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Who’s Running Your Neighborhood Association? And Why Care?

By On
• In Bellingham,

When I moved to Bellingham from a rural community in 2012, I was delighted to learn of the City’s designated neighborhoods and the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC). I was fortunate to first live in Puget Neighborhood for nearly seven years. The Puget Neighborhood Association was everything I hoped for, even with limits placed on neighborhood associations and MNAC during Mayor Kelli Linville’s administration. I also occasionally attended monthly MNAC meetings and appreciated the apparent commitment of neighborhood associations to the welfare of their respective communities.

In late 2018, I relocated to Lettered Streets Neighborhood and found a stark difference between this and other associations. I assumed the City of Bellingham (COB) had criteria for neighborhood associations to be recognized for MNAC membership, that the associations be accountable to represent established neighborhood residents, businesses, and property owners to receive COB funding and venue support. My assumptions were wrong.

One Leap Forward, Two Steps Back…and a Hole in the Middle

The Bellingham Municipal Code (BMC) established MNAC in 1976 as a citizen-driven commission comprised of neighborhood association representatives for the purpose of communicating “neighborhood interests and concerns to the City administration” (BMC Chapter 2.33). BMC Amendments in 2006 specified the role for MNAC in formulating and contributing to the City’s comprehensive and neighborhood plans (see BMC “History of This Section” ) and mandated MNAC control its own organization and meetings (see BMC “History of This Section”). These provisions for MNAC prevailed until Kelli Linville was elected mayor in 2012. At the outset of her eight-years tenure, Mayor Kelli presided over BMC Amendments that divested MNAC of its authority and abrogated the role of neighborhood associations and MNAC in city governance. She effectively flipped the purpose of MNAC from a citizen-driven to mayor-driven commission, and she assumed control of MNAC meetings contrary to BMC 2.33.030 (see “Restore the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) to Its Former Role in Planning”).

Adding to MNAC’s disempowerment these recent years, there was from its inception in 1976 a structural deficiency that has become increasingly consequential to neighborhood welfare. Bellingham provides neighborhood associations formal recognition, funds, administration and venue support for the purpose of MNAC membership. However, the Bellingham Municipal Code does not specify criteria or accountability for neighborhood associations to be recognized for MNAC and receive COB support. The city doesn’t even require neighborhood associations comply with provisions for organizational transparency as specified in the WA Open Public Meetings Act (RCW Ch 42.30).

To be recognized by COB for MNAC membership and city support, a group of citizens need only file with the State as a non-profit neighborhood organization; submit Bylaws to COB for filing purposes only – the Bylaws are not vetted by the City; and nominate someone for the mayor to appoint to MNAC (see Peter Ruffatto, City Attorney (Bellingham), written responses to questions about MNAC dated 12/3/2019 and 12/4/2019 ). The nominee is confirmed at the mayor’s pleasure and forthwith recognized as the neighborhood association representative, whether or not the association represents the collective welfare of the neighborhood, its residents and businesses. This absence of specific criteria and accountability in Bellingham Municipal Code leaves neighborhood associations vulnerable in two ways: power grabs and politicization by citizen special interests; and MNAC appointments aligned with the Mayor’s agenda rather than neighborhood concerns.

The Good News

Though COB doesn’t vet neighborhood associations, nor hold them accountable to represent established residents and neighborhood welfare, most associations nonetheless merit public trust. From all appearances, community service leaders and members in nearly all active neighborhood associations endeavor to elicit and address the concerns of established residents and their collective welfare.

The Puget Neighborhood Association (PNA) demonstrates what neighborhood associations are doing well. PNA actively solicits involvement from the range of demographic groups residing in the neighborhood: parents of school age children in subsidized housing; high-end homeowners along the crest of Puget Hill; seniors in Lakeway Mobile Estates; and owners of neighborhood businesses from pizza shops to funeral services. Generous forenotice is given for Association meetings held at the elementary school and coordinated with the PTA to arrange child care for parents to attend. PNA Board members respond promptly to member questions and requests, and they enthusiastically encourage Board membership that represents neighborhood composition.

In recent years, the PNA Board worked with their constituents to address a range of neighbor-driven concerns: safe pedestrian crossings and vehicular access on major arterials; street flooding from inadequate stormwater drainage; planned construction of high-rise student housing amidst single-family residences; and coordination with non-profit family services. Many MNAC members report similar responsiveness by their associations to neighbor concerns and advocacy for the collective welfare of the neighborhood and residents they represent.

There are also several dormant neighborhood associations not represented on MNAC. These neighborhoods without active associations warrant watchful attention by their residents as they are especially vulnerable to power grabs by special interests. I know of at least two neighborhood associations in recent years appropriated by boards with narrow social and political agendas that neither elicit nor address the concerns of many established residents.

Say It Ain’t So, Joe

My first contact with Lettered Streets Neighborhood Association (LSNA) was the annual meeting when a potluck dinner, board elections, and amending Bylaws were on the agenda. Only a handful of neighbors remained for the business meeting. Elections were completed and revised bylaws adopted without detailed review or discussion. My self-introduction to Board members as a new neighbor was flatly received. Rather than welcoming, I found the meeting atmosphere efficient and vigilant.

During the ensuing months I attended LSNA Board and general meetings that were always sparsely attended even by Board members. My suggestions to the Board for increasing neighbor participation were mostly ignored or dismissed, as were similar offers by other intrepid neighbors who eventually fell silent. Also ignored by the Board were my expressed concerns about public health consequences of intensive infill construction and unhoused people camping in Lettered Streets parks, business properties and residential streets. Lettered Streets Neighborhood hosts Lighthouse Missions and two smaller shelters that together serve several hundred homeless people daily.

While dismissing my public health concerns, board members consistently expressed advocacy at association and MNAC meetings for expanding rights of unhoused people and rent control legislation. I eventually questioned the board’s advocacy for expanding rights of homeless people and renters as matters beyond the purview of a neighborhood association. The chairperson informed me that LSNA Bylaws recognize homeless people and transients as neighbors and association members.

Indeed, proposed changes to the LSNA Bylaws at the 2019 annual meeting were finalized as the current LSNA Bylaws and include the following:

-Enfranchises hundreds of unhoused and transient people served at Lighthouse Missions and smaller shelters for homeless and rehabilitation services in Lettered Streets, and homeless people camping in neighborhood parks and living in their cars parked on residential streets;

-Enfranchises countless people who work but don’t live in Lettered Streets;

-Disenfranchises non-residential landlords and business and property owners;

-Deleted the original statement of association purpose to enhance the “neighborhood character and quality of life for the residents and landowners” (note: Lettered Streets was the earliest established neighborhood in Bellingham);

-Centralized Board control thus making it exceedingly difficult to democratically reform the association.

Sadly, these Bylaws and Board actions have not served community building in Lettered Streets Neighborhood that is in the midst of accelerating development and population growth. Perhaps fortuitous, the LSNA Bylaws are likely invalid; their adoption process did not comply with the established Bylaws. In any case, challenging the current Board and Bylaws on procedural grounds is a Sisyphean task when the City has no criteria or accountability for neighborhood associations to serve the established neighborhood.

Time for an Upgrade

In the midst of momentous growth in Bellingham and accelerating changes at every level of our environment and society, it is time for an upgrade to the codified relationship between Bellingham citizens, neighborhoods and City Hall: an upgrade that recognizes the deep symbiotic relationship between established residents, neighborhoods and our city; that restores an authoritative citizen voice for city policies and planning; that specifies criteria for neighborhood associations to be recognized by COB for material support and MNAC membership; and that requires accountability by recognized associations to demonstrate they are representative of their collective neighborhood.

We can consider the original BMC as amended in 2006 that established and improved MNAC as a basis to restore MNAC’s intended role in planning, citizen voice, and authority over its organization and meetings. While there is no existing COB code for recognition or accountability of neighborhood associations, Vancouver, WA offers a well-developed model for city-neighborhood collaboration. The City of Vancouver, WA Office of Neighborhoods provides criteria, resources, and material support for neighborhood associations to be representative voices of their constituents in city governance.

I encourage you to visit the Vancouver Office of Neighborhoods website, attend your next neighborhood association meeting, and stay tuned for opportunities to join neighbors city-wide to upgrade the Bellingham Municipal Code and expand the role of neighborhood associations in our City governance.

Comments by Readers

Geoff Middaugh

Jan 14, 2020

Excellent article and well researched.   I couldn’t agree more.  When active with the South Hill Neighborhood Association for 12 years, every time we’d bring a proposal to the planning commission, we would be chastised because we were “not representative” of the South Hill.  So if we aren’t representative, then who is, and how is that determined  As a member of MNAC, it seemed that the voices that agreed only with the powers that be were “heard”.    Your proposal to retool and give the Neighborhoo asociations a consistent role in planning, citizen voices and authorities is welcome and should be addressed.    Thanks you for your attention, and I hope this council addresses this concern.  

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Larry Horowitz

Jan 14, 2020

Karen, thanks for your article.  And Geoff, thanks for your comments.

The City of Vancouver, WA seems to really understand the “deep symbiotic relationship” between established residents, neighborhoods, and our city.  It’s the people of Bellingham who make Bellingham great.

One of the most interesting aspects of Vancouver’s Office of Neighborhoods is the appointment of Neighborhood Association Liaisons, city managers and supervisors who become responsible for and accountable to their assigned Neighborhood Association.  What a unique and wonderful concept.  It’s as if each neighborhood has their own ombudsman or ombudswoman who understands their needs and helps address issues and solve problems.

Perhaps Mayor Seth and a few councilmembers might consider working together to implement key elements of the Vancouver Office of Neighborhoods model.  How fortunate that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

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Jane Bright

Jan 15, 2020

As President of the South Hill Neighborhood Association, I see a great opportunity to revitalize the role of MNAC and tap the remarkable local expertise and volunteer spirit of Bellingham citizens. Communication and problem solving should  be a two way exchange between the governing and the governed and that’s not easy logistically. City Council and Planning Commission meeting comment periods do not allow for dialogue.

One of my goals as President is to provide a venue for that give and take. When setting SHNA meeting agendas, I look for topics of interest to our residents and speakers who can do something about those issues. We are fortunate to have our city councilors,  Michael Lilliquist, now-retired Terry Bornemann and newly elected Lisa Anderson as regular attendees. Having them at the meetings, along with city officials gives many citizens the only opportunity they have for real, substantive conversations about topics, not to mention to get factual information. My other goals is to make those meetings useful to our elected officials and city employees.

We are experiencing growing pains, still recovering from the Great Recession particularly in housing and trying to keep the city liveable.  Mayor Fleetwood has a long history of inclusiveness. I would not be surprised to see him rethink how to make neighborhood associations part of the solutions, rather than treated as outsiders. 

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Dianne Foster

Jan 15, 2020

Wow,   Karen,  you really did your homework!    This gives me hope that something can be done to restore democracy at the local level.   I remember you mentioned once that LSNA meetings are not widely publicized,  and often the meeting time or location would change at the last minute,   which allows a handful of special interests to run the show.    We try as much as possible here in Sehome to place large signs,  and now take the newsletters door to door,  as they do in York.   I  believe it would be helpful to have a retreat to examine bylaws and mission statements that guide our decisions;   we’re working on that.  I"m impressed you actually read the Public Open Meetings Act;   a true wonk.  (not unexpected for a retired intensive care RN….).

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Karen Steen

Jan 15, 2020

To their credit, lawn signs for meeting/event announcements have consistently been deployed by the LSNA Board. Throughout last year, though, short notices and a venue change for the meetings/events occurred regularly.

“To restore democracy at a local level” captures a core hope for me in working to update the COB/NA/MNAC relationship. It’s encouraging for me to hear what Sehome and South Hill NA’s are doing in that regard. Carry on!

Indeed, may be that career clinical nurses are wonky - et tu?!

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Tip Johnson

Jan 20, 2020

Indeed, when our first Comp plan was adopted, neighborhood elements of the plan included the zoning and often specialized, site specific prerequisite conditions.  MNAC was designed to get started with appointments but then be populated from the Neighborhood associations as they propogated and stabilized.  This neighborhood planning model was quite visionary at the time and we can particularly thank Wendy Scherrer and Nick Zaferatos for their leadership.

However, as is often the case, government can tire of representation and publiuc involvement.  MNAC never made the intended transition as the Associations were formed and became functional.  Mark Asmundson and then planning director Jorge Vega stripped zoning and conditions out of the neighborhood elements.  The neighborhood elements of the plan lost their “shalls” and gained a lot of “shoulds”.  This gutting occured somewhat systematically  as 800 pound gorilla conflicts ran afoul of neighborhood objectives, policies, conditions and involvement.  In Happy Valley, it included projects like the failed Albertsons at the I-5 interchange, and proposed expansion of Western’s campus into a 60 acre acquisition zone. 

Other neighborhoods have their own stories, but it distills down to real estate development, infill and the densification that now even Mayor Fleetwood says is an unavoidable imperative.  If that’s true, it is even more reason to reintegrate neighborhoods  into planning, and zoning.  For forty years, neighbors have been promised that living in Bellingham would include maintaining and enhancing neighborhood character and integrity.  New times should not undermine this old promise.  Neighborhoods should have a chance to rise to the challenge and do their part in a way that everyone can accept.

After all, we live here!

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