Despite holding elected office for four years, City Councilman Michael Lilliquist is still filled with the idealism of a young candidate. “I still believe enough in people’s goodheartedness that if you give them the information about issues, they will make the right decision about city issues.”
Lilliquist was elected in 2009 from the 6th Ward and has never been shy about sharing his thoughts with the public. Before we even get to the usual battery of questions, Lilliquist is expounding on the contradiction of public service. “Public service is full of contradictions. You have to be an idealist and practical. You are elected to lead but also to represent. You need to be impatient and insist that things need to be done faster, but on the other hand, one of the best assets you can have is patience. You have to realize that it will take a few years to see things happen. You have to act with a sense of urgency and still have the patience of a Buddha.”
So why are you running for reelection? “I really like what I do. There are 281 cities in Washington, when I go to the Association of Washington Cities, everyone loves their city. Well, I have an unreasonable love for our city. We have just the right mix here. There’s some weird stroke of luck that this is the cool city where I live. I get to bask in the reflected glory of the coolness of Bellingham. I just lucked out.”
What would you describe as your biggest accomplishment of the last four years? “How can you quantify that?” He cracks a big smile. I clarify, what are you most proud of? “I know it is a cliche, but Lake Whatcom. Even before I was elected, I was on the Citizen’s Technical Review Task Force. I went through all the science and we identified all the actions to take on the lake. One of those actions was stormwater treatment, that’s what we needed to do and we hadn’t been doing. We’ve done lots of preservation but not enough was being done on restoration. So I helped increase the surcharge on water and then we expanded the allowable scope of uses so that we can spend it on stormwater filtration. As a result, we just began purchasing land for a stormwater filtration facility. It is a four-year long story and I’m only halfway through it, but this is more than just talk talk talk, it is action. It is addressing a missing piece of the puzzle and I am proud of filling that gap.”
What are your priorities for a new term? “I hate to say more of the same, but we have to keep moving all these things forward. We have identified that we have neglected repairing our infrastructure, so now we are spending more money on resurfacing our arterials which keeps our economy moving. There is more to be done with transit, shifting to non-motorized transportation which is more favorable toward new ways of living.” Now he is really getting rolling, ticking off his projects one by one.
“We are also building a new $50 million sewer treatment plant and must come up with a new rate structure to cover that. I’ve been pushing for reform for our impact fee systems, so that it is no longer so easy to do sprawl, but benefits developers who are doing the right things. Now, are all those issues more or less important than Lake Whatcom? I can’t say.” He takes a moment to collect his thoughts.
“In a sense, city government will succeed when our citizens think not at all about it. When people never have to question what is going on, when they never have to worry that their priorities are taken care of, when things work the way they are supposed to work, that is when we have succeeded.” With that rather philosophical point, I segue our discussion towards some of the upcoming hot button issues.
Once again, the city is discussing a fireworks ban but Lilliquist is unsure how he feels about it. “I haven’t made up my mind about it. This comes to me without much public discussion. It is clear to me that we have a problem with enforcement, if we could find a way to adequately enforce the laws on the books, then we don’t need new laws. Are our current laws enforceable or are we asking our police to do an impossible task? I can’t make that determination until I’ve received more information.
What about the pressing issue of rental safety? “Right now, that industry oversees millions of dollars flowing through our economy and it clearly lacks enough oversight. Unfortunately the remedies are expensive and cumbersome, the only way to resolve a dispute right now is to take them to court. Too often that is the worst of possible situations.” He believes that we don’t need any changes in our code requirements, we just need a way to enforce the rules we have on the books. “One alternative, would be to have them get a business license, that’s the shape of my thinking on this. I hope we get a common understanding on this, it is not about old regulations. It is about how do we provide the resources for enforcement.”
How does Lilliquist feel about the impending Gateway Pacific Project? “It is, and will continue to be, a contentious issue in our community, it has the potential to have such long-term consequences, and our public officials are best when they are thinking long-term. The amount of emotional attention and energy spent on this issue is completely appropriate. I know people would like us to take a position against, but our duty is protecting the long-term interests of Bellingham and we need to be best positioned to influence the process. Our emphasis is that the rules and laws are followed and the proper information is presented. When that happens, we will receive the best possible outcome.”
Lilliquist has been a councilman during two mayors: Kelli Linville and Dan Pike. I ask him, as a Pike supporter, how he feels about Linville’s performance as mayor. He immediately contests that he was a Pike supporter. “I told Dan that I would stay officially neutral, I thought it would be unproductive to have a sitting councilman picking a side, however I supported the candidates supported by Whatcom Conservation Voters and they endorsed Pike, so I was an awkward position.”
However, in terms of differences between the two mayors, he argues that the changes have been minor. “There’s been dozens of small changes, but in the grand scheme of things, I haven’t seen much change. The city is largely run by professional employees, the role of the mayor as CEO of the city
only affects those people who directly report to her.”
See below for Michael’s expanded thoughts on the role of the mayor.
Speaking of Linville, Lilliquist shared a story of him putting pressure on her over a parking commission for Fairhaven. “It was clear we needed a citizen’s task force on parking in Fairhaven. I secured an informal promise that we do it before the end of the year from Kelli. Well, Kelli came back to me and said we are working on it, we will have representatives from various stakeholders on this committee. I said, ‘No no, we need to have it be a public committee.’ She heard that right away and now we have a good compromise process.”
Shifting gears to the more political side of things, Lilliquist was excited to offer a response to Rep. Overstreet’s Constitution waving this weekend. “See right here on my phone, I have a Constitution app. It has the Constitution AND the Declaration of Independence, and I carry that with me at all times. Ha!”
He says he is not sure whether or not he will have a difficult campaign, he has yet to hire a campaign manager or draw a declared opponent, but he is holding a kickoff this Friday at 5pm, but he is not eager to begin. “I would prefer to be able to spend a few more months being just a city councilmember and not a candidate.”
He also wanted to convey his excitement over the “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes“ event the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County is holding this Saturday. Lilliquist is on the board of DVSAS and will be wearing “sensible” heels for the event. “I’ll be wearing shoes I would not mind my daughter wearing.”