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.