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Surly Citizens Object to Backroom Deals

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Anne Mackie guest writes about the Monday, Oct 17, Bellingham City Council meeting. She is a community leader who lives in the York neighborhood.

What does it look like when a special interest group has your City Council president in their back pocket? It looks like what transpired at the October 17 Bellingham City Council Public Hearing on the Comprehensive Plan.

Rumors of a “crowd control problem” at city hall Monday night circulated on police scanners. As someone who was there, I can say the only control problem was emanating from Council President Pinky Vargas who violated meeting rules to accommodate her friends in the real estate and building industry.

At the beginning of the public hearing, Vargas announced that a consultant named Michael Luis would be given 15 minutes to lead off the public hearing with a presentation on behalf of five people who had ceded their three-minute time slots to him. This unprecedented maneuver was a clear violation of council meeting rules, which state: “Meeting attendees cannot ‘donate’ their speaking time to another person” (Council Resolution 2014-25, Council Rules of Procedure, Exhibit A, Item 5).

When asked to name the five people and their organizations, Vargas begrudgingly stumbled through the list. Were they all present? Had they even signed in to speak? No. It was a pre-arranged hijacking of the public hearing and council members were caught off guard, as well as the public; however, the planning staff knew about it.

When citizens objected loudly to Vargas’ announcement to allow this favoritism to a special interest group, she tried to defend the maneuver and claimed another group had done this a year ago. Not true. The other group (Association of Bellingham Citizens), led by Larry Horowitz, had lined up five speakers who each took three minutes to make their presentation. Not the same thing.

When Vargas recessed the meeting and vacated council chambers, four other members followed her out. This left Michael Lilliquist and Dan Hammill behind to hear objections from citizens. When the meeting reconvened, Hammill voiced his objections as well.

During the recess, someone called the police to complain about a “crowd control problem at City Hall.” What an embarrassment to this city! We have a council president who cannot follow the rules, citizens object, she suspends the proceedings, then someone calls for backup from the police so she can carry on with her rule breaking. Citizens are then accused of being disrespectful. Where is Vargas’ respect for the council’s rules?

Vargas believes she has the authority to make the rules or break the rules to fit her needs. We have seen her in action before. In August, she shouted down citizens who had exceeded their allotted three minutes by a few seconds, and she stormed down from her perch to confront one citizen eyeball-to-eyeball. Monday night, she again ran the meeting into the ground on behalf of her friends in the real estate and building industry and allowed their paid, hired gun to speak for 15 minutes in violation of meeting rules.

Were the citizens who objected to this hijacking of the public hearing in the wrong? Should we silently watch while the public process is dismantled? If citizens had not objected, had not caused an uproar, there would be no record of the controversy and no record of Vargas’ pattern of poor management of council meetings.

On July 11, Vargas’ same favored consultant had been scheduled to speak at a work session of the council on the Comprehensive Plan. He had falsely been described to council as a speaker from the local Whatcom Affordable Housing Coalition, when in fact he was a paid consultant hired by the Washington Realtor Association to speak in Bellingham about “flaws in the city’s 20-year plan for housing and land use.” See my article of Sep 10 on NWCitizen.

Objections raised at that time caused Michael Luis to be cancelled. Why, now, would it be appropriate to entertain him at the final October 17 public hearing? Why would favoritism to this speaker not be just as objectionable now? Why does Bellingham’s Comprehensive Plan public hearing need the former mayor of Medina, WA, on Mercer Island, with the second highest per-capita income in the state and the 49th highest in the United States, to shed his expertise on Bellingham?

Citizens must stand up and expose this kind of opportunism and manipulation of our public process. Perhaps it’s time to recommend a new council president take over and right the ship.

One thing that was made clear by Michael Luis when he spoke: “You have to know what’s going to work for the industry.” Yes, developers need to let the city know what works for them. That’s what he said, and that’s what Vargas made sure the council got to hear, uninterrupted except by the peanut gallery who thought, mistakenly, it was a public hearing for citizens who live here.

About Anne Mackie

Writer • Member since Aug 21, 2016

Anne Mackie joined the anti-war movement in 1966 as a Western student and quickly linked up with other political movements such as Radical Women Seattle, where she was a founding member [...]

Comments by Readers

Larry Horowitz

Oct 19, 2016

While Anne is attending an MNAC meeting to discuss the role, makeup and potential bias of the Bellingham Planning Commission, I’ll take a moment to chime in.

Whenever members of an audience are disruptive, the tendency is to blame those who create the interruption.  During the commotion, Guy Occhiogrosso, president/CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry, posted on Facebook, “I’m sitting in a city council meeting and I’m completely appalled.  This is how a public process should NOT take place.”

Was Guy reacting to Pinky’s disdain for council’s own rules and her clear bias in favor of a special interest group?  Nope.  He was admonishing the audience for objecting.  Said Guy, “Some residents of this community should be ashamed.”

Rather than determine why Anne and others objected, Guy – and virtually everyone else who posted on his FB page – were simply “appalled at the actions tonight.”

As I wrote to Councilmember Michael Lilliquist,

“when citizens yell at Council meetings, the yelling represents a sense of frustration.  If Council hopes to prevent the yelling going forward, it makes sense to understand why citizens are frustrated.

“Pinky’s plan to allow Michael Luis to speak for 15 minutes violated Council’s own rules.  Anne Mackie rightfully objected but was told by Pinky that ‘This is not a conversation.’  In other words, the community has no voice and no opportunity to request a Point of Order.

“I suggest that Council adopt a mechanism for members of the community to raise a Point of Order if it appears the rules have been broken.  Perhaps something as simple as raising one’s hand and calling for a “Point of Order” to be recognized by the chair and allowed to raise the point at the mic.

“Please consider this suggestion if you truly want the community to remain calm.”

Regarding the question of whether it’s time for another council member to assume the responsibilities of council president, many of us have lost faith in Pinky’s ability to lead.  She has lost the appearance of fairness and unbiased leadership.  So, yes, a change in council presidency is warranted.

Link to Guy’s FB page: https://www.facebook.com/guy.occhiogrosso/posts/10153843474106960?notif_t=comment_mention¬if_id=1476851644320378

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Tim Paxton

Oct 20, 2016

Does Council attract control freaks?  I recall in 2001, another forgettable City Council president went through the same process of trying to game council meetings against the public. 

Bellingham Police were actively searching the public at the door, armed officers video recorded attendees arrival.  The audience was subtly packed with armed plain clothes cops. Gun holsters clunked against wooden seats.

That Council even had one public comment speaker arrested, booked and jailed.  An RN and mother with no criminal record.  Allie Cummings.  Conspiracy charge.  A proud moment in Bellingham Council history.

Predictably that council president finally cracked up too and eventually left town.  Q: Do outgoing Council presidents prefer Greyhound or Amtrak tickets?

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David Camp

Oct 20, 2016

Ms. Vargas clearly is supported by and, more importantly, identifies socially with, members of the real estate community. And not with the neighborhood citizens, who tend to be anti-development. Just check out the Facebook Page Larry linked to (thanks, Larry) - Pinky got a lot of love and support and self-righteous tut-tutting about the rudeness of the assembled citizens. Except for Larry’s injecting much-needed facts, it was a closed loop, an echo chamber, with disdain for anyone who dares disagree.

This is a problem. And it seems to me this most recent incident represents a firming of Ms. Vargas and her confederates in their one-sided position - and increasing disrespect for democratic rules and for the citizens they are supposed to represent. I mean, leaving the meeting and calling the cops when you are called out on your rule-breaking? Very bad.

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