If you’re like me, you’ve been dawdling along this election season, occasionally having a conversation with a friend about voting this way or that, how’s this or that campaign going? I usually resort to the web or the Voters’ Pamphlet to figure out which way is up on a particular ballot issue. So imagine my surprise when the Whatcom County section of the pamphlet contains not one, but two blatant stealth campaigns.
A stealth campaign is when an existing and well know political interest group uses an unknown front group name to conceal their identity and activities influencing elections.
The first example is on page 99, the Whatcom County initiative to increase the port commissioners from 3 to 5. Daren Williams, a longshoreman’s union official, and Leroy Rhode, a longshoreman, (apparently without a vote of the membership) hide behind the pseudonym of “the Committee Against Proposition No. 1.”
Both of them speak as representatives of the union at port meetings and are well known to the commissioners and staff, if not the general public. The filing with the auditor’s office has a convenient space for title and organization which has been left blank.
The statement against passing this initiative gins up the absurd argument that more transparency and accountability at the Port of Bellingham would “shut the public out,” and besides it would cost too much.
As if a little daylight wouldn’t be able to cut down the waste, fraud and graft at the port.
Likewise, the port’s operations and maintenance budget will ratchet up 1% a year as capped by state law, regardless of the passage or failure of this effort at reform. Private property in Whatcom County is currently taxed by the port at the rate of $0.299 per thousand.
Any tax increase beyond 1% will require a public hearing and a resolution passed by the usual rubber stamp 2-1 or 3-0 vote by the commissioners. Only excess levies go to the voters. So the argument about cost (and hence taxes) is nonsense. The cost of getting two more commissioners involved is insignificant and your port taxes are going to increase next year anyway.
Darren Williams and Leroy Rode should have known all that when they submitted the statement against this initiative. Actually, reading the entire file and emails to the auditor, there’s an unshakable impression that Darren didn’t write what was submitted, which raises the question as to who did.
The port has a long and sordid history of corruption, election law violations and thimble-rigging. One way to discover the skullduggery behind “The Committee Against Proposition No. 1” is to:
-pass the initiative;
-elect two tough-minded reformers to the port;
-bring in a forensic audit team and clean house.
It also would be a reasonable reform to hold the port public meetings in the evening like every other local government and taxing authority.
The Bellingham Low-Income Housing Levy has a similar situation of a publicly known and recognized interest group hiding behind a front group named “Proposition 1 - Low Income Housing Levy CON Committee.” In this case, the concealed special interest group is the Whatcom County Association of Realtors with Jack Petree and David Onkels in supporting roles.
None of this will come as a surprise to local political observers. First of all, Jack’s particular style of gibberish hanging on a lie is recognizable. Before I checked the records at the auditor’s office, two others agreed with me that Jack had probably written it. If we hadn’t been drinking beer together on Thursday night, I probably wouldn’t have trapped myself into writing this screed on a deadline.
Secondly, the fact that the statement against the proposition morphs “low-income housing” into “affordable housing” is the hallmark of the developer's and realtor's political influence machine. The difference is that people live in low-income housing and “affordable housing” means tax subsidies for developers and higher housing prices.
I’ll nail two of the lies right here. Lie number one is that passage of the proposition would increase rents because of the higher tax burden. As a founding member of the York Neighborhood Slumlords Association and speaking personally as an evil slumlord, this levy would force me to raise the rent by a whopping $6.66 a month if I was to pass through the entire tax increase to my wretched and impoverished tenant.
Lie #2 is snuggled inside the claim that 64% of the households in Bellingham being below median income is “a mathematical impossibility.” The exact opposite is the case. First of all, any geographical region anywhere in the world that is large enough to entertain a discussion of differences in income will have a majority of incomes falling below median. The reason is very simple: there are more poor people than rich people. This fact alone guarantees that the majority of households will fall below the average of all incomes.
Does it matter that voters are being mislead by interest groups with concealed identities? Yes, simply because a lot of public policy matters are hot potatoes and end up in the voters’ laps. These two propositions are unusual not because they’re reformers versus vested interests, but because neither opponent has a formal campaign, only a stealth front. Part of decision is evaluating the source of information.
How are voters expected to learn the sources of information about elections? It’s not just these two ballot items. The questions about stealth politics and the problems that come from not being able to find answers also apply to the robocalls, astroturfing and the rest of the huge volume of information and disinformation that comes from the commercialization of political debate.
The civics class answer is that the press is supposed to inform the public. Here’s one issue where there’s nothing in the commercial media. This story is an illustration of the role now being played by citizen journalists.
Public documents from the Whatcom Auditor’s office. The telephone numbers and email addresses are blacked out as a courtesy. The entire files are public documents and anyone can see them for the asking. See below.
A realtor’s web site showing the household income statistics for Bellingham ZIP code 98225. (Read way down the page and notice the intervals between income groups are different sizes.)