Guest writer Anne Mackie lives in the York Neibhborhood and is a community leader on residential planning processes. She has organized the Sep 14 community forum.
Oddly, the month of August was full of fireworks at Bellingham City Council meetings, but what led up to those heated exchanges had its roots in July. This “backstory” helps to expose the uneven playing field that average citizens have in comparison to favoritism shown to moneyed interest groups, such as the real estate and building industries.
On July 6, the Whatcom Realtors Association (WRA) sent out an email inviting its members to rally at City Hall for Council’s Committee of the Whole July 11 afternoon meeting. The occasion was to hear a special guest presentation by Mr. Michael Luis. The announcement read:
“Your REALTOR® Association, using a grant from the Washington State REALTORS®, hired Mr. Luis as part of a housing coalition comprised of other trade organizations and land use experts within Whatcom County. The focus of his work for our Association is the confirmation/refutation of the Bellingham Comp. Plan assumptions and the flaws in the City’s plans for housing and land use for the next 20 years!
“Mr. Luis will be presenting his findings during the Committee of the Whole. I can assure you that if you attend this presentation, you will learn about aspects of our community’s demographics that you did not know, information that may change your view of the future of real estate in Whatcom County.”
Boy, this sure sounded exciting! I wondered, however, how did a paid consultant of the Washington Realtors Association get inserted into the Council’s work session on the Comp Plan? I quickly fumbled through emails looking for public notification that the Public Hearing had been reopened. Found none. I reviewed the July 11 council agenda and found no mention of this guest speaker.
After a phone call to the council office, I was directed to the announcement about Mr. Luis in the Agenda Bill 21247 document (the Comp Plan bill) linked to the Comp Plan agenda item, and finally located it on page 70 of the meeting packet. Whew. Finally, the announcement:
“Council has invited Michael Luis representing the Whatcom Affordable Housing Coalition to make a presentation. After Mr. Luis’ presentation, City staff will preliminarily respond to points raised and then will present details on the Planning Commission’s recommended Land Use and Housing Chapter. After the staff presentation, 15 minutes will be reserved for public comment.”
Hmm. A paid hired gun for the real estate industry had been inserted into the council’s Comp Plan work session. Curious. And, who is this “Whatcom Affordable Housing Coalition”? And why was the description on the council agenda of Mr. Luis’ topic inconsistent with what the realtors’ association had characterized to be about “flaws” in the city’s 20-year plan for housing and land use?
And, coincidently, when had the Public Hearing officially been reopened after it had been closed on June 6? Evidently there had been a notice published in the widely-read Bellingham Herald in which it was mentioned that, “Oral testimony may be taken during Council work sessions at the discretion of the chair.”
There also had been a July 12 public email issued by City Planner Lisa Pool in which she outlined dates for upcoming council work sessions on the Comp Plan that included a footnote at the bottom: “Oral testimony may be taken during Council work sessions at the discretion of the chair.”
Sufficient public notification that the Public Hearing had been reopened? Dubious.
On July 7, I sent the following email to Council President Pinky Vargas and councilmembers: “I object to this special-interest group being allowed a special audience of the Council during a session that was, I thought, an opportunity for the public to hear your comments about the June 6 Public Hearing. Even the notification to the public that Mr. Luis would be making this presentation was difficult to find, buried within the Council packet for July 11. And, the packet states that Mr. Luis is representing the ‘Whatcom Affordable Housing Coalition’ in his appearance before you; however, his sponsoring organization states, he is their paid consultant and will be addressing ‘flaws’ in the City’s planning.
“My primary concern is the public process, transparency, community notification, and fair opportunity to present viewpoints to the Council. And, my concern is that the Council packet states one thing, and Mr. Luis’ sponsoring organization states another regarding his subject matter and affiliation.
“I respectfully request that you consider a postponement of Mr. Luis’ presentation, and that the Committee of the Whole take this meeting opportunity to respond to the Public Hearing comments and written submissions that were made on the Comp Plan by local citizens.”
The end to this “backstory”? Mr. Luis was cancelled. The Whatcom Affordable Housing Coalition represents who? The Whatcom Realtors Association and the Building Industry of Whatcom County (BIAWC).
A fair public process and transparency? You tell me.