I am very pleased to say that Gene is the 2nd council member to sit down face to face with me for this interview. As of now, Gene and Michael are the only council members to sit down with me for a real interview. April Barker looked at the questions, and said they are “lengthy.” She may, or may not, reply to some of them in the future. The mayor’s office took the questions, but that was it. None of the other council members have responded to date. Also, I know that technically there are 13 questions here. I am not counting the ice-breaker in my total.
0. Are you running for mayor?
Gene is very seriously considering running for mayor. He will make a formal decision later in the year and will make an announcement probably sometime in January. Gene promises to run a clean campaign and focus on himself. He will not engage in mudslinging and is concerned with the division he sees in the country, and how too many other political campaigns have turned into personal attacks. He wants to talk about himself and what he will do if elected to be mayor. He simply wants to give the citizens the information they need to make the best decision.
1. Why do you love Bellingham and Whatcom County and why did you run for council?
Gene was born and raised here and loves it here. He states, “I’ve had the pleasure of being here my whole life and I absolutely adore this city.” He originally decided to run for council back in 1993 when the city council was making budget decisions. He was a youth baseball coach for 20 years and cares about the positive impact that sports can have in the community. At the time, the city was running the ice arena and considering closing it down. So he said, you know I’m going to run for council and was fortunate enough to get elected. As a result we have been able to not just keep, but expand on, the sports facilities available in the city. He was also involved heavily in making the SportsPlex a reality which has worked out very well. Even though Gene has seen a lot of changes since he’s been here, he notes that this is still a great place to live.
2. Of great concern to many is our rising property taxes and housing costs, which seem to be paired with stagnating wages and little improvement. In essence there is a sense that we’re getting little for what we’re paying and the cost of our necessities are pushing us to the limit. This problem disproportionately affects the poor and middle class more than the wealthy. What will you do to make our taxes less regressive, and more fair to people of all economic classes?
Gene notes that this is not a new issue and in fact one of the first battles he fought when first elected in 1993. Back then the property tax increase was an unacceptable 6% every year which lasted for 10 years. By law now, thanks largely to Gene’s efforts, the council can only raise their portion of the property taxes by 1%. The long-term solution is for Bellingham to find more, good employment in the community. Meaning good, sustainable, local jobs that pay $25 an hour or more. Gene believes that the waterfront holds many of the keys to this now and in the future. He continues to push for more jobs on the waterfront. It’s important to have a mix of recreation and high-paying jobs.
As far as the housing situation goes, Gene notes that people don’t like to hear the word “annex” but that is part of the solution. Gene says, “we’re going to have to annex more to get more property online so that we can put in more units.” This will include building more homes and different types of houses, possibly including Tiny Homes.
3. Our city/county currently has a serious homelessness crisis. How would you address this issue?
Gene notes that it’s obvious that we have to do something but believes that they are on the right track. They have been working to find a site for a homeless shelter in the near future. The county is finally working with HomesNow on a potential site out in Ferndale where they can start building some Tiny Homes. Gene says, “It is a horrible situation that is not new to Bellingham.” In fact, when Gene first ran for council he wanted to use 3% of the budget at that time to help address the homeless situation and he didn’t get any votes for it. At that point it was only a $900,000 dollar appropriation. Now we’re spending millions of dollars. He wants to provide, “a hand up, not a handout.” He notes that it is a complex problem whose solution also must include getting the homeless mental help, substance abuse help, and medical help. Now that the county is finally stepping up to the plate, he thinks we might see something significant in the next few months.
4. According to Forbes magazine small, internet-based businesses are one of the largest growth industries in the United States, yet Bellingham is behind the 8-ball on building public infrastructure to support a modern, wired city, with ethically provided internet connections from local net-neutral providers. What will you do to address this, knowing that the big telecoms are already trying to buck the net-neutrality bill that was passed recently with federal preemption? Why is it important to invest in public infrastructure?
Gene notes that I hit the nail right on the head in the question. It is important to invest in public infrastructure, especially to create new next-generation jobs, and he supports a Dig Once Policy. He notes that although he would like to see as many franchise agreements signed as possible, Comcast and CenturyLink are very hard to work with and the negotiations take a very long time. Gene personally spent a total of 10 years on the Comcast and CenturyLink contracts. Sadly, even if the city resisted an anti-net neutral provider, the state laws would allow them to come in anyway. So he says that the franchise agreements allow us to get a very small piece back, but we need more competition and again, it all starts with good infrastructure. Other council members seem to be warming up to the idea of a Dig Once Policy and notes that they do similar things with other projects that come their way. He notes that it would be very helpful to have an impartial technology expert on the planning commission and that there should be more experts on the commission, for the broadband issue, in general. Dig Once makes sense because although you might spend a little more up front, you save money in the long run by not having to repeat work. Especially work that involves digging up a road. Gene notes that we do need to support the new model of business. Personally, I still would have liked to see some resistance from the council to the anti-net neutral companies, but after talking to Gene and Michael, I think this is finally going in the right direction and that Gene gets how important it is. Gene says, “We have to do a better job of getting ready for the future. It has to be done.”
5. Many believe that the waterfront project is foolish. They say that the environmental cleanup is not being done adequately. It is only providing a handful of temporary jobs, and in short, it will never pay the community back for the amount of money we’re putting into it. What is the status of the cleanup efforts? Is it time to double-down on the waterfront or abandon the project and invest in something else?
Gene does not believe we should abandon it. Historically, when GP left town there was a chance that the old plant would sit there for decades and nothing would happen. The Port stepped up and purchased the property and wanted a partner. The city became that partner and has been there with the Port since then. He acknowledges the controversy surrounding it but says that we are seeing real results now with Harcourt. They are currently investing money and would like to invest more. Western is also interested in bringing some facilities down there. The Port is saying that they are getting a lot of calls for future projects too. The specifics are gray. The cleanup has been a double-edged sword. For example, one strategy was to pull the contaminated waste out via train, but that has problems with both disturbance and transportation of the materials. So they decided to cap it, but some don’t like that because it means the hazardous material is still there. So cleanup can be a no-win situation, but Gene believes that we’re on the right track with the waterfront and we need to keep moving forward. He actually thinks we’re ahead of schedule, and that we need jobs, commerce and recreation that the waterfront will bring.
6. Recently, our Public Works Department has come under fire for not keeping adequate records of already-existing public infrastructure that can be used in such efforts, even producing hand-drawn maps in lieu of real records, trying to refuse to provide written responses to public record requests, and blocking access to existing resources. What are your comments on this, and will you investigate this department?
Gene notes that until my interview with Michael he was unaware of the situation, but that they are under strict public records standards and have to deliver records. While he agrees that the whole city should be under the same wand, the council doesn’t have any investigative power. This is something the mayor should look into and the council should direct her to “take a long, hard look into this and find out what’s going on, because that’s not the way they do business.” While Gene has a lot of respect for Ted Carlson, the Public Works director, he agrees that this definitely needs to be looked at.
7. Bellingham and Whatcom County seem to take the health of the environment a bit more seriously than other parts of the nation, yet from time to time corporate and other entities threaten our environment. The two best examples I can think of are the Gateway Pacific Terminal and the recent push for motorized Outdoor Recreational Vehicles. Both of which will cause untold damage to our environment. The argument for these companies to operate in Bellingham is usually based on jobs. What will you do as mayor to safeguard our environment for the future, while creating good-paying jobs in our community?
The city recently passed a climate action plan and they have one of the best bicycle master plans around. They are trying to get people out of their cars and into greener transportation solutions. The city is going to have a majority of electric cars in its fleet in the next 10 years. Specifically in response to the motorized vehicle question, Gene notes that he likes the idea of non-destructive use of the environment that also creates new jobs and revenue.
8. Back to public infrastructure, will you be investing in new public infrastructure based on renewable energy, and what renewable energy solutions are you considering?
City hall has been purchasing green energy for over a decade now, but needs to look into every renewable energy solution they possibly can including wind and solar. He notes that the goals of 2030 or 2050 might sound good, but we really need to move on this immediately. “It will have to happen sooner rather than later. We know we have climate change!” Gene noted many examples of this obvious conclusion like glacial melt and says that we have to make our decisions based on creating a future that doesn’t leave our kids or grandkids in dire straits. He hopes the task force coming up on climate change might become a permanent one.
9. How would you address Bellingham’s perpetual 6% unemployment crisis, that is also paired with an underemployment crisis of about 1/3rd of our citizens making $25,000 a year or less?
Gene notes that in the past Bellingham was deemed anti-business, but believes that we are coming out of that era. He has done everything he can possibly do to attract new business without giving the farm away. We both noted the crazy fight that is going on between cities giving away as much as possible to try and attract Amazon HQ2, which is not a sustainable approach. Amazon also directly affects the amount of retail business a town can sustain. He notes that the model used for the Costco relocation from Meridian to Bakerview took a lot of hard work and created a lot of decent jobs. However, while Costco may pay $17 to $20 an hour, in the current economy, that isn’t enough. We need to attract businesses that pay $25 to $30 an hour. We need to focus not just on the downtown area, but also on finding property that will bring in some of the larger employers. Gene notes how he was lucky to grow up only needing one job, and how that isn’t there for people anymore. “It’s a different ballgame now.” Gene’s hope is to have good, sustained jobs that are there for generations so people can raise their families here in a sustainable, stable, economy.
10. In Bellingham, we are faced with many virtual monopolies including our trash, water, power and internet services. What will you do to break up these monopolies and/or bring the prices of these necessary services down?
Gene notes that SSC has been here for 90 years, does a great job, and charges us a lot less than many other communities. He didn’t want to name names out of fairness. Both Gene and Terry Bornemann were against shutting down the Clean Green program. It was a great service that allowed citizens to choose not to use SSC specifically for getting rid of trees, limbs and grass clippings. He is not aware of SSC doing any lobbying to try and get the city to get rid of cleaner green, but believes it may have to do with the mayor’s office. As far as other services go, he believes that we should open up franchise agreements with anyone else that wants to come in and compete. He would like to see the monopolies broken up and again agrees with a Dig Once policy. He notes that the ways the laws are set up, the big telecoms didn’t even have to negotiate with the city if they didn’t want to and that needs to change. “They would have come in and done it anyway… That’s something that drives me crazy. I think that we need to rely on, and do a better job of listening to people in the telecommunications field. I think it’s starting to sink in with the rest of the council.”
11. What role can political leaders play at the local level in addressing the epidemic of gun violence?
Gene notes the letter recently sent to the State Legislature and Congress asking for gun control, but also says that they can and should do more, especially when it comes to speaking out more. “The gun laws we have in our country are insane.” For example, he especially notes automatic rifles, extended clips, and bump stocks. While they can also send recommendation of resolutions to other lawmakers, the city is frustratingly restricted to zoning and they have taken action to keep gun stores 500 ft. away as from public areas like schools, but Gene wishes they could do more. “As much as we can we need to speak out… it’s just gotten out of control.” He applauds the schools for their wonderful efforts.
11a. On the same note, do you think it sends a mixed message to say that we care about gun violence to our community while backing up the purchase of a tank, with full-tactical gear, for our police in one of the safest cities in the US? Does militarization of the police undermine their basic mission to serve and protect the community?
Gene is very pleased with how professionally-run and community-minded the Bellingham Police Department is. He doesn’t see a problem with our police department having this kind of gear, but notes that he understands why it makes people anxious, and that the same gear might be inappropriate in some other communities. “I have complete confidence in our police chief and our officers to only use this in extreme circumstances, because our police are community police. Some of them have issues; we’ve seen it in the paper, but all-in-all they’re a community police force.”
12. What role do you think local government can play in increasing the use of environmentally friendly transit solutions like mass transit, electric vehicles, and improving our transportation infrastructure in general to make it safe for all vehicles including bicycles?
They have pushed the WTA (Whatcom Transportation Authority) many times for more routes. This is also an area where the Transportation Benefit District can help. For example, Sunday service disappeared from the bus routes, and the TBD was able to get it back. WTA had an expanded list of routes that they backed off of looking into after they became self-sufficient again shortly after the 2011 bill to establish the TBD was passed. Gene is hoping to look at adding routes and increasing service again when it comes up for review again in 2020. “If there aren’t routes, or they’re not convenient, they won’t get used.” Gene notes that he can’t see why we can’t have electric vehicle charging taps at the current locations of parking meters. He would also want to look into selling off the Parkade. The city’s Parkade is paid for and is designed for overflow parking. By taking out the meters it would encourage people to use it more. Having fewer meters would entice people to hang out downtown more and, when paired with better mass transit options, allow more people to be in the downtown area. Parking meters are so unpopular that when the council was approached about putting them in on the south side, the bill was not passed.
Gene and I also had a post-questions, refreshingly candid, talk about how polarized politics have become and how it’s not healthy for our communities or nation. We both agreed that although we may not all agree with each other all of the time, politicians need to be willing to do exactly what Gene did today; sit down with average citizens and give them honest, frank, answers. I thank Gene and Michael again for having the backbone to do so and I hope that my next article will be from another council member, or the mayor, and not about how no one else responded. The hour is late, we have serious problems to address, and we need real answers now.