This is the first of what I hope will be a series where I ask our council members, and the mayor, the same questions and can post their responses. I hope to meet with them all in person, but a written reply to the questions will be acceptable as well. I am happy to say that Michael Lilliquist was the first to jump on this opportunity and gave me a generous 1.5 hours of his time. He thoroughly, and thoughtfully, answered all my questions, which I based on feedback I’ve received from my fellow Bellinghamsters. No matter which way you lean politically, I think it shows a great level of integrity for a city official to sit down with me and answer some hard questions. This is a level of transparency and integrity I have not seen, so far, from any other council member or the mayor.
Interview Questions for Michael Lilliquist (Currently, Bellingham City Council member, 6th Ward)
0. Are you running for mayor?
Michael: “Legally, I can’t say that I am. I’m thinking about it, and so are other people, I think that’s the best way to put it.”
1. Why do you love Bellingham and Whatcom County? What do you like to do around here for fun?
Michael was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. He was born in Bellevue at a time when it was still a farming community and has fond memories of fishing, walking to school through pastures, and picking blueberries, as a job, when he was 14. After moving back to the PNW after grad school, he found that Bellevue had changed and realized that Bellingham felt like home. It was the kind of place, vibe, and culture that made sense to him. That was over 20 years ago.
Since then Michael has served Whatcom County in many ways. He is currently a City Council member for the 6th Ward. He states that, “I kind of backed into the City Council without knowing that that’s where I was going by becoming more involved in my community through life transitions like becoming a father, setting up a house, raising a family, getting involved in a neighborhood association, my school district… Ya know, it just kind of started snowballing. Then I got involved in specific zoning development questions in Fairhaven after reading our land use rules and realizing that we weren’t doing it right.”
Like many of us, Michael approached his council member, and soon to be opponent, at the time and received a virtually useless response. It was obvious to him that no one was going to do the right thing, so he decided to get involved. Michael states, “I remember talking to the person I ran against for the first time about the problem and saying, ‘Are you going to help out?’ and the reply was basically, ‘No.’ So I thought, OK, I guess I’m running for council, cause rather than complain from the outside, I wanted to effect change from the inside.”
Although Michael prefers to work from the inside, and have at least one vote, he admits that it can be a different kind of frustrating at times. There is still much he can’t ask and a lot that is not in his power. That said, he’d much rather have one established vote out of seven, than no votes. It gives at least some ability to try and get some good things done for our community. Michael recommends watching the video, “Prescription Strength Nature.”
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 is pushing us to the limit. This problem disproportionately effects 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, if possible?
Michael cautions that we have to be clear about what is possible, and again, it can be frustrating. The problems we’re facing are not just here in Bellingham but regional, and to some extent, national. There are forces at work beyond the ability of city government to affect. One of these national problems that’s been developing for decades is rising income inequality, while we are seeing a relative stagnation in real-term dollars and wages, even though productivity is rising. Remember that both capital and labor are mobile, so for example, our labor market here is affected by Seattle and the effect can be both good and bad. We can have the wrong kind of spillover in both directions.
So what is possible? Michael outlines our balanced tax structure, and that our tax burden when compared with other countries and states is not too bad. However, he then reminds us that Washington has the most regressive tax system in the nation, which raises the issue of fairness. We are considered regressive because we rely too heavily on sales taxes. On top of that, cities can only tax based on the authority given to them by the state. So you have to try and choose how you will tax based on what your community needs. One tax can be used for a transportation idea, another for housing, but what you can use them for is specific.
With all of that said, Michael states that “we have the single most regressive tax I can think of, a utility tax. This is a straight tax on utilities that by definition are necessities of life! In other words, we’re taxing things that you need!” Meaning your water, sewer, electricity, heating, and to a lesser extent, telecom. Michael has recommended eliminating the utility tax every chance he’s had, even if it means making up the funding elsewhere.
3. Our city/county currently has a serious homelessness crisis. How would you address this issue? Obviously, the public is motivated to solve this issue.
Michael recounts how generous the public has been in trying to solve this issue. He reminds us of the voter-approved housing levy from seven years ago. Largely thanks to this generosity, about $5 million a year is spent on real, permanent housing solutions for low-income individuals. Still, housing affordability has been a problem for as long as he’s been in Bellingham and the problem of homelessness is out-pacing our ability to keep up with it. It’s obvious we need to change our thinking to also create housing solutions for no-income individuals. Michael says “It’s a bit hurtful to me when people say that the city is doing nothing about homelessness. They’re doing a lot about it.” The problem is just outpacing their efforts. So they need to rethink the issue and come up with new solutions. The entire West Coast has seen a rise in homelessness, after a decline in it only a few years ago. In the meantime, they’ve authorized homeless encampments and are looking for a place for a permanent homeless shelter. They are also trying to identify where the gaps are between the non-profit organizations and funding mechanisms, the kind of things that might lead to a great gain with little effort. We also need to redefine what homelessness is. Right now, the bar is too high: you need to be homeless for six months before you have access to many of the resources you need. That’s simply too long. We need to break the cycle of homelessness. Michael believes we should start with light-touch services, aimed at helping people who just need to get back on their feet. He urges citizens who want more information on the topic to contact the council office where they can get much more information, including information from the Town Hall meeting on the subject held in June of last year. He also serves on the County Council homeless strategies workgroup.
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 recently passed net-neutrality bill, with federal preemption? Why is it important to invest in public infrastructure?
Michael is a long-time supporter of community broadband. He also supports the idea of a Dig Once Policy, which would give us reliable infrastructure to use moving forward, and move us away from the inadequate, informal process that we use now. He believes we should at least put conduit in every time a repair is done, often with fiber optic cabling as well. We need to overbuild for future needs. The amount of conduit we have is such that we could build a redundant system for minimal cost. Michael made sure we had enough conduit on the waterfront to prevent problems with retrofitting down the road, a situation that he reminds us is foolish to get into.
He also believes broadband should be made available to the public by a public provider, on a low-cost basis. Having a public, net-neutral entity would change the behavior of private providers for the better. A public provider of broadband is simply a different sort of creature that makes the private sector look to public benefit more than they might and compete on different terms. He prefers the Open Access model for a network also because a publicly available Open Access Network has the same kind of positive effects for the community. One of the things the public could do on a publicly owned network is require users to be net-neutral, giving us a permanent solution to maintain net-neutrality. This would virtually force private providers in the same market to have to remain net-neutral as well, and would definitely increase choice via local, net-neutral providers and provide real low-cost alternatives. Private providers can also lease both conduit and fiber on the network, allowing them to expand at lower cost and generating revenue for the city, allowing the network to pay for itself.
Sadly, this topic would not even be on the radar at city hall if Michael hadn’t pushed for it about two years ago, around the time I first approached the city with the idea and created the public-fiber petition. The mayor, and her administration, have been resistant to talking about it or committing any resources to even an evaluation of the idea. So, the council used council staff, as they had to do in the past with the Georgetown Energy Prize, which was another idea the administration was resistant to. The council used their own staff, and eventually changed the administration’s mind. Michael hopes something similar will happen with broadband.
“We have to answer the question, What is Bellingham’s relationship with other tech centers like Seattle, much less Austin, Texas?” He would like to see Bellingham become a tech center, and admits that a publicly owned network is the backbone of a modern city, but says we lack the buzz and excitement.
He says we can create this buzz and excitement, the kind that may attract a satellite office from big players like Facebook, if we can tell a sexy tech story about Bellingham. This story includes being a gigabit city, with high quality of life, low crime, good schools, with shiny new infrastructure just waiting for them to use. That’s how you attract next-generation jobs to Bellingham. The infrastructure we needed in the past was good roads and rail lines, and we have those. Now, we need the infrastructure of the 21st Century, which is broadband. “Let’s aspire not just to do a good job with it. Let’s aspire to do a great job,” he says. “But what are we doing about it? Well, practically nothing.” We need to have robust connectivity to the international marketplace of ideas. “We have relied too heavily on private solutions that are doing only a fair job. Not a good job, and definitely not a great one.”
5. Many believe the waterfront project is foolish. They say 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?
We decide to address the question in two parts. On the topic of the environmental cleanup, Michael admits that a big mistake was made by the city when they gave up their only leverage in the situation about 15 years ago by giving up their role, as the SEPA authority, to direct the cleanup to the Port of Bellingham. This created a situation where the Port was essentially regulating itself, which is just crazy. Little can be done about that decision now, but he hopes that with new staff coming in they’ll be open to taking a fresh look at the situation. As far as the money goes for environmental cleanup, Michael says, “Yes, we will never get the money spent on environmental cleanup back. We’re not supposed to. We caused harm to the environment and we have to pay for it, like it or not, because it’s the right thing to do.”
As far as money spent on development goes, Michael admits it might just be an expense to the city, but public and private industries will benefit in many other ways from it. The money may not flow directly back to the city, but the community will benefit from the project. “So the city might spend $100 million on infrastructure, and we’ll never get a penny back, but if that results in $1 billion in private development, and other economic boosts, then that’s the reason we paid for it. And not because we get more tax revenue.”
Michael reminds us that taxes should NEVER be a profit center. If they’re working correctly, you tax only enough to pay for what the public needs, not a penny more or less.
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?
“Council has no authority to investigate (the Bellingham Public Works Department.) It would require the administration to do so. With that said, I find it totally unacceptable if the city is not complying with public record requests. Keep in mind that the public records act does not require the creation of new records or to provide records that do not exist, which goes to your other point. It turns out that some very relevant documentation do not exist.” Michael then went on to talk about how, if it was in his power, he would devise a strategy to have the records updated in a modern digital format like ArcGIS records for maps. He says he doesn’t want to be too hard on the department though. Some of the issue is a legacy problem, where records are paper records, stored in legacy databases, or possibly even on microfiche. The other issue is that it’s not just about getting records updated into digital format. There are some resources that have gone missing, and physical location of these resources would have to take place as well. Still, for as many problems are there are, keeping parts of the city in the 19th century, the city has also made many improvements to bring it into the 21st Century like updating some legacy systems.
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 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?
We skipped over the GPT argument. Most seem to agree that it is a bad idea and the damage it would do to the environment has been well documented. Michael says the use of motorized vehicles should restricted, especially on public land, to limit their destructive potential. But, he cites Galbraith mountain and the mountain bike trails there as a good compromise since the land is regulated forestry land and therefore, not truly pristine wilderness. There may also be some room for them on private land. The question is what damage they’ll do to the environment. As far as the rest of the outdoor industry goes, there are many non-destructive uses of it that could bring in a lot of good jobs and revenue to Whatcom County and Bellingham. We are a farming county, and our farms bring in an estimated $400 million. Outdoor recreation could result in $600 to $700 million in revenue.
With that said, Michael says it’s important to make a distinction between pristine natural spaces like pristine forest and natural spaces inside city limits. While our natural spaces in the city are important, we should admit that rural natural spaces are pristine and try to limit urban expansion to protect them and the environment. Michael says, “I challenge the whole premise that only destructive uses of nature are a way to create jobs. It’s very clear that non-destructive uses of nature can create just as many, or more, jobs.”
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?
“The city is already getting our power through green energy programs. We’re hoping to do more than that and have signed onto PSE’s Green Direct Program.” This allows us to potentially get wind power from somewhere in the Cascades, instead of just buying power from a wind farm in a totally different region. It is an industrial scale wind energy project. In addition, they’ve looked into good rooftop space for solar panels and have installed some where possible. The sad truth is that some of the buildings, like city hall, are not structurally sound enough to support panels. The city spent over $6 million to upgrade HVAC systems and switch to LED bulbs. They have also commissioned an energy audit of city facilities to determine where even more energy can be saved. “It’s about reducing our usage in the first place.” The payback for switching to energy saving technologies is often very fast. For example, it takes only about three years to earn our money back on the LED replacements. “It’s a no-brainer solution.” This is true of most infrastructure improvements. They have also switched the city owned street lamps to LED and are looking at doing so on the street lamps they have on poles they have leased from PSE. PSE owns about 70% of the poles in town.
Selling power back to the grid creates a lot of complicated issues. Michael would like to see micro-hydro power down at the Waterfront, but whether the Port would create a power utility or a private company would provide it would take some more investigation. Also, this would be an adjunct power player, largely because our water-flow is great in the winter, when power demand is high, but the flow wanes in the summer. So, it would be a half year power solution. Still, it would change the power mixture for the better.
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?
“This circles back to where we started, which is, what can a local government do? Many of the influences are out of our control. A good place to start would be to create an economic development strategy. I put broadband in there, by the way.” Michael believes that instead of giving tax incentives to companies to move to town, or not flee, we should focus on building the ground underneath the businesses: good streets, good parks, high quality of life, low-crime, excellent emergency services, good, net-neutral, cheap broadband, and good schools. Instead of going out and trying to find a business to move here, we should create the magnet to attract them here. “We don’t have to pick the winners and losers, we just need to put the right fertilizer in the soil.” Increasing the quality of life isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s also a solid economic strategy. For example, Michael hopes that businesses would see the advantages for their employees to operating in a place with so many amazing outdoor activities at our fingertips.
The example of Mount Vernon comes up again, where their community broadband infrastructure has attracted good companies from Seattle. Michael believes that if we had a similar broadband infrastructure, that even though Mount Vernon is an idyllic place to live as well, Bellingham could beat them head-to-head.
“So if we had a sexy broadband story to tell, and went head-to-head with Mount Vernon, we’d win. Aside from a sexy broadband story, I’d also like to be able to tell a sexy low carbon story. I’ve pushed for a district energy utility at the waterfront, for example. What if you have a low carbon, no carbon, gigabit, brownfield redevelopment with infrastructure already in place? That’s a pretty sexy story. If I was the Port of Bellingham, that’s what I’d be doing. Not condominiums. They might be a nice place to live, if you can afford it, but it’s just not a sexy story. I want to be able to tell a company like Facebook that we have all of the services they need, paired with high quality of life, low crime, great services, and good schools.”
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?
“Utilities are funny. They are regulated monopolies, and that can work out well.” It is very important for them to be regulated monopolies and this should include telecom. Unregulated monopolies are a danger to, and cause damage to, the public good. In short, unchecked monopolies are abusive. However, you need to be careful with how you draw up your contracts. Our contract for waste disposal is poorly structured. They are guaranteed a profit margin over and above their costs. This removes the natural incentives for them to contain their costs. So in this case, when it comes to regulating a monopoly in a way that isn’t abusive to the community, we missed the mark.
11. What role can political leaders play at the local level in addressing the epidemic of gun violence?
“Back to frustration. Local governments only have the authority given to them under state law. Cities only exist because states allow them to. They are also allowed to preempt local control. State law completely preempts local authority to regulate any aspect of gun regulation.” There is an exception, cities can require that gun stores are not within 500 feet of schools and guns can be restricted in publicly owned spaces like arenas. “It’s amazing that that’s all that cities can do. They only regulate zoning.” So city officials have advocated to state officials for tougher restrictions, asking them for reasonable background checks, age limits, a ban on automatic weapons and weapons easily converted into automatic weapons, limits on magazine sizes and types of ammunition, and more.
“Personally I think the Second Amendment has been misread and it can all be traced back to Judge Scalia’s poorly reasoned decision to completely trade his own judicial principles in and ignore the plain text of the Second Amendment and more the language of the Constitution which calls for a well regulated militia, and clearly states what that is.”
11a. On the same note, do you think it sends a mixed message to say we care about gun violence to our community while at the same time backing the purchase of a tank, with full-tactical gear, for our police in one of the safest cities in the U.S.? Does militarization of the police undermine their basic mission to serve and protect the community?
Michael doesn’t have a problem with the vehicle being used defensively, and reminded me of the damage done to police vehicles in the WWU uprising in October, 2013. Video of Uprising Still, it seems that a tank was not needed to deal with the situation, and the potential for misuse of a vehicle like this by an unstable officer like Mesa, Arizona, officer Philip Brailsford makes us all wonder if militarization of the police is a good idea. You may remember Brailsford, who, even though he was backed up by six officers in full tactical gear armed with AR-15s, murdered an unarmed dad in a hotel hallway as he pleaded for this life. Trust, after all, is the most important thing that officers create with their community. When they breach this social contract, they can’t effectively do their jobs, and who wants to be the one to find out the hard way and be on the other end of Philip Brailsford’s gun? Daniel Shaver Murder
Michael talked about how the fatal shooting in Bellingham a few months ago seemed like a justifiable use of force. He also said that he, too, has seen too many videos from other towns where unarmed people have experienced “death by cop,” involving behavior by police that seemed “outright illegal.” Knife Wielding Man In Bellingham Shot by Police
Again, we need to be able to trust that the people we give this authority to are trustworthy. “So your very question is, what if someone like this was on our force? What if they went rogue? What if they used their position to do something criminal? The very fact that you’re asking that question shows me that the damage has already been done.”
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?
It turns out that Bellingham is already way ahead of the curve when it comes to installing bicycle infrastructure, including buffered bicycle lanes, which use temporary barriers. Protected lanes are harder to do in established areas, but we will see the first one at the waterfront. With this kind of lane, a car would have to jump a berm to hit a bicyclist. A large part of the funding for this came from the Transportation Benefits District. When asked about putting in more fast charging points to support electric vehicles, say at meters, Michael said, “I don’t know. I’d say it’s a bit early to say.”
If you’d like more information from your council members here is the link to their contact information.