Posted by: sweeneyblog | August 21, 2013

Conservative Port Candidates Balk at Possible Debate

When Lisa Neulicht of the Reduce Jet Noise group wanted to organize a Town Hall meeting with the port candidates about the future of our airport, she ran into some unexpected resistance. Both Republican-endorsed candidates, Dan Robbins and Ken Bell (read my interview with him here), balked at the idea of a “debate.”

You can read the exchange for yourself here. I have blocked out the name of the person who forwarded it to me out of respect for my anonymous tip.

Ken Bell

Ken Bell

Bell was crystal clear about his position. “I am keenly interested in a discussion and hearing what you and the residents of Whatcom have to say about the impacts of the airport. I am not interested in another debate.” He wrote to Leulicht.

Robbins echoed Bell’s position. “I also agreed to attend a meeting to hear about your concerns about the negative impacts at the airport from your point of view.”

Leulicht made it very clear that she was modeling the event after the Tea Party debate, which was attended by all the candidates for port – yet the idea of another debate in the public eye caused both Bell and Robbins to threaten to drop out.

Stymied by their reluctance, Leulicht brought in the moderator of the event, Columbia Neighborhood president J.R. Johnson to reassure the skittish conservatives. “My job as moderator is to make sure there is no back-and-forth, but a simple question and answer session so everyone can make more informed choices. I hope this, as well as the other organizers’ responses alleviates any concern on your part.”

It just makes me wonder what is so terrifying about having an open discussion about the issues facing the port. Especially this year, when the County Council races are taking up so much of the public’s attention, I would hope those running for port would welcome an opportunity to elaborate on their ideas in an open debate- yet Bell and Robbins are limiting these opportunities.

By comparison, Renata Kowalczyk and Mike McAuley both agreed to attend the Town Hall without any demands or restrictions.

UPDATE: Ken Bell has responded in the comments, please take a look to see his response.



  1. The issue of airport noise is yet another illustration of the concept of “negative externalities” (i.e., a cost not absorbed by the commercial enterprise but borne by the general public). While there is a partial offset in the form of taxes imposed on airlines, this hardly negates the effect on property values, “quality of life” and psychological health of those impacted. In any event, these tangible impacts are certainly worthy of discussion and “debate”.

    Perhaps these two “conservatives” are tacitly acknowledging the truth of the old adage that, if you say nothing people can only speculate about your lack of understanding whereas if you express your opinion they can be certain of it. Or, as another alternative, maybe (just like some of their confreres in the County Council), they consider themselves quasi-jurists and cannot “debate” any issue that might compromise their judicial integrity. Naturally, voters can decide for themselves whether or not they feel someone who is “…not interested in another debate” is best suited to represent them in an elected position.

  2. From reading Ken Bell’s response, it appears that he was mislead or misunderstood the nature of the meeting. Neither Bell nor Robbins have served on the Port Commission and, as with Kowalczyk, have a lot to learn. I think that the organizers should go along with them. It would be helpful to have the candidates sit informally around in a large circle to listen and participate in a discussion of noise and other airport issues. Even McCauley could benefit by that. Lord knows the Port needs to do a better job of listening. It doesn’t need to be formal a la Tea Party forums with applauding and such .Nobody is a proponent of airport noise and nobody has a flawless answer. People could benefit and learn as much from hearing what the candidates have to say (or not say) in an informal setting.

    I would go to such a forum, but not to a debate. I have already decided who will get my votes, but would be interested in a problem defining and problem solving public discussion on airport issues.

  3. Mr. Burr has the more accurate read on this. Yes we are keenly interested in more dialogue. The Tea Party event was less about listening to concerns and more about exploring positions of the candidates to contrast and compare. There was no interaction with the questioner.
    The Tea Party format would have been a shallow and short event, especially if it were limited to the airport.
    I have not been to a meeting where I have been able to hear from those directly impacted by recent changes at the airport. The debate format does not allow us the opportunity to interact, query and understand.
    I have accepted every debate and agreed to attend every meeting I am able to attend.
    This event has more value to everyone if we, as candidates, get to dialog.
    Anyone interested in hearing us debate can go to any of the events we have scheduled in September and October. I have not turned down one single debate.

    Perhaps Mr. Sweeney, you should have quoted my entire response.
    It was and I Quote.

    When this started it was requested that we attend a meeting to discuss the airport. I agreed to come and discuss the airport and the issues surrounding the expansion, noise etc. I did not agree to a debate.
    This is the message you sent originally:

    “Meeting with Whatcom residents to discuss the airport”

    ” Please remember, that the night’s discussion is to focus solely on the airport and its impacts on our community”

    I am keenly interested in a discussion and hearing what you and the residents of Whatcom have to say about the impacts of the airport. I am not interested in another debate.
    The format you suggested is not conducive to discussion nor a proper airing of the issues. There is no time to hear concerns and develop an understanding of your concerns.

    We don’t get to listen if we are on the podium fielding one minute questions that may or may not be on the airport.
    If you want to go back to the original intent, I am more that willing to attend.

    We have plenty of debates scheduled and one more does not allow me the opportunity to hear the neighborhood concerns and respond accordingly.”

    Ken Bell

    • This is a solid response, Ken, thank you for reaching out. I’ll link it in the body of the post.

      • Thanks Riley! You are a stand up guy.

      • I try!

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