we are actually separate people!” He laughs. “I think he is a good guy and a great mayor.”

What does he think is missing from the current council? Barg demurs, saying that he is, “impressed by the breadth of experience and perspectives that are already there.”  He believes his added value is “the perspective of analytics.”

“I don’t want to say dispassionately but I like looking at the broad spectrum of costs and risks. Its not that I don’t have things I care about, I care deeply about sustainability and being responsive. I’m not that politically different from the current pack of people who are applying. I don’t see that there is a gaping hole, I don’t think it is a missing perspective but is something I can add.”

Speaking of perspective, he says the main struggle for the city is including the next generation of Bellinghamsters. “Bellingham is known as a sustainable city, we’ve done really well on that. We’ve done well fiscally, we’ve been a really responsible city. We do social services well. We think well about people with housing and services needed. I would like to see us moving beyond what we call tolerance or even inclusion to engagement with young people of color and LGBT people. I think all government looks monolithic and I want it to look like ‘a place for me’ for everybody.”

Closing up our interview, Barg notes that if appointed, he would most likely run for the seat in 2015. If he is not appointed, he would still seriously consider running. “The process has been so interesting to me, talking to the city council people. You have to love it – it is a lot of work. But I’m definitely interested.”

The appointment is tomorrow night at 7pm. I will be there providing live coverage if the wi-fi is up and running strong. In the meantime, read the rest of the interview with the candidates (Iris Maute-Gibson, Dan Hammill, Andrew Reding, Michele Magee).

Hello Loyal Readers,

Yes, the Friday Odds and Ends makes its return, and this edition is action packed. For those of you just joining us, the Friday Odds and Ends are all the stories that good enough to print, but not enough to justify their own post.

First up, SaveWhatcom, the coal-PAC funded by Gateway Pacific Terminal that has been active in the last two elections, posted a blog post filled with fail. I realize that poking fun at SaveWhatcom is like whacking hipsters at a Death Cab for Cutie concert but bear with me.

SaveWhatcom is immune to Irony

SaveWhatcom is immune to Irony

In their blog post,Cherry Point Industry Economic Study Questioned by Enviro-Blog Whatcom Watch“, they take aim at an article written by local activist Terry Weschler that dissected a recent economic study paid for by GPT. Two problems with this: first, the Whatcom Watch is a monthly newspaper, not an “enviro-blog.”

I realize Whatcom Watch has only been printing for twenty-two years, so maybe the fact that their launch predates the invention of blogs may have been a clue.

Second, it is a huge ethical conflict writing about Cherry Point without disclosing that SaveWhatcom has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from proponents of the Gateway Pacific Terminal. I realize I’m reaching here, asking for ethics from an organization that was so deeply unethical with its finances that it got fined $4,500 by the PDC for illegally funnelling campaign donations through bogus accounts.

Moving right along, the Sakuma Berry Farm workers may get some justice thanks to a federal judge approving a payout for back pay for the workers to the tune of $1,221.30 each, however their battle continues as the State Supreme Court will take up the bigger issue of worker compensation next year.

Riley with the Whatcom Democrats

Riley with the Whatcom Democrats

Finally, I have completed my term as Vice-Chair of the Whatcom Democrats, and no longer have an official role with the party. Ever since 2010, I have served in one capacity or another on their executive board, but am now freeing up that time in my schedule for other projects. As such, I’m going to let you in on a little secret:

The leadership of local political parties is not comprised of seasoned political hacks. The Whatcom Democrats (and from what I’ve gathered, the Whatcom Republicans) are 99% comprised of ambitious volunteers. Volunteers with no more specialized skills than what you already possess.

So please, if you are interested in local politics, consider getting involved with your party. I started my run with the Whatcom Democrats by doing their newsletter, and before long, I was writing press releases, vetting candidates and planning fundraisers. It was a phenomenal experience that I treasure.

Enough pleading, I will be interviewing Scott Barg today so look for that interview this weekend. Beyond that, stay warm out there.

Posted by: sweeneyblog | December 10, 2014

A Simple Walkthrough of the City of Bellingham Budget

On Monday, the City Council approved a new budget for 2015-2016. The Bellingham Herald put up an article documenting the changes between the initial proposal and the final approved budget (short answer: not much). However, I felt for most of us, a higher level overview would be helpful. Where does the city get a majority of their revenue? Where is it being spent? Getting a grasp on the generals are essential if we are to understand the specifics.

With that in mind, I’m doing another installment of “Keep It Simple, Sweeney!” where I walk through the city budget. If it is well-received, I’ll do a companion piece for the County. For this article, I’m working with the preliminary budget numbers, since I have more information about those and the changes by the council were not substantial.

As always, you can support the good work we do here with a donation by clicking here. 

City of Bellingham Budget

In total, the city takes in and spends around $480 million dollars every two years while keeping around $120 million in reserves. Here’s where that money comes from:

City Revenue by type

City Revenue by type

Revenues by type
Fines and Forfeitures $3,959,278
Licenses & Permits $5,292,274
Other Financing Sources $16,461,309
Non-Revenues $23,558,387
Intergovernmental $25,028,885
Interest & Misc $46,695,673
Taxes $177,091,395
Charges for Goods and Services $184,346,896
Total Revenue $482,434,097

As you can see, only about a third of our city revenue comes from taxes (property, sales, business taxes). The charges for goods and services category comes from providing water, sewer and ambulance services. Non-revenues are things like loans – they provide revenue but not really.

Okay, that’s how the money comes in. Where does it go? Comparing apples to apples, I look at the type of expenditure.

Expenditures by type

Expenditures by type

Expenditures by type
Salaries & Benefits $180,190,958
Supplies $20,000,416
*Interfund Supplies (0.7%) $3,548,962
Services $118,583,072
*Interfund Services $50,613,667
Intergovernmental Services $18,919,399
Capital $81,797,257
Principal & Interest $22,729,360
Total $496,383,091

Well, that’s not terribly helpful. Most of our city funds are spent on staff, services and capital budgets. Capital budgets are the big purchases a city has to make – land, buildings, major repairs. The intergovernmental services category includes the money the city makes from the county for use of the city jail.

But this does not give us a clear picture on WHAT we spend our city money on. For that, we have to look at the breakdown by city department of the money spent.

Expenditures by Department

Expenditures by Department

Expenditures by Department
Fire $46,952,365
Police $56,989,783
Judicial and Hearing Examiner $4,606,468
Parks & Rec $29,732,284
Library and Museum $11,631,738
Planning & Development $27,695,679
Human Resources $41,823,677
Finance $8,209,243
IT Dept $11,210,433
Legal $5,825,934
Mayor’s Office and City Council $2,740,180
Non-Dept $9,986,397
Public Works $236,473,222
Public Facilities $2,505,688
Total $496,383,091

For those of you following along with the official city budget documents, you will notice I merged a few departments for clarity’s sake (Museum and Library, Mayor’s Office and Council, etc). Right away, it becomes clear where we spend most of our money – Public Works, followed by Fire and Police.

If you were surprised by the high numbers for Planning and Development, consider the type of staffing needed there. Highly-trained professionals with advanced degrees. Also, they require a great deal of professional services (surveying, assessing, testing, etc) that they contract out to local providers.

Let’s take a closer look at that Public Works budget. Over the last four years, the Public Works department has had two employee moonlighting scandals (documented here and here) and ran afoul of the Roosevelt neighborhood association this year with their attempts to implement a c-curb on Alabama street. So I can understand them being a little touchy. I’m just using their budget as an example since it is the largest.

A good chunk of that budget is staff. There are 255 full-time equivalent employees working for the Public Works department. That includes 30 engineers, 35 utility workers, 42 treatment plant employees and 24 maintenance employees. Also, since they are building, shoveling and repairing things, their supplies budget is huge. They have budgeted 6.4 million on supplies for this budget, or to put it another way, more than we spend on the mayor’s office and the city council twice over.

The other half of the public works budget is capital expenses. Since they are undertaking large projects, their spending often takes the form of three year projects, big purchases and building improvements. Within these departmental budgets, you can drill down into specific funds (Stormwater Fund, Transportation Benefit District Fund) and get the list of specific improvements planned (a future article if people are interested).

In short, most of our city’s money is tied up in infrastructure. Either taking in funds for sewer and water services or spending money on roads, parks, buildings and streetlights. If this sort of thing interests you, there are plenty of sources for more information but I would start here.

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