Posted by: sweeneyblog | March 10, 2014

County Hires GPT Permit Lead as Senior Planner

Buckle yourself in, this one is going to be a doozy. The Whatcom County Planning Department has hired a planner who was previously in charge of the Gateway Pacific Terminal permitting. This potential conflict of interest was identified by David Stalheim, one of the writers of a local blog titled “Get Whatcom Planning.

Cliff Strong's Resume

Cliff Strong’s Resume

Back in September 2013, the county executive hired Cliff Strong, who at the time was a land use planner with the City of Mukilteo. Strong was hired as a “Senior Planner” for the county in the natural resources department where he is responsible for long range planning, heading up the critical areas ordinance update, WRIA planning & coordination, and other duties as assigned.

However, he was already well-known within the planning department since he was the one handling (or not handling) permits for Gateway Pacific Terminal when they got caught illegally clearing land up at Cherry Point. At the time, Strong was working for AMEC Earth and Environmental, which was employed by Gateway Pacific Terminal. When they had to apply for retroactive permits for what they had done, Strong was the first name listed as the applicant (see page 6 here). On page 11 of this correspondence about the illegal clearing, the representative for the terminal refers to Strong as, “our planner on the Gateway Pacific Terminal project.”

Clearly, Strong worked this issue previously, so I called Sam Ryan, director for the Planning Department to ask what Strong is currently working on. She said his main role is long range planning and he is currently working on the critical areas update. “He has not and will not work on anything having to do with the Terminal project.” Jean Melious, Stalheim’s partner-in-blog at Get Whatcom Planning, speculated that Strong could be appointed the county SEPA official, but Ryan was clear that Strong will not be working on anything involving that project.

I’ve filed a public record request to verify this is the current situation. The Whatcom County Code of Ethics does not prohibit hiring former and/or current clients of the county. However, if Strong were to work on any issues related to the terminal, there would be a serious case for appearance of fairness concerns.



  1. Another interesting and informative posting. Without your blog, it would be much more difficult to determine what’s transpiring politically in Whatcom County.

    With respect to this news, it is redolent of conflict of interest; however, prudence suggests waiting for further details (specifically, your public record request) before forming an opinion. With that disclaimer, it’s fair to note that surely, to avoid unseemly inferences, the Planning Dept. could have sought expertise in a more “neutral” venue. It’s likely the case that the knowledge and expertise offered by Mr. Strong is not unique to him.

  2. That could be said of most of Barack Obama’s recent appointments too.

    • Quite true, but absolutely extraneous to the matter at hand. Sensing yet another futile and time-wasting series of exchanges in the offing, I’ll sign off from this thread now.

  3. We have had a similar situation with the Port, where a former director (Jim Jorgensen) worked hard to close the Blaine airport. He doesn’t live inside the city and had no standing to comment, except, as he claimed, the beacon shone into his bedroom at night. It was a blatant conflict of interest for which he was never held accountable. He was aided by another outsider, Dennis Hill, a real estate slaesman who thought he could make a pile off selling the land, which he diodn’t, but together with the trucking businesses in town managed to get the airport closed. Even our chamber president wanted it closed, first time I’ve ever heard of a chamber of commerce head wanting to close her own city airport. I think next on her list was I-5 but she didn’t get re-elected.

  4. So…. he ‘plans’ for activities that cost the developer $1.6 million in settlement dollars for violations of the Clean Water Act… now why would our County Executive hire someone with that performance record to manage any water related or planning related activities?

  5. […] article about the former Gateway Pacific Terminal consultant who was hired by the county Planning Department generated quite a buzz, on and off this site. True […]

  6. […] Executive Jack Louws added his thoughts to controversy around hiring Cliff Strong at the County Planning department. Here is the complete text of his response to the […]

  7. […] Honorable Mentions: The county tried to buy a toxic morgue from its own coroner, a move that is almost as incestuous as it is environmentally troubling and the County Planning department hires the former lead permit guy for the Gateway Pacific Terminal as a senior planner. […]

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