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It is a muggy evening and 120 political junkies have gathered at Ferndale High School, scattered across the seats like despondent teenagers to listen to the County Council candidates debate the issues at the Tea Party forum. I note that there are very few fresh faces, most everyone here is either an elected official, a candidate or a volunteer with a campaign. I’m just taking stock of the crowd when Dillion Hancoop starts announcing the candidates. With very little preamble, the forum has kicked off.
Right out of the bat, Bob Burr asks the first question, “Do you believe in climate change?” Carl Weimer gives a strong yes, but even more surprising, his opponent Michelle Luke, also agrees. “I’ve seen climate change within my lifetime. So yes, I believe in it.” The next question is a longer question from local activist Wendy Harris about the importance of biodiversity which is lost in Ken Mann and Ben Elenbaas’ answers about how much they love wildlife.
Melodie Kirk, local Republican volunteer and amatuer photographer, asks about Krause Manufacturing and what the candidates will do about encouraging business to stay. Kathy Kershner answers first, pivoting quickly to zoning laws. “On the council, I’ve voted to ensure that industrial areas stay industrial.” Barry Buchanan on the other hand, talks about the economic development funds. “I would not vote to spend all the economic development funds on the Lynden water treatment facility. That’s not a good use of those funds, we need to make sure that it is spent on making a positive change.
Richard May, former candidate for state legislature, asked a rather pointed question about the Growth Management Act. “Do you agree that not following the Growth Management Act is going to cost the county thousands and thousands of dollars in infrastructure costs if we let everyone build anything anywhere.” Knutzen got his back up, “I believe we need a legal opinion not the opinion of an appointed board.” Apparently, Knutzen has not read any of the numerous judicial rulings from, you know, that pesky legal department known as the Supreme Court of Washington State telling Whatcom County to comply with state law.
Ben Elenbaas received a question about why the County Council killed wind turbine production in Whatcom with an emergency moratorium. Elenbaas denied being involved in that issue but expressed mild support for the project. Mann on the other hand railed against the County Council’s “boneheaded move” by passing a moratorium against wind energy. “When you change the rules like that, it has a chilling effect on entrepreneurs in our county.”
Twenty minutes in, and we have our first question about Agenda 21. Way to go Chris Henderson. Michelle Luke spoke about how difficult it is to assemble the comp plan, while Carl Weimer responds with his usual dry wit. “I think the concerns over this are seriously overblown . . . I don’t think the UN is organized enough take over the world.”
Mayor Gary Jensen asks about the Slater Road extension in light of the Lummi Tribe’s acquisition of that land. Ken Mann answers, making a point of restating his name every time he gets the microphone. I missed some of their answers because I was considering the irony of Jensen asking Mann and Elenbaas a question considering he just endorsed Elenbaas via facebook two days ago.
Ellen Baker asked what the County Council will do to preserve individual liberty and how you balance that with a desire to provide public services. A lofty question for a municipal body, but Knutzen is up to the challenge. “If you look at what our founding fathers got angry about, its not that different than someone coming in and changing the value of your property because some guy in Olympia changed a law that you knew nothing about.”
Another odd question, have you ever had to hire and fire people and manage a budget? Carl Weimer spoke about the three businesses he has ran and the challenges he faced. Luke, on the other hand, had no such experience. “I’ve never had to hire or fire anyone . . . but I’ve worked with seniors in my family to ensure that they plan ahead with their finances.”
Ray Baribeau, “A lot of people have said that we put too many people in jail. Do you know about jail alternatives and diversions and the difference between those two. Buchanan takes the question in a different direction, speaking to the alternative jail facility. “We need to take a good careful look at the bigger picture and make sure we are doing the right thing for our community.” Kershner spoke about the difficulty of sentencing guidelines. “We need a place where we can safely house them. Our current jail does not have the room to contain some of these rehabilitation problems.”
I get up and snap a few pictures, I’ll put those in tonight when I can do a little touch up work on them.
We get a question about the Reconveyance, first of the evening, asking about what will be done to protect the timber harvests. “It must be a park, if that’s the purpose of it, the target kindof moved on what the target was. If it must be a park, then we should make sure that that is taken care of.” Mann on the other hand highlights the great bargain the county received on the property and the importance of a robust public process about how this moves forward. “I’m not opposed to having forestry in the areas where it is safe, I would certainly support looking at that.”
Another question about taxes, asking if they will waste money on pet projects when the tax dollars come in. “I think we all like pet projects up here, but in reality, when money comes in, it has to go into a specific fund,” said Weimer. “If we take funds and spend it on something else, we get dinged by the state auditor.”
Suspected Mayoral Candidate Michael Lilliquist asked a question, and naturally opens quoting a statistic about acres of farmland, segues to a dense speech about urbanization and the importance of rural ag land. He closes with a question about why they didn’t increase the amount of land zoned for Agricultural. Kershner points out that there are people in the rural areas are farming. “When we update the Comp plan, we need to make sure we are protecting Ag when we are looking at any sort of growth.” Buchanan pounces on this, drawing on his personal history. “My great grandparents moved here, from Norway because of the great land and beautiful resources we have . . . We need to make sure that we are getting the most out of our land.”
John Kirk asks a long-winded question about “outsiders” from the Department of Ecology telling our local planners what to do. Knutzen used as a springboard to talk about water. “We’ve got a lot of water here in Whatcom County, it the mountains, in the rivers, it is everywhere.”
Dave Onkels asks whether the County has been well served by the Growth Management Act. Buchanan says, “We should give it a chance to try. It’s costing us thousands and thousands of dollars to litigate it over and over. We are going to lose that fight. We should relax and implement it in our community.” Kershner on the other hand, believes that we have implemented the growth management act. “We are just arguing over details. We have implemented most of it.”
Next question is about the Reconveyance, “Did you actually walk that land before you bought it? It is not good park land.” Elenbaas says that no, he did not go there. Mann on the other hand visited it twice. “It is beautiful, with some incredible views . . . you need to get out there and see it. If you don’t have a good view of the land, it just becomes rules and paperwork.”
Kris Halterman, KGMI host, asked if they supported removing Lake Whatcom from its protected status as an endangered water body. Luke says that it is still in danger because of development around the lake and “it is a drinking water source,” she states matter-of-factly. Weimer points out that the hopeful report Halterman cited is just one single data point and actually included some bad news about increased in carcinogens. “We need long-term trends before we back away from our responsibilities on Lake Whatcom.”
The next question is a race-baiting question about whether the candidates support the tribes or the farmers when it comes to water. Elenbaas starts out, “I don’t think tribal members are even residents of Whatcom County so yeah . . .” he trails off but comes back saying he doesn’t like “either or” questions. Mann says that this is a long term issue that will not get resolved quickly.
First question about coal, “If the Gateway Pacific Terminal passes the EIS, and it is a done deal, what are the next steps?” Knutzen goes to his standard dodge, “We are a quasi-judicial role and we try to remain neutral. That’s why you’re not hearing a lot of talk about it.”
I managed to get in a question about whether the County Council is considering such a foolish action as banning retail marijuana stores, like the Bellingham City Council just did. Weimer responded with a big smile, “I hear they are all opening up in Ferndale.” Big laugh from Mayor Jensen, “I see the mayor of Ferndale agrees with me.” Weimer quickly asserts that the County is not planning on doing anything like that. Luke echoes my point that it is July and the City had plenty of time to get their act together. “This would not happen in the business world, we would be prepared.”
Another question about the Gateway Pacific Terminal project from Halterman again, except she refers to it as a “bulk commodity terminal,” and asked about their perspective and thinking on how they will make that decision. “It is my understanding that this new project is focused on coal, it is hard to see how that will benefit agriculture but we need to wait to see the EIS for the full report on the benefits and harms of this project.” Luke used it as a springboard to talk about a tour of berry farms that she went on.
Next question, “Do the increased rates of gun ownership make us more or less safe?” Mann, “If there are more people packing then there are more people shooting each other . . . I support the 2nd amendment and I am a NRA member. But there needs to be some limits, you do not have a right to a nuke in your backyard.” Elenbaas says that he isn’t an NRA member, “but should be.” Elenbaas continues talking about “mass casualty incidents tend to happen in ‘gun free zones'”.
City Council candidate Bob Burr speaks about the “subhuman conditions” in our county jail. He invites candidates to spend a night in the county jail. Both Buchanan and Kershner offered to spend a few hours in there and cited it as an “abomination”.
After some candidate statements, the candidates where given an opportunity to ask their opponent a question. Elenbaas went on for a while about his time spent milking cows and picking raspberries, ending with this, “What have you done in your lifetime that connects you with the agricultural community?” Mann responds, “I’m glad that you’ve asked about that. I did work on a farm growing up, milking cows and wiping out on a motorcycle trying to round up cattle, but Ben, being on the County Council in compasses so much more. There are legal issues, you are working with people and building connections.” Mann’s responding question asked about his use of his Huxley degree on his printed material, “Are you an environmentalist?” Mann asked. “Absolutely. As a hunter and a farmer, I am an environmentalist. I exude my environmentalism with a working understanding of the realities of life. I show my environmentalism by what I do, not just what I say.”
Luke took the opportunity to ask about Weimer’s recreational activities and if it includes cooking. “I can boil water with the best of them!” Weimer pivoted to his love of hiking in the mountains and his specialty recipe for the German dish spaetzle.
They were then asked to differentiate themselves from their opponents in 30 seconds or less. Weimer highlighted his diversity and wealth of experience, from building a business from the ground up to his education and years on the council. Luke said that she is different because, “I used to be one of you, I worked from the ground up.”
Mann highlighted the differences in ideology. “I’m a moderate, he’s much farther to the right than I am.” Elenbaas thanked Mann for his kind words, “Here’s a difference, he’s tall and handsome and I’m short, squat and bald . . . for those out there in radio land.” He continued that he knows where he comes from, “I’m from Whatcom County,” before closing with his familiar refrain that you should “eat local, buy local, shop local and vote local. Vote Ben.”
Kershner, on the other hand, went straight for the jugular. “What differentiates us? Commitment and leadership. I know what seat I’m running for.” Buchanan responded with a swing at Kershner’s voting record. “She was the only opposing vote against the food bank at a time when people were really hurting!”
Knutzen stated that he doesn’t know his opponent, Rud Browne, who could not make it because of a family wedding, “I don’t know how long he has been here, I don’t know him at all.” Anti-Australian sentiment aside, Knutzen said that he will “continue to show up for everything.”
Overall impressions of the event? Elenbaas’ slow and plodding answers seemed to ramble from point to point, but the crowd of Tea Party attendees cheered loudest at his responses, showing that there are no points for eloquence. Mann was his usual positive moderate self but the crowd seemed more entranced with Elenbaas. Weimer, as usual, is a standout at blending humor with serious policy answers, leaving Luke behind in the dust. In the closest race this year, neither Kershner nor Buchanan managed to land a solid blow, trading jabs without ever drawing blood.
Tomorrow, I should have a slew of pictures from the event posted. If you want to support this sort of local media coverage, please consider donating a few dollars to keep this blog running strong.