From One Political Junkie to Another: Crawford’s Crappy Fix
Last November, after the election, Bob Kelly decided to resign his seat so that he could take a leadership role with the Nooksack tribe. With his sudden departure, the council scrambled to appoint someone before the new council was sworn in. Understandable. They solicited applications and then started to assess the applicants.
Then someone dodgy happened, Sam Crawford nominated retiring conservative Councilman Ward Nelson to the vacancy. It was clear from the knowing nod, and the emails that I got through a public records request that this move was planned well in advance. Nelson accepted the nomination and then proceeded to vote down all the other nominees, using his influence to guarantee a gridlocked council. No applicant received more than three votes thanks to the stonewalling but Nelson, Crawford and Brenner, who apparently was all too happy to go along with the scheme.
With the Council gridlocked, the decision fell to Whatcom County’s favorite kicking boy, Pete Kremen. Aside from the “We want our politicians to look like Soap Opera Stars” fan club, Kremen is rather low on friends right now. He spurned his democratic roots and endorsed the slate of conservative candidates in the last election, traded tense emails with various elected Democrats and I’m sure, kicked a puppy at some point. But I digress.
Pete Kremen appointed Ward Nelson. Now there are all sorts of theories about why he did this, including several meetings between Nelson, Crawford and Kremen leading up to the decision, but in the end, what matters is that he picked Crawford.
The Whatcom Democrats objected, not on partisan grounds but on legal ones. In numerous Attorney General opinions, they prohibit members of a governing body from appointing one of their own. It gives them unequal status and the appearance of impropriety. There is also the issue of Ward having two votes, albeit temporarily. An appointee is expected to assume the role immediately. Since Ward was still on the Council, he should not have been eligible for the new position because it would have granted him two votes. He could have resigned, but he didn’t because that would have created another temporary vacancy and more headaches.
The objections did not go very far. The main stumbling block for the Whatcom Democrats was finding a legal authority that would tackle the issue. The County Prosecutor, Dave McEachran, refused to touch it. The Attorney General’s office can only render an opinion if the County Executive or County Prosecutor asks him to look at it. There were a few non-profit legal centers, but they did not want to step into the middle of a shooting zone. The Whatcom Dems could file an official ethics complaint, and eventually the very committed Shane Roth did, but at that point it looked as if the Dems were shopping around for a legal opinion and the public interest was fading.
Sam Crawford decided to give us a second bite at the apple. Ken Mann and Sam Crawford started to work on a proposal that would clarify the rules surrounding appointments. Unfortunately, Crawford can be a little vindictive, and his proposal would codify everything that was done wrong in the last process. His proposal allows sitting council members to vote on other nominations so long as they don’t vote for themselves. However my favorite bit of his proposal is the “Screw You, Dan McShane” amendment.
Any candidate who recently lost an election for a seat is banned from being appointed to that seat. Does that even make sense to you? People run for office because they are interested in local politics and want to make a difference. Is putting these people in the same category as convicted felons really appropriate? It seems so petty and backwards that I am shocked that Sam Crawford even presented that as his idea. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and that provision was stripped out in committee.
This discussion will come before the County Council in the next couple of weeks. What has become crystal clear to me is that issues of process go beyond political lines. A functioning and ethical government should not depend on which party is in power; it should depend on good, codified guidelines that keep this sort of mess from happening. The Whatcom Dems were unable to get very far pushing this issue partially because it was dismissed as partisan fighting, despite the fact that the concerns had nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with process. Appointments are so contentious because they rest on the wisdom of a select few people. We, as an engaged public, must make sure that they have the guidelines and laws that keep the process open, transparent, and legal. Even if we disagree with whom they pick.