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Sam Taylor exposes county council machinations

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Sam Taylor has an excellent article in today’s Bellingham Herald. There is a link at the bottom of this post directly to the article and the comments it is generating. This link may go bad in a few days - or maybe not, depending on what the Herald webmaster decides.

Sam exposes obvious cooperation between county council representatives to quietly provide pay raises to county administrators and top level staff. Their actions present a sad and shameful attempt to avoid public attention to their action. Conservative or Liberal, they stink as a group. Sam has it all. And it looks like they acted illegally in their effort to hide their actions from us.

Some county staff are crying foul at Sam. They resent his posting their salaries online. To which I say tough. They are public employees and we have every right to know what their pay and benefits are. If they don’t like it then they can go get a job in the private sector.

A tip of the hat also to the Herald editors for publishing the article and for giving it plenty of column inches. Too often the editors slice these stories to only a few inches. They gave Sam’s story plenty of room.

We need this kind of reporting. Our local government agencies pretty much get a free ride. The news media is the only real check we have on goverment agencies acting illegally and unethically. The state attorneys, auditors, count prosecutors and all such are 99% ineffective. They are in bed with the agencies. Sam’s good reporting on this deserves recognition from all of us. And the county council members have shown all of us that in the end they will stoop to very low actions to get their way.

About John Servais

Posting Citizen Journalist • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

John started Northwest Citizen in 1995 to inform fellow citizens of serious local political issues that the Bellingham Herald was ignoring. With the help of donors from the beginning, he has [...]

Comments by Readers

Carl Weimer

Oct 24, 2008

Hi John,

I also found Sam’s article useful, mainly because he pointed out a possible flaw in the way the Council has always been told to legally conduct discussions of the unrepresented labor agreement. I sent him a note thanking him for shining a light on this.

While Sam insinuated that the Council was somehow trying to pass this without anyone knowing, your statement that what we did was “a sad and shameful attempt to avoid public attention to their action” is just ludicrous. The agreement was posted on the Council’s website for nearly a week, it was talked about publicly during our Finance Committee meeting Tuesday morning, and it was voted on publicly during our evening meeting. Where’s the attempt to “avoid public attention?” That is how we handle most every decision, many of which represent much larger financial decisions that this,

If you are talking about the fact that we have discussed this labor agreement in closed door executive sessions, just like we talk about all our union labor agreements, I still disagree. Our lawyers, who we really have little choice but to rely on, have consistently advised us to do this. Even today after Sam’s article we received another written legal opinion stating this is legal, and an important way to conduct these discussions because of the related negotiations with the bargaining units.

Because of Sam’s article, and the statements in it from the AG that conflict with the opinion we have been given, the Council will probably consider it carefully before we do it again. We may have to do that soon since we scheduled a meeting today for next Tuesday to discuss why the Executive’s salary (as published in the paper today) is so much higher than what we discussed and thought we voted on, and what to do about it.

If on this issue you want to refer to us as bamboozled, confused, lazy, too trusting, outmaneuvered, stretched too thin, or even incompetent I would not blame you and would just grin and bear it. But some sneaky attempt to avoid public attention it certainly was not, and I am not at all apologetic for granting the County’s unrepresented employees the same increase (for the most part) in wages that the rest of the county’s employees received earlier.

Sam’s article did shine a valuable light on the executive session issue, and caused the Council to schedule a meeting to revisit the Executive’s salary. That is good! Your angry, off the mark accusations, provide no benefit to anyone.

Thanks for most of what you do.

Carl

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John Servais

Oct 24, 2008

Carl,

I notice you do not deny any of what Sam wrote - and that is the crux.  For years, when agencies have been caught keeping something secret I have listened to them whine how they were open and public - and it always seems to be some controversial issue. But little things keep them secret.  Thus the council put the pay raise in the consent agenda and Lori gave it no notice.  It almost worked.

The executive session discussion is in direct violation of state law.  The county prosecutor’s office has given false cover to the council for years.  You guys gave them pay raises.  Gee - how convenient.  Now how dare I suggest anything out of line in Whatcom County when our prosecutor has not discovered any public corruption in this county in decades.  Carl - you and I disagree on your reliance on the prosecutor’s office for legal advice and your loose attitude towards executive sessions.

And, Carl, the most common put down of citizens who criticize government actions is that they are not helpful.  I’ve been told that repeatedly for 30 years.  Read the tag line just at the top of this page - Lets do the Public’s business in public.  Try it, Carl.

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g.h. kirsch

Oct 24, 2008

At the risk of irritating two friends, and perhaps even more, let me say that what Carl says, “is how we handle most every decision” is true.  But what John characterizes as “very low actions to get their way” is not.

What Carl says is sadly true but John, the news media is not the only real check we have on government agencies. 

Frankly, except when some special interest wants to save their ox from being gored or pick some plum, there’s not much public interest in the public interest. 

But implying the council members have acted illegally or unethically squanders the opportunity to point out the reality that they have, again, shown themselves, collectively, to be sheep; and mushrooms happy to remain in the dark and live on this crap Kremen and McEachran serve up.

When you get bad legal advice it’s not a pass, and it’s not an excuse.  Not only are the jails full of guys who just had bad lawyers, every loser in court, though poorly represented, is a loser.

The shame here is that, while representing the public, most of the council members know they are poorly advised and that the county’s lawyers interpret the law to advance the administration’s wishes.  In instance after instance the council acts, not illegally, but without complete knowledge of the law.

When you’re poorly informed you’re really uninformed.  I can not accept the idea that only lawyers can understand the law.  Though they’d like us to believe that.

So shame on council members who continue to look for direction from the lawyers who represent the branch of government the council was intended to check and balance.

Thankfully they now have a policy adviser that represents them and not the administration.

Whether you consider the refusal to enforce laws that would stop the over appropriation of water and the twisting of codes to expand urban services into rural areas to benefit developers and promote growth; or the parsing of language to violate zoning ordinances to push their own and their supporters strategies; abuse of the executive session rules; or the almost routine interpretation of the county code to serve an end rather than serve the public; that’s our administration.

With the power of the purse, if the council doesn’t reallocate the county’s finances during the current budget process to correct this situation, increase its staff for both legal and long range planning and reduce the administration’s, they really aren’t fulfilling their mandate under the charter.

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John Servais

Oct 25, 2008

Greg,

Not offended.  And I appreciate Carl hammering on the issues.  The point of all this is to learn the truth. 

We cannot let the council off by saying they get poor legal advice.  They are responsible for who they listen to and what they do.  They are not victims.  Indeed, they can easily get their own legal advice and stop accepting McEachran’s.  They allow this to continue. 

We have two issues here.  One is the illegal process the council used - and that is what I’m concerned about.  The second is the issue of giving raises when other staff are going to be laid off.  I think that conflict is what motivated the council to be so secretive in their process.

Since then I’ve had a council member rail at me for suggesting the council gave themselves a raise.  I’m used to elected officials getting cranked at me for stuff I never wrote or said.  The council members should pull up short on getting mad at the media and citizens and turn their attention to their legal advisors and their own sloppy processes.

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Tip Johnson

Oct 25, 2008

Just a few points: 

First, I’m not sure it’s an abuse to discuss the matter behind closed doors.  As a personnel matter, it seems to qualify for executive discussion. As with all executive sessions, any results must be publicly disclosed.  Seems like they did that, alright.

Second, it is worth noting that any pay raise for elected officials apply only to future office holders.  Council members need to be re-elected to receive the raise.

Third, our county council members are not overpaid by any comparable county standard.  A strong argument can be made that a decent salary for council members is important to attract qualified and competent candidates.

Finally, a measure of cooperation between the council and executive/supervisory staff is not necessarily a bad thing.  That said, it does smell a little funny to dish it out at the top at the brink of an economic downturn when substantial budget shortfalls are anticipated.

It seems like it would be more appropriate to hammer Kremen than the council.

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