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Referendum drive steams ahead

© 1998 by Paul de Armond
Special to NorthWest Citizen

Bellingham January 10 -- It was a clear and cold Saturday morning, but over thirty people showed up to launch a petition drive to overturn a Bellingham ordinance over a land deal. Under a crisp blue sky, John Servais, one of the organizers of the referendum campaign, greeted arrivals at the Fairhaven Library. Outside on the sidewalk, a small group shivered together as they discussed the issue of the Hoag's Pond land swap.

The half-dozen people standing in the biting cold outside the meeting in the Fireside room showed that the campaign had already turned the corner from a South Side neighborhood issue to a citywide concern. The conversation was continually restarted as more people joined the group, words tumbling out in white vapor in the icy air. There were people from South Side, North Side, Downtown, Alabama Hill, York, and all around town.

As political meetings go, it was an instance of grass-roots coalescing. Neither Tip Johnson nor John Servais -- who organized the meeting -- made the slightest effort to turn people out for it. Carol Rondello, who facilitated the mechanic of the Saturday petition drive later described the meeting as having a "laid back" effort to get people to the meeting. "I did some calling," she said.

Instead, people found out through ordinary word of mouth following the Bellingham Herald article about the referendum. The Herald article gave the time and place of the meeting in a sidebar. Others attended after reading about the Hoag's Pond land swap at the Northwest Citizen web site http://nwcitizen.com/bellingham/hoagspond/ -- the first bonafide confirmation that electronic democracy is alive and well in Bellingham. All told, over thirty people attended the meeting and gathered signatures that day.

The referendum campaign is an attempt by citizens to exercise their right of legislative oversight. The issue is an ordinance enabling a land trade and property consolidation by a city employee.

Ordinance 10910 is one of three parts of a complicated deal which has never been fully spelled out to the public. The first part is a resolution declaring some city-owned lots near Hoag's Pond to be surplus, thus allowing the Choats to purchase them. The second part is ordinance 10910 vacating two very small pieces of city streets and trading them for some thin strips on the eastern edge of the Choat's property. The third part -- which has not happened yet, but is required by City policy -- is the vacation of the remaining City rights of way on Choat's property, a much larger amount of acreage than is addressed by the first two parts.

After a six-month muddle, the City Council passed the ordinance -- which is not the entire deal, but rather the glue that holds the deal together -- in December. It went to Mayor Mark Asmundson for signature. He waited until the last possible day before grasping the nettle and vetoed it. Council President Pat Rowe immediately scheduled a special meeting two days before Christmas to overturn the veto. When the Council reaffirmed its 6-1 approval on December 23, citizens launched a referendum campaign to put the decision before the voters.

The winter holidays ate up two of the four weeks available to the petition drive and Saturday's meeting was the first public gathering of the nascent election campaign. The referendum supporters have two weeks left to gather the approximately 1,500 signatures required to put the issue on the ballot.

Which brings us back to the people standing in the frosty air outside of the Fairhaven Library on Saturday morning. One of the last arrivals was Mayor Mark Asmundson, who came to tell citizens of the latest developments.

The meeting was held in the Fireside Room in the library basement. Decorated with a mural of photographs from Bellingham's past, the room was filled with circle of folding chairs. Four tables near the door held literature, petition forms, and information about the ordinance and the referendum drive. Sunlight through the southern windows illuminated parts of the room. All of the seats were filled and late arrivals stood during the next hour and a half.

Tip Johnson opened the meeting with a brief statement about the need to gather 1,500 valid signatures by January 20th and then introduced the Mayor.

Mayor Asmundson encouraged people to gather signatures. He also expressed his hope that the mistakes could be rectified in time to avoid a "divisive" election. These two themes summed up his position on the referendum: get the signatures and hope that they aren't used.

Asmundson was very candid in his appraisal of both the deal and the process. "It was a mistake and it was stupid," he said.

The deal was a mistake because "it eliminates options." Both the Council and the administration have effectively removed themselves from a legal or legislative solution because Ordinance 10910 is "fundamentally different from a legislative act... because it transfers property rights." Having passed the ordinance and overridden the mayor's veto, the Council "can't undo it if they discover their mistake."

The mayor said that the essence of the mistake lay the deal's evolution and timing. The critical error occurred after Beyond Greenways became a reality at last November's election. "A lot changed since the Real Estate Review Committee [in April, 1997]," said Asmundson. By November he was convinced that it was a mistake. He said that his staff is now "working to extricate us all from the mess."

The mayor stated that he had "a practical political concern" that the referendum might divert public attention from moving forward with the new council and would instead direct attention on a past political mistake. One of the side effects of this could be that the debate would not focus on the issue at hand, but would become an "anti-government political environment."

The mayor compared the current situation to the campaign to scuttle the art center in 1993. That election mobilized the "property rights" interests and determined the composition of the City Council from 1994 through 1997. "We suffered for years from that," Asmundson said.

Turning to his recent activities, the mayor showed that he is giving the matter considerable attention. The administration is negotiating with Mr. Choat to preserve future City options. The restriction of these options was the major reason for vetoing the ordinance, but it is possible that these can be salvaged by an agreement with the Choats. This will require attention to all the legal details of such an agreement, but the aim of the negotiations is preserve the City's option to repurchase the property for the same price as it was disposed of.

Such an agreement would take a lot of the heat off of the deal, since it would allow the City to go forward with proposals for long term planning of parks and trails on the South Side. The essence of the negotiations is to "freeze the sale price" should the City later decide that it really didn't want to give up the property.

The mayor said that the response to the offer of negotiations was positive. Mr. Choat requested time to talk to his attorney and wants a two-year time frame on the agreement.

Turning to the purpose of the meeting, the mayor said it was necessary to get petition signatures and keep the pressure on. At the same time, he was not enthusiastic about the possibility of a referendum at the polls.

"I don't think we need the referendum and an election campaign if we can keep the resale price frozen," he said.

An election would be good for the pond, but bad for politics in Bellingham, the mayor explained. He expressed concern that the "property rights" interests would hijack the election and bend it to their own agenda. As an example, he cited the 1993 referendum on the downtown art center. Out of that election came a City Council which gave billboards an expanded role in the city landscape and made retail development the focus of planning efforts.

The mayor concluded his remarks by praising Choat's intentions and initial response to the negotiated settlement.

Larry Williams then spoke and pointed to a long string of City planning mistakes: Hillcrest Chapel, Western Washington University and the Chuckanut Ridge development. Williams said that community planning issues require a "bigger picture" and expressed concern about the "continuing lack of effort in the planning department to look at community issues." Williams said that he saw this referendum as an opportunity to air those larger issues and the City's failure to address them.

The mayor replied that "an election is the worst possible way to effect this kind of change." The planning confusion was because short term planning and long term planning were not in the same department.

Short term planning, such as individual project proposals, come into the department from the outside. Staff has no control over who is going to walk in the door with a project on a particular day. The staff tend to identify with the short term task, the mayor said. "This is where long term planning needs to step in."

After some additional discussion about the problems that citizens have experienced with the planning process, the mayor encouraged the citizens to "get all the signatures you can" and expressed his hope that they wouldn't be necessary.

John Servais then took the floor and posed the question to the group: is the referendum a "card" to play? A brief discussion showed that the feeling of the meeting did not endorse the mayor's suggestion of collecting but not submitting signatures for a referendum.

Tip Johnson expressed his concerns with the potential "divisiveness" of the election campaign. He noted that "things take time" and encouraged the mayor to pursue possible solutions. "Get the signatures and the heat stays on," Johnson said.

Johnson cautioned signature gatherers about raking the past over the coals. "Blame doesn't get any more signatures," he said. "Concentrate on 'is this a good deal?'"

Johnson listed some reasons for supporting the referendum:

Doug Starcher pointed out that Jack Choat's desire to consolidate his land was normal and proper. "There's nothing wrong with asking," he said.

Tip Johnson agreed that "Choat's intent to consolidate was OK." However, he continued, "The City needed to consider consolidating their interest, too." He then pointed out that "by next Saturday [January 17] we should know" about the success of the signature gathering drive, the progress of the mayor's deal, and all the other pieces of the campaign that are currently in motion.

Starcher expressed concern about the cost of the election. He suggested that the mayor's proposal to gather signatures and withhold them as a negotiating tactic was a reasonable way to accomplish the intent of the referendum without incurring the cost.

Johnson said he was "not sure I can support a solution that accepts the deal. There are aspects of this problem that are not unique to this deal."

Mayor Asmundson said the negotiations "return the trump cards to the City's hand... It was a mistake to foreclose the City's options." A successful agreement with Choat to freeze the financial aspects of the deal will "restore the status quo ante."

John McGarrity asked, "How is the Real Estate Review Committee legally responsible?" He referred to his personal experience as a contract administrator back east. When he signed off on a deal, he also assumed full legal liability for his decision. Where, he asked the mayor, does the responsibility lie in this deal?

Mayor Asmundson stated that the responsibility lay in City Hall. He pointed out that the Real Estate Review Committee devoted no more than three minutes to their approval of the deal in April, it being just one of many items that were before them.

The mayor then grew slightly heated -- the only time that he showed irritation during the meeting -- and said that it was "naive" to think that the referendum was the solution to the administrative problems at City Hall. He was directing his attention to these problems, but felt that the referendum would make it more difficult, not less, to find solutions. His greatest concern was a "side effect of the election would be that the people who hire lawyers to attend meetings would win."

Tip Johnson wrapped up the discussion and turned the meeting over to Carol Rondello, who handled the mechanics of the weekend petition drive. Approximately 30 people picked up petitions, literature and set out under the cold blue sky to gather signatures.

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