After more than a little blog heckling (of which I was a little over-the-top, thank you everyone for your feedback), Whatcom County Councilwoman Kathy Kershner graciously offered to sit down for an interview with the Political Junkie. The conversation was illuminating.
A Rising Star?
“I try to see myself as a citizen legislator. I try to bring the extreme views, on both sides, together to a solution that we can support,” Kershner said, taking a sip of her Earl Grey steamer at Caffe Adagio. “We agree on 99% of the issues, it is just the solutions that trip us up.”
She seems to be adjusting well to her new role as Chair. “You have to do what you have to do in the most appropriate way, that has been the biggest learning curve. We are not like an executive board room, we can’t shoot memos back and forth, all that has to germinate in the meeting itself.”
But what does she think of the current council? “I would say that the council we have now is less inclined to be pressured by the public watching. We are finally growing a personality of our own.” As she is in most settings, Kershner was patient and polite, answering my questions, dancing around pitfalls and unfolding her views on a variety of political issues.
The New Jail
“We need to build a new jail, and we need to do it ASAP.” Kershner said, “I like the idea of building about 600 beds. Building a jail that is the size of jail to serve plus what we anticipate for the next 10 years, making it expandable.” Where should this facility go, I ask. “I don’t have much passion about where the jail goes. I liked idea of the Slater road location because it was central for the county deputies, but if the majority thinks it should be downtown, I don’t see myself being a crusader for something else. If it was downtown, I’d probably ask a lot more questions about cost and construction. Do we really want a jail in the middle of our downtown? We could build something really neat in our downtown, but a jail? When it comes down to it, I want the most cost-effective option.”
Our Invalid County
Our conversation quickly circled back to one of the more dramatic developments on the County level, with our Rural planning once again being ruled invalid by the Growth Management Hearings Board. Read resident genius Jean Melious’ post at Get Whatcom Planning for a more detailed report. Kershner had plenty to say about that. “Right now, (the decision) was a 177 page brief. Our legal team is working on it. They will be presenting some information to the council in executive session this upcoming Tuesday. After that, we will pursue our options.”
But what about the cost, I pressed. Our county has been out of compliance since 2005, that has to be costing the County money? “It hasn’t cost us anything except staff time trying to become complaint, and if we appeal that will cost us money.” Kershner continued, “Being in compliance is a goal in itself, so that we can be done in this process, so that people who live these areas can have some certainty about their land. I think about the 19,000 people that we sent postcards to in 2009 saying that we are reviewing all this, I think about those people who have had their lives on hold. Does that mean I can build the bakery I want to build here, or can I only put in a cow pasture? I want to get the County into compliance.”
But don’t think for a moment that her desire to get us in compliance means that she has any love for the Growth Management Hearing Board. “I want to be in compliance, but here’s the rub, the county is charged with interpreting the GMA (Growth Management Act) to fit the best needs of the county. I understand the appeals process, people have to have an opportunity to appeal the zoning if someone has a problem. But I feel that we get appealed for mostly political reasons. This politically appointed GMA board makes decisions, that now we have to live with. If there are errors in what we have done, we should make changes but if it is matter of opinion, that’s something different.”
An Impartial Council?
Kershner gave the standard answers on the controversial Cherry Point facility; I trust in the staff, let’s see what the permitting process brings to light, I am withholding judgement until we have all the information, etc. But this is where our conversation took a turn for the surprising. I asked her about the burden of being impartial during this process. “I believe the Council should be impartial on more matters. We should be representatives of everybody, not instigators. We should be reviewing and receive information from an unbiased mind. It is the citizen’s job to do the work to bring projects forward. A lot of what the council should do is gather information. We are routing people to the appropriate path within their own government.”
Update: Jean Melious has responded to these specific comments over on her blog Get Whatcom Working. Check it out.
Despite this view, it wasn’t a desire for impartiality that inspired her to get involved in politics, it was the 2008 election. “I’m no huge fan of Barack Obama. When he was elected, I looked around and realized that I had been sort of living my life as most people do; working, raising a family, having some fun in my downtime. Thinking someone else is taking care of the important things for us. But I realized, there is no group of people hidden behind secret doors taking care of things for us. It is up to each of us do what we can. So I started pursuing the seat wasn’t being held by Ward Nelson at the time.”
Kathy Kershner has not shied away from her involvement in partisan politics. She endorsed Republican Vincent Buys in 2010, and supported Tony Larson against Pete Kremen last year. In the battle royale over the County Executive that saw conservative former mayor of Lynden Jack Louws duke it out with Republican crusader Doug Ericksen, Kershner was caught between a rock and hard place. “When he announced, I got solidly behind Louws, and then Ericksen announced, and it was conflicting, but I stayed committed to Jack.” She was quick to follow that up with praise for Ericksen. “I am very happy Doug serves as a senator. I’m very supportive of him serving down in Olympia.”
The Safety Net
With the state and the county scrapping for funds, I asked her about the fate of social services. “Because of my work with service providers, I had to experience with how our most vulnerable are trotted out as political tools to increase funding.” She pauses gathering her thoughts, “I saw the writing on the wall for the economy, it is going to be rough, and we need to make sure that people don’t lose services.” Addressing the state-wide problem, she continued, “I just hope our legislators don’t think that you get rid of problem just because you cut the funding, the only thing that happens, you just serve them in more expensive ways. My hope is that all the funding pieces are looked at holistically.”
Does that mean raising taxes, I ask. She cracks a big smile. “You will never see those words leave my lips, Riley Sweeney.” She said that we need to live within our means, that there is more places to cut within the state budget, and that we need to grow our economy organically. Startled by the sudden reference to gardening, I asked for an example. “Sometimes we create our own problems. For instance, by buying up land around the Lake Whatcom watershed, you shrink our tax base so we have less money to implement a solution.”
Onward to 2013
Kershner struck me as a woman divided. She is passionate in her conservative ideals, and eager to see them implemented in the world around her, but stuck dealing with the practicalities of local government.
So is she going to continue fighting the good fight? Kershner is up for re-election in 2013. “At this point, I’m planning to run for reelection, but I’ve always kept that very open. At this point, yes, this works, I love doing it!”