Mayor Pike’s finest Auer?

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Sat, Jan 31, 2009, 6:22 pm  //  Larry Horowitz

When Mayor Pike ran for office, he convinced me and thousands of others that he was truly concerned about the issues that impact those who call Bellingham home. In particular, I believed he would do everything in his power to protect the quality of life for those who already live here, while addressing the critical issues of accommodating additional growth. I especially felt that Mayor Pike would honor the Growth Management Act requirement to ensure the "vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods."

Having learned that Mayor Pike did not reappoint Bellingham Planning Commissioner David Auer, I feel completely betrayed. For years, Mr. Auer has been the ideal member of the planning commission (PC). Mr. Auer brought to the PC an unparalleled level of intelligence, dedication, thoughtfulness, caring and conviction. Most importantly, Mr. Auer worked tirelessly to ensure that the rights of Bellingham’s existing residents were looked after and protected, and he was never afraid to oversee a runaway planning department and speak up. Perhaps that is why he was not reappointed.

Mayor Pike, what were you thinking?

(Seriously, this is an open forum, and I hope you’ll let us know.)

John Lesow  //  Sun, Feb 01, 2009, 12:38 am

It’s not often that you have Larry Horowitz, Jack Petree, and John Lesow in agreement on a planning matter, but we always treat each other with mutual respect and we are not hesitant speak out when our elected officials do something dumb.

At today’s Citizen’s Forum, Jack Petree criticized Mayor Pike’s wrongheaded decision not to re-appoint David Auer to another 4 year term on the Bellingham Planning Commission.

Mayor Pike has sent the wrong message to the Bellingham community. And that message is that if you are smart enough, and bold enough, to question the City’s Planning Department and/or the consultacracy on any contentious planning matter, you will lose your job. 

I do not know David Auer well, but through joint City/County Planning Commission meetings on the Bellingham UGA, I quickly realized that David was a thoughtful, and exceptional City Planning Commissioner with that rare appreciation of the Big Picture; the balancing of urban and rural values.

He also had a spine, and was willing to do the intellectual heavy lifting required to challenge the entrenched and ossified City Planning bureaucracy.

Mayor Pike, don’t you realize that is what Planning Commissioners are supposed to do? 

Planning Commissioners represent the people.  They are not there to rubber stamp City Planning Staff Reports that are often self-serving and the antithesis of the real vision of city neighborhoods and the rest of the County.

David Auer was a rare exception. He was dedicated to his constituiency and put in four years of time-consuming work towards a better community for us and those to follow.  To cut him off at the legs after four years was a travesty. 

Bellingham’s process for choosing Planning Commissioners by Mayoral appointment is wrong.  It only serves to perpetuate a planning mentality by Mayors that, historically, really don’t know much about planning. 

So you wind up with a cadre of like-minded Asumunites and Pikers making decisions that affect the lives of everyone, both City and County. An inherently bad process.

Appointments to the County Planning Commission are made by County Council, the legislative body.  It is a simple up or down vote.  You apply, present your credentials, and you win by majority vote of County Council.  Your application is public record and posted on the County website.  Complete transparency.  Many very qualified people apply, only one is chosen.

But if you are chosen, the unwritten rule is that you are re-appointed after 4 years unless:

1. You have not done your job,

2. You have not attended meetings, or

3. You have demonstrated an inability to work constructively with your fellow Commissioners

In fact, I do not recall ANY Whatcom County Planning Commissioner that was not reappointed after 4 years of capable service.

David Auer was an exceptional City Planning Commissioner and should have been reappointed.

I hope he runs for Bellingham City Council. He would be a great City Councilmember.

And he could run on his record as a City Planning Commissioner.

John Lesow

g.h. kirsch  //  Sun, Feb 01, 2009, 2:25 pm

It is troubling, while not outrageous, that Larry calls on the mayor to publicly explain his reasons for appointing two new planning commissioners and not re-appointing Mr. Auer.

There seems to be an assumption that there can be no legitimate reason for not re-appointing Mr. Auer.  The call seems to be to publicly criticize Mr. Auer.  This seems unfair to both Mr. Auer and the mayor.

John Lesow lists appropriate reasons to not re-appoint a planning commissioner. He also admits he is insufficiently familiar with all the facts in this case.  Perhaps his criteria, measured by another, yielded a result John would not have expected.

On the other hand, no one seems to be saying the appointments that were made were inappropriate.

I suspect the mayor would suffer no heartburn should city planning commissioners be selected in a manner similar to the county’s.  Lord knows that the county system has blessed it with great planning commissioners.

The upside of course would be not being called on the carpet for exercising the discretion that is now a duty of his office.

Tip Johnson  //  Sun, Feb 01, 2009, 2:40 pm

It’s a shame to see Pike reject or ignore the policy expertise that could really help him do what his campaign promised, but there are many who have long since resigned themselves to this fact.  Conflict avoidance is a leading indicator of failure.  The naive hope of such an administration is that life will become more pleasant and the agenda more clear by dodging the stickiest issues.  It never works. 

Pike’s failure to reappoint his most informed and rational Planning Commissioner is indeed quite telling.  But, pray tell, who was appointed in Auer’s stead? That will tell, as Paul Harvey often said…“the rest of the story.”

Larry Horowitz  //  Sun, Feb 01, 2009, 3:02 pm

To answer Tip’s question, Pike appointed Kurt Baumgarten and Edie Norton; however, these appointments are only minimally relevant to the issue raised in my column.

Contrary to gk’s personal opinion, I find it neither “troubling” nor “outrageous” to ask why the most effective, informed, and independent planning commissioner was not reappointed, a question only Pike can answer.

I am not concerned at all that Mr. Auer’s fabulous reputation will be tarnished.  Those of us who have first-hand experience with Mr. Auer already know of his excellence.

BTW gk, considering all of your trash talk about Kremen and McShane, I find it humorous that you refer to my tame column as calling Mayor Pike on the carpet.  You ARE funny!

g.h. kirsch  //  Sun, Feb 01, 2009, 6:49 pm

Sorry you took it as criticism, Larry, but I sure didn’t mean to deny you the privilege of calling Pike on the carpet.  In fact I enjoy it when you do.

My response was in fact prompted by John Lesow’s comments. 

I do take umbrage though at your classifying my commentary on one you apparently find to be a noble public servant as “trash talking.”

The difference between the mayor and the county executive is beyond being one of degree and is indeed a difference in kind.

The one exercised his discretion in a manner inconsistent with your personal preferences.  The other abuses his discretion, to put it mildly. No trash talking intended.

John Watts  //  Sun, Feb 01, 2009, 7:27 pm

City Charter stipulates that Planning Commission members be appointed by the Mayor. Of course, that could change if the City Council introduced another system as a Charter change and it passed. The Council did request a clarification earlier this year on which commissions and committees required its approval or confirmation.
The point is, the City has a different way of selecting its Planning Commission than does the County.

Further, over the several years I have observed its operation, the City’s Planning Commission has done an excellent job of conditioning various issues and presenting its findings to the Council on an advisory basis, despite it’s exact membership.
That is the real beauty of the system; its functions pretty well with or without ‘superstars’.

David Auer did a fine job in his term and is to be commended for his able service. I often agreed with Auer and was impressed by his obvious dedication to his assignment. As an inquisitive type myself, I could also identify with his interest in understanding rules and guidelines and their underpinnings and clearly explaining the same.
But, I suspect David has accepted the reality of not being reappointed more graciously than some of his advocates. It might be interesting to hear more of the real rationale behind the complaints offered here, if for no other reason than its rarity.

Over the years, other PC members have also served with distinction, although maybe not with as much spotlight.
New members, Edie Norton and Kurt Baumgarner will also likely be excellent choices, which serves to emphasize the remarkable resources this community has from which to draw its valued volunteers!

Previously, I have favored the concept of term limits on elected officials and I still do. It is healthy to have periodic turnover, not only by electeds but also by volunteers, too.
That way, more people are attracted into issues and more diverse views are heard.
That can’t be all bad.

Wendy Harris  //  Mon, Feb 02, 2009, 3:31 am

Sorry John, but it is all bad when policy, even informal policy, is not enforced uniformly.  Members of other City advisory groups have been reappointed by the Mayor.  Disparate treatment creates the appearance, if not the actuality, of political abuse. 

Either all members of the Planning Commission and other City advisory groups appointed by the Mayor should be limited in term, or they should all be entitled to reappointment (barring clear incompetency).  In failing to reappoint David Auer, the message sent by Mayor Pike is loud and clear?troublemakers need not apply (or reapply).  This will have a chilling affect on critical review and open-minded debate among current and future advisory group members. 

Until the City amends its procedures for appointing Planning Commission members, appointees will be unable to voice their opinions without fear of reprisal. Democracy requires a balance of powers.  No balance exists when citizens entrusted to provide independent review and input of policies and regulations promulgated by the Mayor are, in fact, appointed and reappointed by the Mayor.

John Lesow  //  Mon, Feb 02, 2009, 10:28 am


You are exactly right


John Lesow

Doug Karlberg  //  Mon, Feb 02, 2009, 12:03 pm

Mr. Horowitz asks a very fair question. I hope the Mayor answers it. If not then we will have an answer of sorts. Any ambiguity will be the Mayor’s responsibility.

I continue to marvel at how important “spine” is an important criteria for measuring political leaders, and how they will perform.

Prior acts of “spine” only. Future predictions of “spine” don’t seem to work out well.

Generic “spine” is not adequate. “Spine” for the citizens interests, is not the same as having “spine” to protect the special interests lobbying government.

“Spine” should be added to the list of qualifications in the voters pamphlet.

By all writers admission, David Auer had “spine”, for us.

I would not have known this, without the NWCitizen and its writers.

Thank to both Mr. Auer, and NWC.


Tip Johnson  //  Mon, Feb 02, 2009, 3:14 pm

Spine is indeed important, but entirely insufficient in itself.  What’s more important, clearly evident in Auer’s performance and all too often lacking in such commissions and councils, is having a central nervous system appended thereto.

Without reflecting on the new appointments, I will offer the general observation that “dumbing down” boards and commissions is often an early warning sign of coming shenanigans. It is never a good sign when the “best and brightest” are passed over or dismissed.

Larry Horowitz  //  Mon, Feb 02, 2009, 9:12 pm

I?d like to respond to John Watts? comment that the real beauty of the planning commission ?system? is that it ?functions pretty well with or without ?superstars.??  Like many of John?s comments, this one seems so reasonable that it must be true.  However, like many of John?s comments, once you dig a little deeper, you find that its logic breaks down quickly.

John bases his comment on the fact that the city?s planning commission ?has done an excellent job of conditioning various issues? despite its exact membership.?  Certainly, whether or not the planning commission has done a consistently excellent job is debatable; but more importantly, to the extent the PC achieved excellence, the assumption that it did so without superstars is simply unfounded.  Perhaps the only reason excellence was achieved is because the PC has had its share of superstars over the years.  In addition to David Auer, I would include Nick Zaferatos and Joan Beardsley among those superstars who served over the past 10 years or so.  Without these superstars, it?s unlikely the PC would have performed nearly so well.

Considering the importance of real superstars on appointed commissions, the fact that Mayor Pike did not reappoint Mr. Auer is even more disturbing, not less so.

To gk: You say that you were not intending to be critical of my ?calling Mayor Pike on the carpet?; however, the first sentence in your comment is, ?It is troubling? that Larry calls on the mayor to publicly explain his reasons??  I assume when you said it is ?troubling? you didn?t mean that was a good thing.  BTW, as a serious sports fan, I love trash talk; I think it?s a big part of the game.  I have never criticized you for doing so.  I was just making a comparison between how you challenge elected officials to do the right thing and how I do it.  Surely you’ll agree that we are each entitled to our own style.

Steve Wilson  //  Tue, Feb 03, 2009, 11:37 pm

All that being said….

I am looking to the future, and the next Planning Commissioner up for re-appointment is Chris Sahlin on April Fools Day of 2009.  Chris’ dad was the previous property owner of Chuckanut Ridge who tried to develop the property in the early 1990’s.  I wonder what the Mayor will do with this one?

Mayor Pike’s finest Auer?

When Mayor Pike ran for office, he convinced me and thousands of others that he was truly concerned about the issues that impact those who call Bellingham home.…

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