As promised, here is my blow-by-blow of the Bill Mize forum. If you find this sort of local personalized coverage valuable, you can always toss me a few bucks here to cover the costs of the blog.
I remember the Bill Mize forum of yesteryear, when Bob Weisen would angrily accuse the candidates of supporting “out of control government agencies that want to destroy our freedoms!” Sadly, there were no such fireworks (metaphorically, as we banned the conventional kind) at the Bill Mize forum this year.
You could tell right off the bat that something was wrong when you walked in . . . and the only people in attendance were candidates, campaign managers and media. KGMI had their large broadcast station set-up, Center for New Media was there capturing the event on video, and various partisan photographers were snapping away at every opportunity. There were, literally, only two people in the room I didn’t recognize. So naturally, that became the topic of discussion. Was it that the organizers moved the forum up a month from last year? Was it just too nice a day? Was everyone at home listening to the radio?
Whatever the reason, most of the candidates seemed almost on autopilot. As a whole, they delivered their standard opening statements and when the questions came, they welcomed the softballs and ducked the hard stuff. There were a few exceptions, but the atmosphere was congenial, mainly because everyone in the room was going to see each other at the next forum or campaign event, so why get nasty now? Rather than an actual back-and-forth, this felt like a dress rehearsal for some future event.
But enough general impressions, let me run you through the highlights.
Jim Freeman, candidate for Mt. Baker School Board, spoke about the Reconveyance. As expected, Larry Helm asked about the loss of potential timber revenue for the school board but Freeman was ready. “When the Reconveyance goes through, we will receive $500,000 from an anonymous donor, rather than something that might not materialize. One in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Dan Robbins, running for Port District One, had warmed up considerably from his low energy performance at the County Parties. He still went through his resume for a while before closing with, “My grandchildren have waited a long time to hear me say this, but you can reach me on facebook.”
Renata Kowalczyk hit her usual stride of making businesses more efficient. Chet Dow asked if she was so pro-business, what was her opinion on a company trying to invest $700 million in our county? Kowalczyk clarified that he was referring to SSA Marine and then gave this answer. “The Port has a responsibility, on your behalf, to take care of your assets on the community, the potential impact of the increased traffic on the waterfront. As a business person myself, I want businesses to be in the most optimal site for the business to grow and I am concerned about the impact of rail traffic.”
Kowalczyk also made the point that the port meetings should be accessible to working people. “It is not a major investment for the port, only $10,000, to get those meetings televised. That is something we should be doing for a more open and transparent government.” There were polite cheers from the Center For New Media, who has been pushing for more television public process for years.
Ken Bell, who I published an interview from earlier this week, got the first “zinger” question of the night, when someone asked him about missing “roughly half” of his planning commissioner meetings. “I guess I pulled the bullet out of the gun early. I would challenge your facts, I’m there more than half. But I made it clear to the chair and the others that I would be gone some times. However, my goal is to be there for every port meeting. I recently received a long-term contract from Lockheed Martin that required me to gone from town more than I’ve ever had to be in my life. Ask my wife. But I’ve restructured my business and now others will be deployed instead of me.” According to the county minutes, Ken Bell has missed 6 out of 11 Planning Commission meetings this year, and about a third of the meetings in 2012.
Rud Browne, candidate for County Council, had a fun back and forth with Richard May. May asked him about his success with business and how much he sold his business for. Browne smiled and responded that he couldn’t answer that, but he could say that he employed about half the number of people currently employed by the county.
When Bill Knutzen stepped up to speak, he was asked about the new over-sized office the Sheriff is requesting. Knutzen ducked the question, “We hired a jail planner to tell us what is the responsible choice and that’s how we will make our decisions.” That’s funny, I thought it was the County Council’s job to make responsible choices, not a consultant.
Kathy Kershner was in prime form and responded easily to a wide variety of questions about her voting and record. One citizen brought up her vote against money for the food bank and domestic violence commission at the height of the recession. She responded that it was her first council meeting and she believed the county didn’t have the money, and when it came up again two years later, she voted for both those items.
I asked how long we will have to wait until the council takes leadership on the jail issue. Kershner responded that they had already taken leadership on the issue. “We’ve fully supported the executive’s plan for site selection, you don’t have to wait very long for us to take a lead.” This was my response.
Her opponent, Barry Buchanan, took a subtle jab at Kershner’s waffling on the Reconveyance. “My word is my bond, you can trust me to do what I say I’m going to do.” He handled a question about his vote on red light cameras with a dismissive, “That policy was former Mayor Dan Pike’s pet project.”
Ben Elenbaas, the BP employee running for County Council, wins the award for most effortless dodge of the night. I asked about the hundreds of thousands of dollars we are wasting fighting the Growth Management Act, and he responded with, “The county has a difficult time balancing property rights and following the law, that is a hard process.” Yes, that was his entire answer. He closed out his statements with a little rhetorical flourish, “Buy Local, Shop Local, Vote Local. Vote Ben.”
Ken Mann, Elenbaas’ opponent and the incumbent council member, once again stressed his independent values. “I’m a libertarian on social issues and on taxpayer dollars, your money; I’m a fiscal hawk.” In a nice echo of Elenbaas’ closing, Mann ended his remarks with, “I’m a working man, I’m a family man, I’m a councilman, I’m Ken Mann.”
For me, the most entertaining moment of the forum was Michelle Luke’s question and answer period. Richard May asked, “What qualifications do you have to serve on the County Council?” which prompted huge laughs from the floor. Why, you ask? Four years ago, Luke was asked the same question at the League of Women Voter’s forum . . . and came up empty. She stared straight ahead, not saying a word for a solid 45 seconds, until the bell mercifully sounded and her opponent, Carl Weimer, got a chance to speak. This time, Luke was ready. “You’ve been waiting a long time for that answer. I think that local government needs to be more local.” She continued, stressing her work on the Planning Commission.
The other memorable moment from Luke’s time was when she was asked her opinion of the Gateway Pacific Project. She hemmed and hawed until the questioner asked more directly what her stance was. Luke opened her mouth to respond but the bell rang signaling she was out of time. She smiled and launched right into her closing remarks. Truly, saved by the bell.
Allen Brown came out at the forum as the only candidate whole-heartedly supporting the Gateway Pacific Project. “I love coal!” he declared, continuing on to take a swipe at some viewing the project through “environmentally tinted glasses.”
One of his opponents, Bob Burr, responded with just as much fervor, “I am the only anti-coal candidate. If you do not believe in climate change, you either do not comprehend the science or are mentally incapable of handling the magnitude of the problem.” John Servais, a critic of climate change, took exception to that. “Do you want to lose my vote or am I just a nutcase?” Burr, with little hesitation responded, “I want to lose your vote. 95% of scientists agree on climate change and I stand with them.”
The rest of the candidates passed without excitement. Michael Lilliquist arrived to speak, but they were running low on time so he volunteered to be skipped; I marked the calendar in shock. John Blethen and Hue Beattie, candidates for Bellingham School Board, offered their reasons to save Larrabee Elementary School and were thoroughly baffled by John Kirk’s question about the international baccalaureate. “Do you support the collective approach to education?” Both Blethen and Beattie passed on the question, saying they didn’t understand the premise.
And with that, the forum whimpered to a close. Afterward, candidates and campaign managers socialized over coffee and cookies, but with little noteworthy happening in the forum, there was little to discuss, so most called it a night soon after.