Newly elected Whatcom County councilmember Ben Elenbaas likened a Bellingham-based environmental nonprofit organization to domestic terrorists, complaining about the group’s past political advocacy at a recent county council meeting.
At the February 11 Whatcom County Council meeting, councilmembers debated whether to authorize the county executive to enter into a contract amendment between Whatcom County and RE Sources to increase the number of educational outreach opportunities in the amount of $15,000 for a total amended contract amount of $65,000.
RE Sources, a Bellingham-based nonprofit organization founded in 1982 to advocate for the environment, has implemented a waste reduction and recycling education program in local school districts and youth organizations since 2011. Participants in the program gain an understanding of the impact of personal choices on the waste stream.
In debating whether to increase the budget of the program by $15,000 to increase the number of these educational opportunities for elementary, middle and high school students, Elenbaas criticized RE Sources’ past political advocacy.
“I have a hard time with their tactics,” said Elenbaas. “If you talk to businesses around the county, you’ll hear about what I would consider ‘greenmail.’ If you look at the definition of domestic terrorism, you might even identify with some of the stuff that they do as that.”
Elenbaas continued: “They didn’t just campaign for individuals. They interfered with the public process, the public process that set the way councilmembers would be elected who would then decide how the money was divvied up.”
In response to Elenbaas’ comments, councilmember Todd Donovan said that he doesn’t like the optics of a politically active group contracting with the county, but that the contract went out for an RFP and anybody could have responded to it. “This has been recommended by the Solid Waste Advisory Committee,” said Donovan. “We don’t have anybody questioning [RE Sources’] capacity to actually deliver the services in terms of recycling education.”
Donovan then said that Elenbaas’ comments were frightening. “There’s a lot of groups, they have their nonprofit side, they have their political arm, they can use so much of their capacity to do political work within whatever the bounds that the state sets, and I think this is one of those groups that does that,” he said.
“But to call that domestic terrorism, that’s not a slippery slope. That’s like cascading off a cliff. Domestic terrorism is coordinating militia groups and advocating violence against the government … Having petitions or circulating petitions or picketing peacefully, to call that domestic terrorism is kind of frightening, I’m sorry.”
Elenbaas then replied: “I stand by what I said.”
Shannon Wright, executive director of RE Sources, responded to Elenbaas’ comments in a February 17 letter to county councilmembers. “The councilmember’s groundless accusation puts our 60 staff, board, trainees, AmeriCorps members, interns and their families at risk,” said Wright. “Whether the councilmember’s use of this threatening term stemmed from his operating with extremely inaccurate information about RE Sources or out of some other motive, we do not know. We do know that the act of branding constituents with baseless, explosive labels in council’s chambers endangers them. It also chills civic participation.”
In addition to criticizing Elenbaas’ “baseless and irresponsible accusation,” Wright’s letter noted that RE Sources never endorses, backs or campaigns for candidates or party platforms. She said that RE Sources is a “by-the-book, mainstream environmental education and advocacy organization” that uses “commonplace, established organizing tactics utilized by thousands of nonprofit organizations across our country and across the political spectrum.”
Separately, Wright said that RE Sources has no plans to take legal action against Elenbaas and instead seeks to find common ground with him.
The agenda item passed 4-3, with Tyler Byrd, Kathy Kershner and Elenbaas opposed. Byrd said he opposed the item because of concerns about transparency and abuse of process. “I disagree with the fact that that group has helped campaign in the past,” he said. Kershner, meanwhile, claimed that RE Sources has championed students walking out of school and going on climate strikes.
In her letter, Wright noted that as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, it is illegal for the group to back individual candidates. She also said that RE Sources has not organized any climate strikes, and that it is up to students’ parents to decide whether or not they should leave school for such events.