By Stefanie Donahue and Pat Grubb
Leading up to the November 7 general election, voters posed a series of questions to candidates vying for positions serving the Port of Bellingham, Whatcom County Council, Blaine school district, fire district 21 and Blaine City Council at election forums in Blaine and Birch Bay.
Over 60 people attended the October 17 Blaine forum which included proponents for the Blaine/Birch Bay Park and Recreation District levy and candidates running for seats on city council and school district. The forum was held at the Blaine Senior and Community Center on H Street. Moderator Pat Grubb, publisher of The Northern Light, posed questions that had been submitted by email as well as taking them from the audience.
Parks commissioners Sheli Moore and Billy Brown gave a run-through of various park programs and projects and stressed that the levy replaces an existing, expiring levy. In order to pass, the levy requires 60 percent approval while 40 percent (3,441 voters) of the turnout in the last general election must vote. Close to 70 percent of voters approved the levy the last time it appeared on the ballot.
Laura McKinney, who is running for Blaine school board, district 5, said she was a strong proponent of STEM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and programs that prepared students for career, college and citizenship. Her opponent, incumbent Mike Dodd, declined an invitation to attend the forum.
There are three city council seats up for election this cycle, each of which has attracted an unusual degree of interest from prospective candidates. There are three running for Ward 2, Position 4, incumbent Charlie Hawkins, Justin Ledesma and Rachel Hruitford (write-in candidate). Ward 3, Position 6 has incumbent Paul Greenough facing off against Eric Davidson while the at-large seat is being contested by incumbent Harry Robinson and Alicia Rule.
At times, the forum had the feel of a town hall meeting with the audience asking about the general state of affairs such as the status of a possible Blaine Amtrak stop, the Peace Portal boardwalk project and new business recruitment. Numerous questions focused on the downtown area and what could be done to drive economic growth; the state of city finances was also front and center.
All candidates agreed that the downtown area, economic development and city finances were the top priorities; incumbents recounted past and future efforts that addressed those problems while challengers asserted they would bring a fresh approach to council.
About 40 people attended an evening election forum in Birch Bay on October 12 at Birch Bay Bible Community Church. Candidates were given three minutes to introduce themselves before moderator Terry Terry asked a series of questions over the span of about two hours.
Candidates up for election included Whatcom County Council at-large candidates Barry Buchanan and Mary Kay Robinson, Port of Bellingham candidates Dan Robbins, Ken Bell, Barry Wenger and Michael Shepard (who was represented by Ruth Higgins), Blaine school district candidate Laura McKinney and fire district 21 candidates Rich Bosman and Larry McPhail.
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo spoke in support of Proposition 2017-6, the Whatcom County Jail facilities and use tax, and Blaine-Birch Bay Park and Recreation District 2 commissioner Sheli Moore and Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce president Billy Brown spoke in support of Proposition 2017-8, the park district property tax levy.
Much of the discussion focused on the Whatcom County Jail, which Elfo said was “literally falling apart.” Despite agreeing on the need for a new jail, Whatcom County Council candidates Buchanan and Robinson expressed opposing views on the measure which would fund the construction and maintenance of a new jail in Ferndale. Incumbent councilmember Buchanan voted against placing the jail on the ballot last May and expressed concern with the proposed location and the size, among other things. Robinson said it all comes down to safety and advocated for the measure’s approval. There is no perfect plan, she said, adding, “if we wait for perfection, we’ll never make it happen.”
For Port of Bellingham candidates, a portion of the discussion focused on economic development beyond Bellingham’s waterfront. When asked how they would invest in Birch Bay, candidates emphasized the need for guidance from community leaders. “Prioritize everything that you want and bring it to the port,” said incumbent commissioner Dan Robbins. Barry Wenger added, “Please submit your proposals.”