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Including others when developing solutions is a hallmark of leadership. It was not evident at the March 13th City Council meeting regarding new drug use sanctions.

Including others when developing solutions is a hallmark of leadership. It was not evident at the March 13th City Council meeting regarding new drug use sanctions.

[Guest Writer Garrett O’Brien is a lifelong resident of Bellingham and lives with his wife Brittany and their three children in the Birchwood neighborhood. Garrett has worked in the building trades since 1995, has a degree in construction management, and is the president of Volonta Corporation.] 

A friend with whom I have had spirited debates over the years regarding the nature of leadership recently published a book on the subject. He contends great leaders train to achieve excellence, training that he provides as a successful consultant in the field with a Doctorate in Education. I, on the other hand, believe great leaders have innate gifts which are animated and amplified by trying circumstances. Examples of this dynamic could be seen in Winston Churchill and the way his determination crystalized during the Luftwaffe bombardment of London, or the enhanced dignity Nelson Mandela amassed during his long and unjust imprisonment. 

The origin of great leaders is a fascinating subject for academic discussion. However, the practical reality is that most of us are content to be in service to average bosses, platoon sergeants, coaches, and others who are simply competent and sincere. My friend and I agree that this level of leadership can be learned.

Regarding leadership, I learned from my dad that anything is possible for an organization when your effort is inclusive. Present your vision with reason, seek feedback, listen, and chart the path forward. The lesson is simple: You cannot surprise people with your vision for change—you need to bring them along with you.

This important lesson was not evident at the March 13th Bellingham City Council meeting, where the council was surprised by a municipal ordinance, pushed by the executive branch, to make open drug use an arrest-able offense. [An Ordinance Prohibiting the Use of Controlled Substances in Public Places] Their reaction was what you would expect from a policy-making branch of government that has been presented with a policy change they did not participate in. Understandably, there were questions, lots of questions. 

The first round of questioning exposed the complexity of the problem and the shortcomings of the proposed ordinance. People could be arrested for public drug use, but then what? The county jail is full, so allowing officers to arrest people who they observe using drugs, without a plan following arrest, is a waste of time and effort. Unfortunately, in cases such as drug use and visible homelessness, these kinds of extemporaneous efforts are becoming more common. 

Knowing there were no post-arrest options, the mayor and his team presented the concept of a community court as a possible solution and path to providing services to drug-addicted offenders. The council seemed to be aware of other cities’ successful community courts. Further, they agreed with the philosophy of addressing the root causes of destructive behavior rather than hacking at the branches. Eager to hear more about the local progress of such a court, the council quickly learned that a functioning community court is currently no more than a thought exercise for the administration. The energy of the meeting and any possible consensus devolved from there. 

I support community courts and their humane efficacy. Many infractions would be better addressed in a community court rather than the traditional criminal justice system. But building a community court is a massive task that requires a sober assessment of a city’s budget. Achieving the desired outcome requires city leaders to prioritize goals and hire accordingly. 

Several years ago, my wife and I were invited to Spokane to visit their community court and learn about the operation. The court was held in the public library and had an informal but organized format. Court appearances were scheduled throughout the day and to say it was a big operation would be an understatement. There were the usual court officers, attorneys, police and deputies, as well as representatives from various social services, EMS, and non-profit organizations. Most surprising to us was the small number of failure-to-appear cases. When they did occur, the offender was known to the court and it genuinely seemed that the court’s intent was to get them in to access services.

After the final hearing, as we exited the courtroom into the library lobby, we saw a middle-aged woman being fitted for eyeglasses by volunteers from the local Lions Club. At the adjacent table, a rough-looking young man was being issued a photo ID by the department of motor vehicles. Access to the most basic services requires an ID, so to have this available on-site is a critical first step to unlocking various types of aid. We left Spokane with a better understanding of the incredible amount of resources and determination that are needed to establish an effective community court, as well as the value of doing so.

Bellingham has a long way to go.

Comments by Readers

Tip Johnson

Apr 03, 2023

Sadly not the only administrative effort exhibiting a lack of leadership


Carol Follett

Apr 04, 2023

Thank you, Garrett, for taking the time and care to thoughtfully share these ideas and what happened at the Council meeting. I agree with your statement, “You cannot surprise people with your vision for change—you need to bring them along with you.” Another way of looking at that is “educate rather than legislate,” but we could also say inform, genuinely discuss options, and find consent before creating legislation. I sometimes wonder if we could continue the social evolution began in the age of enlightenment and expand our democratic concept by removing hierarchy; no one person (no leader) at the top, but a round council or shifting chairs regularly to truly eliminate the ability, intentionally or not, to abuse power.

Anyway, to your point, i.e. the Mayor appeared to have pressed an already agreed upon decision from the top down that should have been tabled for further, public review. I was not aware of the community court system you described, and I agree it sounds promising! It should be explored. Not only does it sound promising, but there must now be studies that can describe its efficacy and help new and improved versions to be created in other communities. 

As with our discussion about housing development, I would love to have a forum for us, residents of Bellingham, to meet, inform one another and discuss these critical topics together. Would it not be wonderful to create a discussion space that enables us to leave our egos, preconceived ideas, tempers, memes, and ad hominems at the door to persue a shared goal of creating a healthy and happy Bellingham now and into the future with open, respectful minds? Perhaps an open and convenient “commons” could inspire us with hope and help us feel a bit more in control of our future in this turbulent world.❤️


Dick Conoboy

Apr 04, 2023


Thanks for bringing forward the concept involving hierarchies, round tables, etc.  You may remember my article on just that topic from five years ago: Citizen/City Dialogue - A Myth - Our system of citizen participation fails the test of true dialogue. Exchange is practically ruled out by the process.

Excerpt from that article: “...we have set up a situation wherein the city and its citizens talk AT one another, not WITH one another. The submission of letters and an appearance at the podium for a miserable three minutes does not constitute dialogue. Further diminishing citizen input, the public’s podium is placed at a lower level, reducing the citizen speaker to a supplicant. Even the placement of city staff at tables “down in front” is demonstrative. [I posit, not totally in jest, that the perfect meeting configuration is a circle of chairs with no tables and no clothing to designate position or authority: no ties, no suits, no uniforms, no hats… Some urge no clothing at all as the ultimate equalizer, but I will avoid such a suggestion.]


Garrett O’Brien

Apr 05, 2023


I agree with your thoughts regarding the need for robust community engagement. They are a poignant reminder of the loss of connection we have experienced over the past few years. The pandemic and political polarization suppressed many opportunities for progress. I am concerned about the trend of pushing complex problems up the hierarchy of government and expecting solutions from the State or Federal government. An excellent example is House Bill 1110, which is currently working through the State Legislature, mandating increased density in all neighborhoods and obviating local zoning codes. We need hard work, community outreach, and appropriate zoning reform. These efforts should be performed locally and with the people affected by the proposed changes. The State government should not dictate this. The more local work is deferred, the more our residents are excluded from shaping the future of Bellingham, and the more our public employees become compliance officers for the State rather than community partners. I observed this trend accelerating while serving on Bellingham’s planning commission, and it doesn’t produce the best outcomes.


Garrett O’Brien

Apr 05, 2023


I read your article when it was published and thought it was an appropriate critique. When renovating 210 Lottie Street becomes a priority, the design of Council chambers should be considered with public input. A few years ago, I visited a city park proposed for significant upgrades in Vancouver. Staff members from the Planning and Community Development department had a prominent kiosk in the park seeking public feedback. The city of Vancouver was genuinely interested and was committing resources to learn what the park users wanted in the improvements. This was an excellent example of public servants serving their residents and should be a model for community outreach.


D. Crook

Apr 14, 2023

Sometimes when I hear the mayor talking, I think it’s the police talking, and I have to do a double-take just to make sure.  We don’t need more reasons to arrest and jail people.  I appreciate the dialog here about community leadership an awful lot.  With more and more community input—from Safe Spaces that pipes directly from DVSAS to the Mayor, to City surveys and Engage Bellingham which are moderated by the Mayor’s team—the Mayor controls what we hear each other say.  City council meetings aren’t great either, with limited mic time, and no real way for the community to see / review it’s own input less difficult that FOIA requests…  I don’t feel a lot of trust for city leadership, and I engage less because of it, as I think is common for many I know.  Just blathering here.  Carol, Dick, I appreciate your thinking on hierarchy, engagement, etc.  Thank you.


Garrett O’Brien

Apr 15, 2023

D. Crook,

Thank you for sharing your experience with declining community outreach and engagement, which I agree disenfranchises many people. To our detriment, a tremendous amount of talent in our community is not being deployed to meet our civic challenges. I appreciate platforms like the NW Citizen that promote engagement, and hopefully, the city government listens to people’s expectations.



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