Here comes the home stretch of yet another election season.
As campaigns move into get-out-the-vote mode, volunteers are phonebanking and knocking on doors, candidates hope to make an impact on more civically active voters by speaking at forums. While many of these just serve to engage the base and get a few more people to volunteer, it also delineates clear differences between the candidates on specific issues that attendees care about.
Here at the League of Women Voters’ forum in Bellingham, the candidates for Whatcom County Council are getting ready to talk about issues important to cities and communities like Bellingham, Lynden, Ferndale, Birch Bay, and Blaine. And no issue is more important than the fate of the largest proposed coal terminal on the West Coast, which the candidates who get elected will be voting on.
The candidates for County Council this year are Ken Mann (incumbent) and Ben Elenbaas for District 2, Position A; Barry Buchanan and Kathy Kershner (incumbent) for District 1, Position A; Carl Wiemer (incumbent) and Michelle Luke for District 3; and Rud Browne and Bill Knutzen (incumbent) for the at-large seat.
The four candidates endorsed by the Whatcom County Democrats, environmental groups, labor, and others are Ken Mann, Barry Buchanan, Carl Wiemer, and Rud Browne. All four need to win if the Council is to have a reliably progressive majority.
While such a majority is critical for major issues in the community like water quality, robust human services programs, infrastructure development, and the like, what happens here will also (as mentioned) determine the future of the Cherry Point Coal Terminal. This proposed coal terminal would have serious regional effects, including negative impacts on public health, transportation, and quality-of-life.
The terminal would also hurt our efforts to combat the climate crisis. It would take us in the wrong direction. Forty-eight million tons of coal would potentially be exported through the terminal each year. Forty-eight million tons.
The conservative candidates were just recently found to have been receiving money from coal and energy companies to support their campaigns, and are subjects of an active Public Disclosure Commission complaint for violating public disclosure laws. The complaint might come up during the forum, and it could certainly lead to a lively exchange between the candidates.
I will be liveblogging throughout the evening, so be sure to check back for updates.
UPDATE, 6:30 PM: We have arrived at the forum, as the crowd and the candidates file in. It’s good to see that the conservative candidates have shown their faces, as they’ve decided not to attend two previous forums which they decided was not friendly enough territory.
UPDATE, 6:35 PM: The moderators are going through the ground rules for the forum, and a brief description of what the county council does.
UPDATE, 6:42 PM: The first round of candidates are speaking, which are Barry Buchanan and Kathy Kershner, both running for Council District 1. Kathy started by talking about her bout with cancer, the business environment, and Western Washington University.
UPDATE, 6:44 PM: Kathy’s done with her introduction, and Barry Buchanan started into his family’s long history in the area, his work in the military, and how he wants to protect water quality, farmland, and the environment.
UPDATE, 6:46 PM: The first question is about the Growth Management Act, and how the candidates would prioritize development, Whatcom County is one of the only counties left in the state to not be in compliance with the act, and Barry Buchanan supports its implementation.
UPDATE, 6:47 PM: Kathy Kershner opposes the Growth Management Act citing a “board in Olympia” that doesn’t know Whatcom County. She’s making them out to be “the Other”, not their role in maintaining smart growth.
UPDATE, 6:49 PM: Topics moved quickly from water rights to the proposed jail development, and Barry Buchanan believes we need to prioritize mental health and diversion techniques, to end a cycle of mass incarceration.
UPDATE, 6:51 PM: Kershner cites the disrepair of the current jail, and wanting to cut costs to save money on the jail, also saying that people in the county need “jobs, not jail”.
UPDATE, 6:56 PM: After a few fluff questions, it was asked what criteria the candidate would use to review the permit of the coal terminal. Kathy was noncommittal, using vague terminology.
UPDATE, 6:58 PM: Barry Buchanan answered the question to say he would look at environmental impacts and environmental standards. Definitely a environmental candidate.
UPDATE, 7:00 PM: A question was asked about where the candidates are getting their money. Kathy said that she didn’t get any outside money “that she knew of”, and Barry spoke on contributions by labor groups, environmental groups, and citizens that were excited to make a change on the council.
UPDATE, 7:03 PM: We’re nearing the end of questioning the first round of candidates, and both Barry and Kathu gave their closing statements. Kathy delivered her statements with little emotion, and seemed very scripted.Barry, on the other hand, circled around to his family history, and restated his commitment to preserving the environment.
UPDATE, 7:08 PM: Ken Mann and Ben Elenbaas are now up. Ken’s persona, as a former radio host, engineer, and financial manager, and now a green refurbishment consultant, is very charming and smart, and Ben comes across as a very plodding speaker, an earthy, next-door neighbor quality. I suspect he barbecues on the weekend.
UPDATE, 7:10 PM: In his introductory statement Ben spoke about his distaste for either-or questions, and Ken spoke about his defense of the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, and his vote for protecting Lake Whatcom.
UPDATE, 7:12 PM: Questioning once again went to the Growth Management Act. Ken Mann spoke about many of its deficiencies, and Ben Elenbaas explained his belief that the Growth Management Board was biased against rural living.
UPDATE, 7:17 PM: Ben Elenbaas talked about certainty being necessary to bring businesses into the county. Ken pivoted smoothly and talked about how current conservative members of the council were hypocritical on that point, having passed an emergency moratorium on certain forms of renewable energy some time ago, implying that the goals of conservatives to provide certainty and predictability to businesses may only be for the types of businesses that they like.
UPDATE, 7:20 PM: A question was asked about what the candidates would ask their question. Ken stated a previous answer of Ben’s about how busy he is, asking how he would serve as councilmember. Ben’s answer was flat, staying mostly that we would “make time”.
UPDATE, 7:24 PM: Ben accused Ken of saying different things in the north part of the county than in the south part (Bellingham in the south, smaller towns in the north), and brought up slaughterhouses, a very heated local issue. Ken refuted Elenbaas’ statement that he was speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
UPDATE, 7:24 PM: Both candidates agreed that elections financing should be public. Go figure.
UPDATE, 7:30 PM: On a question about private vs. public ownership, Ben Elenbaas spoke again about his family’s presence in the county, and spoke vaguely on stewardship of the land. Ken asked for the question be restated, agreed with Ben that land needs to be taken care of, but pivoted to speak on stormwater runoff, incineration, and how actions that owners take on their own property can affect other people.
UPDATE, 7:35 PM: On closing statements, Elenbaas repeated his slogan, advertised his farm, and re-emphasized his local credentials. Ken spoke on the importance of local issues and his work currently as a councilmember.
UPDATE, 7:38 PM: Carl Weimer and Michelle Luke, running for Council District 3. Michelle ran against Carl four years ago and lost, and was the subject of much conversation back then when she was asked how she was qualified for the job and could not respond, instead sitting in silence.
UPDATE, 7:41 PM: Carl expressed his support for the Growth Management Act in helping smart growth and maintaining quality-of-life. Michelle Luke explained her thoughts that she believes the Act has been improperly interpreted in the County.
UPDATE, 7:45 PM: When talking about permitting the coal terminal Michelle stumbled and said she would look at the documents. Carl spoke on how he believes in climate change, ocean acidification, and the effect the project would have on marine population and how that knowledge would help make his decision. He’s definitely the environmental candidate in this race.
UPDATE, 7:47 PM: When asked about the slaughterhouse ordinance which just passed the County Council, Carl spoke on how much of a mess the ordinance was when it came from the Planning Commission, which his opponent chairs, forcing Michelle to spend her time defending her work on the ordinance.
UPDATE, 7:49 PM: Carl’s definitely taking the lead in this race, slamming Michelle again and again with the unsatisfactory work of the Planning Commission.
UPDATE, 7:52 PM: Michelle calls planning codes outdated and insufficient to protect farmland. Carl expanded on the topic, and moved to saying that farmland shouldn’t be used to build housing, and that farmers need dedicated water rights.
UPDATE, 8:02 PM: Michelle and Carl launch into their closing statements. Michelle thanks the League of Women Voters and say they know where she stands. I hope they do, because I sure don’t, especially on the specifics. Carl ended with passion and excitement, animated in his actions and his voice. Next up are the final candidates in forum, Rud Browne and Bill Knutzen for the At-Large position.
UPDATE, 8:04 PM: Bill Knutzen introduced himself first, speaking about agriculture, jobs, and his foster children. He also made sure to make a joke about his opponent’s name.
UPDATE, 8:08 PM: Rud made comparisons between himself and his opponent, stating how he became a US citizen by choice, migrating from Australia and being part of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. He also made comparisons between his business and his opponent’s, stating the hundreds of employees and multiple awards his company has.
UPDATE, 8:09 PM: Bill Knutzen called zoning changes “stealing”, and talked about the faces behind the changes. I’m worried about the logical extensions of that statement.
UPDATE, 8:10 PM: Rud Browne dispelled the myth of the Growth Management Act as a big, bad entity, stating it’s role in protecting all property owners and citizens in the area.
UPDATE, 8:13 PM: When asked about how as a councilmember they would help with poverty alleviation. Rud spoke on his work as CEO and his charity work, and Bill Knutzen explained his work getting Comcast to provide internet access to low-income individuals and his church work.
UPDATE, 8:16 PM: When asked about racial profiling in the county, Bill Knutzen denied it was going on. Rud Browne spoke to the issue where Customs and Border Enforcement have been called on as interpreters by the police, and then asking for the documentation of the very same people who were calling for help.
UPDATE, 8:20 PM: When asked about the coal terminal, Bill talked about using the information given to him and serving in the role of the quasi-judicial body that the Council must adhere to in making the permitting decision. Rud Browne made an oath that he would do nothing that would make the permit be decided in court, instead of by the Council.
UPDATE, 8:23 PM: Bill Knutzen wants to prioritize budgets instead of raising taxes, includes parks among “frivolous” things the county spends on. Rud talked about making sure children are educated and fed.
UPDATE, 8:30 PM: Already at closing statements, and Bill Knutzen stumbles a bit, but regains his footing by saying that decisions need to be made locally in Whatcom County. Rud Browne spoke about how welcoming the community is, before re-emphasizing his business experience and his qualifications in creating jobs.
UPDATE, 8:47 PM: The forum is over, and a few last thoughts: the conservative candidates are trying to burnish their local credentials to make the outsider the Growth Management Board and not the coal companies which have been donating to their campaigns. The forum was filmed to be put on local access television, and I’ll link to it when it goes online. Good night folks!