Shortly after Kelli Linville was installed as mayor, she prevailed on the then current group of naive and uninformed Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) representatives to vote themselves out of the city’s planning process. A handful of veteran MNAC representatives opposed the action but to no avail. This was to be the beginning of an assault on the role of neighborhood associations and MNAC representatives, who were thereafter characterized by the leadership at city hall as unrepresentative of the neighborhoods and their residents.*
The role of MNAC at paragraph 2.33 Bellingham Municipal Code (see file below) at the time was :
“2.33.040 -Functions -Meetings and Minutes The primary purpose of the MNAC meetings is to provide a regular forum for (1) representatives of neighborhood associations to communicate their interests and concerns to the City administration, (2) the Mayor to inform representatives of neighborhood associations of City activities that may be of interest to neighborhoods, and (3) the MNAC to have timely opportunity to formulate and/or review proposed changes to the City’s comprehensive plan and neighborhood plans and to prepare recommendations on those proposed changes for the Mayor and the Planning Commission to consider. The Commission shall meet at least once each month and shall keep minutes of its meetings. In addition to attending MNAC meetings, MNAC members shall serve as a conduit for timely, accurate information about City government programs and services, through various actions including reporting and/or forwarding to their membership information provided by City government.” (bolding by this writer)
A compliant Bellingham City Council of that period voted to affirm that neighborhoods have less of a say in the planning process so that code portion above now reads:
“The primary purpose of the MNAC is for (A) the mayor to communicate with and listen to the representatives of neighborhood associations on topics that may be of interest to neighborhoods; (B) representatives of neighborhood associations to communicate their interests and concerns to the city administration; and (C) members to serve as a conduit for timely, accurate information about city programs and services through various actions including reporting and/or forwarding to their membership information provided by the city. The MNAC may elect to review proposed changes to the city’s comprehensive plan and neighborhood plans and provide comment on those proposed changes for the mayor to consider. The commission shall meet at least 10 times per year and shall keep minutes of its meetings. [Ord. 2013-01-004 § 1; Ord. 2006-05-048; Ord. 8516 § 4, 1976].” (bolding by this writer)
I personally attended many MNAC meetings under Mayor Dan Pike during which serious time was spent by individual MNAC committees in reviewing and commenting on various neighborhood plans. The full MNAC would then provide written suggestions to the Planning Commission as part of the official process for updates to comprehensive plans and neighborhood plans. However the new mayor, Kelli Linville, exhorted the members of MNAC to relinquish this role by saying that the members of the Planning Commission are representative of the interests of the neighborhoods and residents. The problem was that her declaration was immensely misleading and flatly inaccurate as I discovered and reported in my 2014 article “Planning or Development Commission?” where I pointed out that all of the commissioners were from the development industry.
“...on ... investigation, I learned that every member of the our present Planning Commission is involved with or has/had close ties to businesses that owe their existence to development, i.e., real estate, consulting, construction, architecture, etc.”
The City Council moved to fix that shortly thereafter and limited the number of Planning Commission representatives from the development community. (BMC 2.42) The mayor promptly placed two so-called non-development reps on the commission, however, both have proven to be driven basically by free market, neoliberal concepts thus playing wittingly or unwittingly into the hands of the developers who salivate about the zoning changes they espouse in the name of equity and anti-NIMBYism. So there is still a heavy pro-development, free market majority on the Planning Commission. Unfortunately, this majority is locked into commission membership through 2021 unless there are unexpected resignations.
Additionally, Mayor Linville has ignored the portion of the city code that requires MNAC to run its own organization and meetings. Mayor Dan Pike also ignored this portion of the city code on MNAC by having one of his assistants run the meetings and control the agendas. As mayor, he rarely attended his own mayor’s neighborhood commission, unlike the current mayor who controls each meeting herself. The code still reads:
“Upon being constituted, the Commission [MNAC] shall establish its own internal rules of operation, including provisions for the election or appointment of necessary officers.”
The use of the verb “shall” [italics above are mine] is generally lawspeak for “must,” although there is a lively polemic regarding the use of “shall” and “must”. Nonetheless, the code, under any reasonable interpretation, mandates that the MNAC representatives do their own organizing and provides no role for the mayor in chairing the meetings or giving any direction whatsoever.
Unfortunately, it appears that few who serve on MNAC actually read the city code on MNAC operations or, if they did, they ignore what is specified. Ignorance of the role of MNAC was forcefully driven home at the time the current mayor asked the members to remove themselves from the planning process. Most were either blissfully or purposefully unaware of the duties and responsibilities to the point that one member, who had been on the commission for some time, blurted out to the mayor and MNAC assembled that she had not come to MNAC to “read all that stuff” in the first place.
The most recent update to the comprehensive plan took place without a scintilla of input from MNAC to the Planning Commission. For the last decade the city has unilaterally decided to discontinue or ignore updates to neighborhood plans, thus MNAC is effectively removed from that process also.
The next mayor must ask the City Council to restore MNAC to its previous role in the process of updating the comprehensive plan and provide staff support along the lines of that provided to the Planning Commission. MNAC members should take back the control of their meetings and the agenda by writing bylaws and electing their own officers as the current code directs. The next mayor should also demand that the process of updating neighborhood plans be part and parcel of MNAC considerations of zoning and growth within the city.
*The Greenways Advisory Committee was similarly the object of this administration’s desire to render ineffective or compliant several of the more important boards and commissions under the office of the mayor. Read more here: “This Mayor Hates Greenways” by former Greenways Advisory Committee member Alex McLean.
[NB. The author spent 4 years as the primary representative from the Samish Neighborhood Association to MNAC. He now serves as the alternate representative. His comments are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Samish Neighborhood Association.]