City Staff Lacks Impartiality On Dock Closure

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After attending yesterday’s Lake Whatcom committee meeting, my concern regarding a bias in the information provided by the City of Bellingham staff has increased. The professional opinion of our city's staff is highly valued, and we rely upon them to develop the policies enacted by elected officials. However, the staff exceeds its authority when it provides or withholds information in order to achieve a desired outcome. We did not elect the staff and therefore, they should not be making policy decisions on the public’s behalf, no matter how well-intended.

The staff produced a seven page memorandum on the Bloedel dock closure that reads more like a brief filed by a party advocate in litigation. http://www.cob.org/web/council.nsf/0/ED368DAF57CC3865882579FA005C2B71/$File/14may2012_AB19575.pdf?OpenElement. The majority of the staff report consisted of speculation on “worst case scenarios” for the closure.

Staff asserts that closure of the Bloedel dock will be almost as expensive as the implementation of a boat inspection program. Ignoring the option of closing the dock with a temporary barrier and signs, staff instead stated that two city police officers would be needed to enforce the closure at the park, and that two more officers might be needed to enforce the ban at other properties. The cost estimate was as high as $101,000 a month, before including the costs from additional enforcement that might be needed by the sheriff’s office.

Apparently, the closure of the Bloedel dock will result in traffic and parking mayhem at the remaining lake launches. Aside from the dock closure, a situation allegedly fraught with the potential for civil unrest, I am not aware of the city so vigorously enforcing Lake Whatcom land use regulations. In fact, I was always advised that enforcement is based on a compliant-driven system.

Staff also advised that the dock needed to remain open to obtain survey information from those using the boat launch. Apparently, no one at the city sees a potential problem relying on voluntary information obtained from a stakeholder group with a strong motivation to keep the dock open. It is not clear why some of this information was not already obtained from the focus group meetings between the staff and lake users over the past few months.

One of the staff’s concerns with a dock closure was the impact to people who rely upon the dock, such as the Institute for Watershed Studies, (which conducts water quality testing,) tribal members, or participants in bass tournaments. Providing exemptions in the temporary moratorium enacted is a viable solution, albeit one not mentioned in the staff memo.

Perhaps the staff is concerned about the impact on the Whatcom Rowing Association, which is now located at Bloedel Park pursuant to a lease with the Bellingham Parks Department. (And as a non-profit organization, the rowing club’s lease is subsidized by the public.) The arrangement was completed before the staff solicited public comment pursuant to a recent “proposed” amendment to the Bloedel Master Plan.

The Bloedel lease and new dock for the Rowing Association is an example of an additional matter handled by the city staff that warranted more transparency and public discussion. The staff was aware of the Asian clam infestation and the threat of invasive mussels at the time it provided public park land to the Rowing Association and approved construction of an additional dock. Staff knew this would increase recreational water use before an aquatic invasive species program was in place, yet ignored public comment on the point during the SEPA process. Instead, city staff handled this in a routine manner.

Were it not for the city council’s sound judgment in questioning the need for a temporary dock closure, this would have remained yet another public policy decision made by the staff for our own good.

About Wendy Harris

Citizen Journalist • Member since Mar 31, 2008