County Hires GPT Permit Lead as Senior Planner

Riley digs into an unusual hiring decision at the County Planning Dept

Riley digs into an unusual hiring decision at the County Planning Dept


3/17/2014 Update: Since this story broke, there have been a number of developments. Tim Johnson covered it in the Cascadia Weekly, digging into the pro-development bias of our planning department as a whole.

As promised, I conducted my public records request and found zero evidence that Cliff Strong is currently working on anything directly related to the Gateway Pacific Terminal project. You can find the results of my public records search here

Furthermore, Jack Louws stepped into the debate, issuing a statement in support of Cliff Strong's hiring, although he passes the responsibility to Sam Ryan, the planning director, and shares Strong's perspective that he was not responsible for the massive fine incurred by Gateway Pacific Terminals. You can read that statement here.


Buckle yourself in, this one is going to be a doozy. The Whatcom County Planning Department has hired a planner who was previously in charge of the Gateway Pacific Terminal permitting. This potential conflict of interest was identified by David Stalheim, one of the writers of a local blog titled "Get Whatcom Planning".

Back in September 2013, the county executive hired Cliff Strong, who at the time was a land use planner with the City of Mukilteo. Strong was hired as a "Senior Planner" for the county in the natural resources department where he is responsible for long range planning, heading up the critical areas ordinance update, WRIA planning & coordination, and other duties as assigned.

However, he was already well-known within the planning department since he was the one handling (or not handling) permits for Gateway Pacific Terminal when they got caught illegally clearing land up at Cherry Point. At the time, Strong was working for AMEC Earth and Environmental, which was employed by Gateway Pacific Terminal. When they had to apply for retroactive permits for what they had done, Strong was the first name listed as the applicant (see page 6 here). On page 11 of this correspondence about the illegal clearing, the representative for the terminal refers to Strong as, "our planner on the Gateway Pacific Terminal project."

Clearly, Strong worked this issue previously, so I called Sam Ryan, director for the Planning Department to ask what Strong is currently working on. She said his main role is long range planning and he is currently working on the critical areas update. "He has not and will not work on anything having to do with the Terminal project." Jean Melious, Stalheim's partner-in-blog at Get Whatcom Planning, speculated that Strong could be appointed the county SEPA official, but Ryan was clear that Strong will not be working on anything involving that project.

I've filed a public record request to verify this is the current situation. The Whatcom County Code of Ethics does not prohibit hiring from former and/or current clients of the county. However, if Strong were to work on any issues relating to the terminal, there would be a serious case for appearance of fairness concerns.

About Riley Sweeney

Citizen Journalist • Member since Aug 10, 2009

Riley Sweeney, raised in the Pacific Northwest, moved to Bellingham during the Bush years, worked on a cross-section of political campaigns during the Obama years, and then fled to the [...]

Comments by Readers

Sandy Robson

Mar 10, 2014

Whatcom County Planning sent a letter on June 23, 2011 addressed as follows:
Pacific International Terminals
c/o Mr. Cliff Strong AMEC Earth &Environmental; Inc.
11810 North Creek Parkway N
Bothel, WA

Our county addressing a letter to PIT “in care of” Cliff Strong is just one example of the close working relationship between PIT and Strong. 

In that letter, County Planning told PIT c/o Cliff Strong a new shoreline substantial development permit was required to review the entire proposal within the jurisdiction of the SMA, and that the Major Development Permit was incomplete.

Then without a permit, in July 2011, PIT c/o Cliff Strong AMEC illegally clears land and wetlands in our county at Cherry Point, which also disturbed a known archeological site and sacred burial grounds for the Lummi Nation.

What does Whatcom County do?
Our county not only refuses to issue the 6 year moratorium on PIT for future developing which could and should have been issued to PIT as called for by PIT’s illegal clearing actions, but then as an extra insult, and creating a potential conflict of interest and serious question as to the appearance of fairness, our county planning department hires Cliff Strong in Sept. 2013 as a Senior Planner.

My comment here is not meant to be disrespectful to Cliff Strong as his planning experience seems to be good, but rather I am questioning how this hiring decision could have been been made at all? Who in their right mind thinks that this is okay? It’s not.

Maybe when we write to PIT from now on we should mark our envelope like this:

Pacific International Terminals
c/o Jack Louws, Whatcom County Executive

Because Jack Louws seems to be “taking care of” PIT a lot better than he is taking care of his own county residents.



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