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Temper Tantrum Taints City Council

By On
• In Bellingham,

[Note: This article was written by NWCitizen regular contributor, Dick Conoboy and by Anne Mackie, a community activist for 50 years. Her first encounter with authoritarianism was in 1966 when a bucket of mop water was thrown out the window of the Federal Court House building on Magnolia St. at a group of anti-war protesters that she was part of.]

The August 8 evening meeting of the Bellingham City Council must be viewed (video here) if you want to see the direction the city is taking on stifling citizen involvement in planning for our future.

But first, important background: The City Council work session on the Comprehensive Plan held August 1st, was held in an essentially empty room. The city calendar for the day only listed a “Track and Field Event.” At this meeting the committee of the whole voted to reject the recommendations of the Planning Commission with respect to a policy level statement that would have retained owner occupancy of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) in Single Family neighborhoods. This is a 20+ year-long condition for use.

The August 1 discussion and subsequent vote were carried out despite the absence of council member Terry Bornemann, who had previously asked that the topic be postponed until he could be present.

Council President Pinky Vargas ignored this request and scheduled the discussion in Bornemann’s absence. Clearly, she chose to disregard his contribution to a debate he has characterized as the single most important element for the city’s housing zoning regulations.

This irritated council member Bornemann enough for him to make a statement regarding the ADU issue immediately following the consideration of business at the committee of the whole on August 8th. He promised that the ADU vote was not final and that there remained time to reconsider the issue. You can view his comments on the committee of the whole video at 1:07:10 on the counter here.

In meetings of the Planning Commission held earlier this spring, numerous citizens lobbied hard and successfully to gain the commission’s support for several ADU regulations that would focus on zoning, density, appropriate locations, and site management. Terry Bornemann had been aware of the mobilization by citizens around this issue – an issue that has garnered decades of his attention on council – so, excluding him from the August 1 debate was a maneuver to ignore the opposition.

As the August 8 meeting was about to begin, and prior to the “Call to Order,” we heard the council president yelling at Bornemann in the City Council chambers: “That’s just your opinion, Terry. That’s just your opinion.” Vargas was literally yelling.

Tensions were high as she called the meeting into session with her usual opening statement that the council “...provides a fair and safe environment, so no clapping and jeering; we want everyone to feel comfortable.” Six people had signed up to speak during the public comment period. It was an extremely short business meeting and adjourned after 33 minutes, at 7:33pm.

Anne Mackie of the York Neighborhood spoke first. Her remarks were quickly interrupted by Vargas and council member Roxanne Murphy when they began to giggle, laugh and converse with one another. Anne stopped speaking and waited for them to stop. As her three-minute time limit was running out, she said, “In conclusion…” and continued to wrap up her remarks. At that point, Vargas began yelling into the microphone at Anne: “Your time is up, Anne. Your time is up, Anne.” Anne continued to complete her final remarks although very shaken by Vargas’ rudeness and authoritarian demeanor. [Watch the actual video here at 2:00 on the counter.] Anne’s entire presentation, including time for the disruption, lasted 3.33 minutes.

Vargas then did the same thing to another public speaker, Sean Wheeler from York, who also had the temerity to run over his three-minute time limit. After yelling into her microphone at him, the council president actually got up out of her chair and stormed down to the speaker podium to make him stop. Her intention at that point was a bit unclear. Sean eventually just walked away. He had spoken for 3 minutes and 17 seconds. This unusual behavior is captured on the video, which you can watch here at 8:30 on the counter. Ironically, as mentioned above, this council meeting lasted only a half an hour! There was a very short line up of speakers and agenda items.

It appears Vargas is more concerned with her stopwatch than providing a safe place for speakers to be heard by the council. A few seconds to briefly finish one’s thought, beyond three minutes, is an acceptable way to conduct meetings. But not with Pinky Vargas running the show.

As we all know from many City Council and Planning Commission sessions, speakers unintentionally run over their three-minute time limit and quickly try to wrap up. The only speakers I have observed to be allowed to go on and on have been representatives of the development industry. The hoi-polloi, on the other hand, are generally respectful to these speakers.

What a low point we have reached in this city when citizens are yelled at and physically intimidated to prevent them from speaking. This heavy handedness has no place in our government. While there may be examples of this on the national political stage, it does not belong in Bellingham's city council meetings.

After the meeting adjourned, Sean Wheeler and Dick Conoboy spoke to the council president, telling Vargas there was a large reservoir of resentment among those active in their neighborhoods as they have watched, over the years, every break given to developers and businesses whose representatives are paid for their time to speak before the council and meet with them during the week. Ordinary citizens do not get paid for their activism and often give up much of their time with family and friends to work on behalf of the public good. She gave assurances that in the future ALL public speakers will be held to three minutes. We shall see.

The ongoing discussion about the Comprehensive Plan update has brought to light several examples of how public discussion has been stifled. There was the four-month long battle to get the mayor to allow the topic of the update on the agenda at the Mayors Neighborhood Advisory Commission meetings. Additionally, there have been exclusionary invitations for participation in several focus groups, task forces, and special steering committees. The GMA has a requirement for genuine public process. Has it been meaningful in Bellingham, or simply a charade? More to come…

About Dick Conoboy

Writer • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

David Camp

Aug 16, 2016

Boy does this contrast to the very relaxed treatment I got when I spoke for over ten minutes several years ago.

It seems to me that tempers were already high when the public speech time arrived - these pesky neighborhood activists getting in the way are SO irritating - but it does seem indicative of an increasing disrespect among our elected for neighborhood concerns. Perhaps this is why there is a move to eliminate neighborhood associations?

For the record, I support ADU’s and find myself disagreeing with my neighborhood association on this topic. However, a bit more respect for citizens seems in order. Or, perhaps, Ms. Vargas might consider yielding the gavel to someone more equanimous.

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John Servais

Aug 16, 2016

Technically,  the clock was started before Sean started speaking.  It buzzed before his 3 minutes speaking was reached.  And Council president Pinky Vargas called out “Time” before the 3 minutes was even up.  Within 12 seconds of calling time, she was out of her chair and walking over to confront Sean.

Also, note when first neighborhood speaker, Anne, started speaking, our mayor Kelli Linville turned away from her, looked over the audience, waved to someone and walked away.  Total lack of respect for the citizen speakers at our city council meetings.

Sadly, this is all too common.  A couple years ago a council member - not the chair even - did not like what I was saying and interrupted me during the 3 minutes, telling me to shut up and sit down.  Gene Knutsen countered, saying let him speak.  And I’ve seen others dissed when some council members do not like what is said.

Conoboy is very correct in noting that the council allows those in favor or those complimenting the council or the developers to routinely speak over their 3 minutes - and sometimes for minutes over. 

Pinky Vargas definitely stepped over the line. She has not the temperament to conduct a public meeting.  The council might consider replacing her.  Often people have told me how they are reluctant to speak out because of the hostile attitude of the council.  This physical confrontation of a citizen by the chair of the council in a open meeting is a new low for the council.

The speaker, Sean, was strongly criticizing the council, as had the two speakers before him.  Pinky could not handle the criticism.

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Geoff Middaugh

Aug 16, 2016

Outstanding article.  This stuff is complicated, and important.  Plans matter.

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Tim Paxton

Aug 18, 2016

Q: Were any people in the Council Chambers wearing annoying, bright colors in their outfits? 

It is possible that the intermittent photic stimulation (IPS) at 10 to 30 Hz can trigger photoparoxysmal responses with bright colors.  Maybe the combination of the overhead Council Chamber lights and some unknown, yet awful, fashion choices amongst the ones present are causing some people to believe that they can threaten or abuse the open session speakers?

Or, it could just be a tantrum.

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Michael Lilliquist

Aug 20, 2016

Without getting into the events from that particular city council meeting, my greater concern is statements such as “people have told me how they are reluctant to speak out because of the hostile attitude of the council.”  This worries me greatly. Is it true?  In times past, I have been told how friendly and respectful the Bellingham city council meetings have been. Has that changed? Does it vary from meeting to meeting, year to year?  The bottom line for me is that we need to create a place and forum that feels safe for differing opinions, because in this world differing opinions are inevitable and normal.

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David Camp

Aug 21, 2016

Michael Lilliquist - are the rumors true that the City is installing a public speaker microphone “kill” switch? If true, you might want to consider the disrespect for citizens and for the democratic process this represents.

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Anne Mackie

Aug 21, 2016

“Kill switch”? How about eliminating public comment altogether? Save the money for a “kill switch” and a lot of wasted time, too. Already the public comments are typically shoved to the end of the meeting by President Vargas. Nice way to tell the public: “We really don’t want to hear what you have to say.” That is, unless you’re someone’s paid consultant, then the timer gets ignored.

So, exactly what comments did I make that caused the “shout down” and a possible future “kill switch”? Here’s my 3:33 minutes transcript from the August 8th meeting:

“Good evening Council, my name is Anne Mackie. I live in the York neighborhood. Working class neighborhoods were thrown under the bus by the Council at its special August 1st meeting. The vote by Barker, Vargas, Hammill, and Murphy to remove owner occupancy of Accessory Dwelling Units in single family neighborhoods, just gave a green light to the real estate and rental industry to continue what they have been doing for the last 20 years:  ignoring the housing rules of our city.

Your deliberations took all of 15 minutes. Yet, it is the most important zoning change that will affect working class neighborhoods citywide that we have ever seen.

The August 1st meeting was not posted on the City’s Public Calendar – yes, I understand that was a clerical omission. And yes, the five-day required notification for the meeting had been mailed out; however, at the preceding July 24th Council meeting, Mr. Bornemann had requested a postponement of this very important discussion until he could be in attendance today. You chose to ignore that request. Your decision was made in essentially a vacant room.

Did you know how controversial this is?  Yes, I believe you do know that.  Did you know you were gifting, gifting property to the rental and real estate industry, which monopolizes our once-affordable single family housing stock? And holds that rental property in their financial portfolios and doesn’t put it on the open market for sale?

The requirement to have owner occupancy for ADUs was enacted with the Washington State Fair Housing Act of 1993.  The intention of this requirement was to assist regular people – working class families – a means to obtain home ownership and pay their mortgage. It was never intended as a means to add to the profits of the rental and real estate industry. It was not envisioned as a gift for absentee owners for yet more rental income.

Retaining single-family neighborhoods is not a bad thing. Wrecking them – as I believe your new policy can do – is not a solution to homelessness. That growing crisis is rooted in the lack of free universal health care, personal financial crisis, substance abuse and addiction.

Do you really think these backyard ADUs, excuse me… (at this point in my comments, I stopped speaking because of the distracting giggling and laughter of Vargas and Murphy)…Do you really think these backyard ADUs are going to provide housing for the homeless?  Didn’t we as a city approve the Housing Fund levy?  Didn’t we as neighborhoods approve our seven different….(The buzzer rings.) …new urban villages?
 
To conclude, to conclude…Council member Barker stated in her arguments that there are “mistaken beliefs that renters are bad.” It’s our neighborhood organizations… excuse me I’m going to conclude. Just pretend I’m a developer and I get an extra 30 seconds. Our organizations fought for renters’ rights in this community, and it’s a false accusation to say we’re anti-renters. Thank you for my three minutes in this critical discussion. And all due respect.”
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Steve Abell

Aug 21, 2016

Full disclosure: Dick and I are friends; we both serve on the Samish Neighborhood Board of Directors. I’ve spoken to the Council on several occasions both in hearings and public comment periods. There were times when I could not tell if the council members were paying attention but I have not experienced the level of rudeness and intolerance recently displayed by certain elected officials toward citizens expressing their views. I even once complimented the council for allowing comments to extend slightly beyond three minutes if the speaker’s comments were well-reasoned and clearly presented. Michael, to answer your question: it seems things HAVE changed, and not for the better. Ms. Vargas needs to reset her priorities for receiving public input. If she won’t do this, maybe the only answer left to the citizenry is the ballot box.

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Dick Conoboy

Aug 22, 2016

[The following is a written version of my comments before the council on August 8th.]

I am utterly stupefied by the council decision not to retain the Planning Commission’s policy statement in the Comp Plan regarding the requirement of owner occupancy with respect to ADUs.  This decision by the Planning Commission was the result of many hours of discussion during work sessions in which both the citizens and the building and real estate industry provided oral and written commentary.  The Planning Commission decision was all the more significant in proposing a mandate for owner occupancy in that, paradoxically, 6 out of 7 representatives on that commission actually work now or have worked in real estate/building industry or allied occupations.  Furthermore, during the last year or so a focus group led by the Planning Department that included not only neighborhood representatives but also building/real estate professionals and homeless advocates stressed concerns about the owner occupancy of either the ADU or the main house. 

The Growth Management Act mandated the preservation of neighborhood character to protect single family neighborhoods.  Without the mandate for owner-occupancy all SF zoning will essentially become duplex zoning (multi-family) with little to no regard to that “neighborhood character”,  which is essentially devolving into a meaningless term for the city of Bellingham.  This will be a boon, almost solely to the professional landlords, real estate and construction industry, who have the financial means to build ADUs whose affordability has not been demonstrated.  Furthermore, these accessory units will provide precious little assistance to the 700+/- homeless in that there is no guarantee that ADUs will be priced for those who are essentially without resources to begin with. 

Prior to any consideration of revising the ADU ordinance, I believe is it incumbent on the council to provide Comp Plan policy language that will ensure the maintenance of neighborhood character and prevent a wholesale, de facto redefinition of single family zoning.  This requires a policy level mandate for owner occupancy of a single family zoned property that has an ADU.

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Anne Mackie

Aug 22, 2016

Sound Familiar Bellingham?

“Homeownership: still the path to the American dream,” by Brier Dudley.
Great opinion piece in August 22, Seattle Times. Here’s the link;
http://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/homeownership-is-still-the-path-to-the-american-dream/

“For Seattleites, homeownership is still a foundation of the American dream

“Progressives should be especially wary of the proposal by Mayor Ed Murray and City Councilmember Mike O’Brien to allow Seattle’s single-family homes to be converted to investor-owned, multifamily rentals.”—click the link above for the full article at the Seattle Times.

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Christy Nieto

Aug 29, 2016

Wow, that is a temper tantrum? I live with a two year old and I can assure you that THAT was not a temper tantrum. I found that both speakers were rather rude and disrespectful of the call to finish speaking, the first says “pretend I’m a developer…”. And Vargas is saying “thank you” when she is obviously not happy about the situation and could have said a number of other things. I think that there is a whole lot of over-reacting happening by some uppity individuals. If you can’t handle being scolded or called out then mind your manners. Just wow.

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