Mayor Kelli Linville’s first interaction with the Greenways Advisory Committee was to ask us to draw up a list of properties to sell. She had been in office a few months by then, replacing the relatively hands-free guidance of Mayor Dan Pike, and I remember the GAC being curious what new spark, what new enthusiasm, she would provide to the wildly popular and decades-old program. We got our answer, via City staff and former Greenways Program Coordinator, Tim Wahl, by being asked to sell off parcels we had already purchased.
At the time it seemed so odd a request that it could only be an aberration. But time has proven it was just the normal instinct of a mayor who hates Greenways.
For seven years now Mayor Linville has infused attritional bureaucratic rot, starvation tactics, and utterly demoralizing slow-walking into the program. Greenways IV passed in 2016 through vigorous reaffirmation by nearly %70 of the voters. Nonetheless it is now a zombie program, torpid and lifeless like a spawned-out salmon, with chunks of its formerly-proud self ablating into protean mist. If ever there was a suicide watch for committees of sparkly-eyed volunteers eager to build upon the legacy and vision of providing awesome trails, open spaces, and parks for this community, I’d place bets on finding the Greenways program in an abandoned garage somewhere, swinging from a rope or garden hose, with bottles of MD 40/40 scattered on the tear and vomit-soaked floor. (1)
I served two full terms on the GAC and, as noted, they bridged the Rubicon of prior and present administrations. I also sat on the Greenways IV Levy formation committee – I was one of the folk who spent eight or-so months with former members of County Council, City Council, and a mayor or two as we cobbled together a strong Levy that, we hoped, would get the Council’s endorsement for the ballot. We did this by building upon the evolving needs of the last levies and staying true to the long-term, visionary goals of this community. We asked for less money from taxpayers, a shorter lifespan for the Levy, and we acquiesced to the mayor and her staff by shifting money away from Acquisitions of properties and toward the other two cash pillars, park Development and property Maintenance, instead. We also interviewed about six people from a broad range of civic disciplines, inviting them to give us feedback and advice in crafting this new legislation. One of these visiting counselors was Mayor Linville.
It would mark one of the few interactions that the mayor would bother with in guiding Bellingham’s future trails, open spaces, and parks. In the parlance of hipster youths, she appears to have “ghosted” Greenways, including the $32 million gift we gave her administration when the Levy passed. I would hazard, but won’t bother to prove it, that she’s canceled more visits to the GAC – typically forewarned to the committee— than she’s ever bothered to show up for. Nothing about the program seems to do anything but irritate her.
When Mayor Linville asked us to investigate selling some properties, back in 2012, I don’t think she even realized she was issuing a directive that, pretty obviously, was horrifically at odds with the mission our committee was charged with. We sat in a cold basement pushing maps in circles for years to build trails and parks and open space, after all, and not to liquidate those same public assets for profit. (2)
Asking to surplus properties is not sufficient evidence of “hatred,” however. The mayor took office in the embers of an economic crisis, so she had strained budgets to sympathize with as part of her job.
She directed parks to fire a few employees, presumably to trim the budget, then months later used Greenways funds to rehire them. I’m not sure if this was illegal, and I certainly can’t prove it happened as blatantly as I describe, but the committee was alarmed that the $250,000 or-so was deftly yanked away from us, without consultation, as a done deal. Likewise with funds used to repair the pools at Arne Hanne Aquatic Center – “Oh, by the way, you have less money now” is not how Greenways is supposed to operate, at least not back then, in Greenways III days, when we hadn’t yet voted to include a Maintenance fund.
Citizen oversight of Greenways is baked into the taxing authority of the Levy. The volunteer committee is mandated to serve this role. We failed, in those cases and in others, to protest or push back. We rolled around agitated, mildly flatulent with the discomfort of it all, but we never cried foul loudly enough to stop the occasional abuses.
Our obsequiousness was pressed hardest when, out of nowhere, the former Parks Director, James King, asked us to effectively dissolve the committee. The request was janky and subversive from the start, an obvious coup d‘etat ordered by Linville, so we said ... “Wow, yeah, ummm, we’ll definitely think about that.” King, rather bizarrely, took that as a ‘straw vote’ and turdballed the crapulous idea straight up the foodchain to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB). When he came back to us a month later, King informed us that a handful of our membership – citizens appointed by the mayor and approved by City Council – would hereby be allowed the privilege to sit in with PRAB. The remains of the GAC would just go home, thanks, and be gone.
If this scheme had succeeded, then the entirety of Greenways’ mission would, in theory, be little more than a bullet point snuggled amongst lengthy agenda lists to mow lawns, fix benches, or otherwise fiddlefart around with the minutia of running a Parks program. Greenways would become a footnote, an asterix lost in bureaucratic mush. It would be far easier to kill it, molest funds, or lose out on critically important property purchasing opportunities.
King retired, or otherwise bolted from Bellingham, and Leslie Bryson took over as Parks Director.
About six months later, she, too, proffered the sudden idea of dissolving the GAC and stirring bits of it into PRAB. We said no this time, and without hesitation.
That two Parks Directors would, independently, wake up one morning and attempt to gut a Levy- approved citizen oversight committee is a bit beyond the realm of coincidence: Linville, clearly, had directed the directors.
Failing to destroy the Levy outright, the mayor has consistently opted to starve it and make it ridiculous: To my knowledge, only one property has been allowed to be purchased since her election in late 2011 (the 22-acre Cordata Park parcel picked up in March of 2015.) The recently vaunted and rightfully celebrated recreational easement on Galbraith Mountain earlier this year doesn’t really count: That money was always reserved for that purpose, dedicated for that eventual goal, and it was carved out of Greenways III funds, years ago, for that one targeted community asset. Most of the due diligence for Galbraith had been done and the core logistics figured by the biking community, logging company, City staff and lawyers. This mayor should get only passing credit, therefore, and mostly just for allowing the deal to happen at all.
I’m going to make note of one more bit of provable disdain this mayor has shown for Greenways. Among my list of gripes and grievances, this example stands out for pissing me off well after-the-fact and, likely, it is why I’ve now bothered to submit this sprawling, turgid mass of dreck.
When the Greenways Program Coordinator, Tim Wahl, retired two years ago he diligently telegraphed his intentions and timing to do so far, far in advance. As the living braintrust of decades of Levies—nearly 30 years of strategic plans, GAC meetings, parcel reviews and data points stored through his accumulated experience and expertise—Wahl might have hoped for a seamless continuation of his work and the legacy of Greenways around here.
Instead, for more than a goddamn year, the mayor did not hire anybody whatsoever to fill Wahl’s shoes. Nicole Oliver, with the Parks Department, stepped in occasionally, as did director Bryson, to lead GAC meetings. But it was mostly a solid year of wasted time, volunteers doing the now formulaic ritual of pushing maps and papers around on the table with no real prospect at all of buying property even entertained. There were no phone calls made to pursue trail connections, no due diligence done to investigate properties of interest; We were being slow-walked to the morgue and nothing of any remote significance was added to the Greenways program history.
Meanwhile, of course, property values skyrocketed and opportunities—for future trails, parks or open space—disappeared beneath asphalt and duplexes.
The grotesque lack of urgency implied by this wasted year, to me, is the biggest middle finger the mayor has so far waved in the GAC’s face; just starve, you idiots, or leave broken and soulless; either way, we are here to watch you wither into dust, despair, and morbid futility. If the committee’s roster looks shattered and empty today, this is the reason why.
We are “Beyond Greenways” now
Wahl’s eventual replacement, Janice Biletnikoff, seems totally capable and qualified for the role. It is interesting, however, that “Greenways” appears nowhere in her job title and, in the description offered on the City’s job application for her role, the word was almost non-existent. This is odd, I think, considering she is supposedly the one person in charge of helping the GAC to find, and purchase, roughly $11 million in future properties as defined by Greenways IV’s voter-approved language.
“She does SOOO much more than just Greenways,” director Bryson has said in describing Biletnikoff’s various duties.
That’s great. But, as a taxpayer and as an advocate, I want to know that Biletnikoff is doing Greenways, first, and not wasting her days fixing divots in astroturf ballfields while property acquisitions rot forever, and ever, on the priority backburner. Is that a lot to ask? “Please spend that $11 million devoted for property purchases—which we voted for and gave you— pretty please?” As with her altered job title, I doubt either Bryson or Biletnikoff have any control over the mayor deciding we are beyond Greenways now. They are just along for the ride.
People on the Parks Board, where Linville seems more content to visit, note that she is, even now, fomenting to get a City-wide Municipal Parks District (MPD) lined up to snuff out any option of a future Greenways Levy. That was her goal originally, during the Greenways IV campaign, and she was selling it then as “Greenways Forever” – a permanent funding vehicle for Bellingham’s parks and trails and maintenance needs. Importantly, however, an MPD would end the 100-year vision and narrative thread of a unique Bellingham Greenways program that, unlike a slush fund that can be easily manipulated by a malevolent mayor, requires oversight and dogged determination to stick with the strategic plan goals. (3)
When the mayor came to visit us, as we were formulating the current Levy, she lamented that we were not, instead, supporting her MPD notion. Personally, I don’t think she ever forgave us for disagreeing with her and perpetuating one of the only things in this fractious city that people thunderously agree – or at least by damn-near %70 agree – is just freakishly goddamned awesome about this town.
Is she killing Greenways intentionally, perhaps, just to “prove” that her rejected MPD is now the “only way forward?”
A Strategic Plan for (saving) Greenways
Despite being blacklisted from serving on committees in Bellingham, I still attend GAC meetings occasionally as shmoo citizen. I’m one of the only members of the public who ever bothers to do so. Typically, when I go, I’ll slap the lacquer off the table and ask them politely—but with sphincter-wobbling rage just barely suppressed—why we are not buying properties anymore. “Why?”
Part of an engaged public response, aside from attending those GAC meetings or even joining the committee itself, should also include reminding City Council (now known as “future mayors”) how much we love and miss the program: We’ll need people to step up and dump some adrenaline into the febrile body politic that now quivers over Greenways, pester the purse strings a bit, and agitate for trail connections or pet projects of all stripes. (4)
We’ll also need to elect a mayor who understands the vision of Greenways – the searing existential glory that is “The Map of Green Worms” —if there is hope for future reform. Bryson’s promotion to ParksDirector was brilliant and Biletnikoff can and will do great work if the next mayor lets her; City staff, in my view, isn’t the problem. Getting a new mayor who doesn’t hate the program, one who can caffeinate it after eight years of narcoleptic slumber, will help everything.
In summary, we have five years left to buy green properties in Bellingham. City staff, City Council, and all impending mayors need to be reminded of that. We paid $11 million for it—or roughly a third of the total Levy – and 70% of us have a 100% chance of being pissed off if that money fails to buy us something.
1) Nothing about the death of Greenways fails to engorge me with angst. I’ve been a good little boy andstayed quiet about it, obviously, but I can mark the exact minute when I finally snapped. It was November 19th, 2018, at minute marker 3:15:20 of City Council’s meeting. This was when the mayor appeared to make a blanket public statement that there will be zero consideration of using Greenways funds to help entice the Bellingham School District to move their 70 diesel goddamn buses off WhatcomCreek. “The fact that (this property) was in the Greenways Levy,” the mayor said, apparently clueless that it STILL is a priority target in the current Greenways Levy, “well, maybe that wasn’t the best place for it to be.” Really? Why the fuck else would you even have a fund for buying properties, mayor, if not EXACTLY for opportunities like this? Why, also, would it somehow be a good idea ten years ago, when the Public Works Department and the York Neighborhood Association AND Greenways attempted to get these assholes to move their buses ... but, magically, it is no longer a good idea today? My head finally exploded from the infusion of too much bullshit from her, from City Council’s equally empty and meandering circle jerk around the issue, and from every disarticulating millionaire employee I’ve pestered at the School District about this screamingly stupid property of theirs; I’ve officially burst open, from too much pressurized putrefaction and decomposition, like a hot, dead, baby orca left to be poked at (and poked at, and poked at) upon an angry and ugly beach.
2) If the mayor ever had a guiding principle behind the request to sell properties, it was never shared with us. In fairness, it is a healthy exercise, in my view, to inventory and look for inefficiency and largess in the parcels the program has acquired – some of them, from a helicopter view, don’t make obvious sense, after all. But every single one of the properties are vetted and scoured for proof that they will, even if decades removed, provide core benefits to our environmental or recreational needs. We identified one land-locked tract we had purchased for a merry song, somewhere in the bleak expanses of the Alderwood neighborhood, that might apply for resale by the City. We blanched, ultimately, even at that; It was about the only thing the program had done for that part of the city – it could, and likely will, prove to be an asset, a park or trail corridor, in some future day. We did as we were asked and looked but said no to surplussing any properties through sales. I think it would be an equally valid exercise, given how this mayor operates, to ask City Council if we may have already sold properties, without the public knowing, that Greenways had purchased.
3) Part of the reason we should continue to admire the audacity of the Greenways program, in my view, is that it sought to connect trails and parks throughout the city equally, without regard to socio-economic metrics. The Parks, Recreation and Open-space Plan, or PRO Plan, shows the donuts of need where parks should, and must, go if we stick with this methodology. It is also just about the only unabashedly “environmental” funding vehicle that we have here to protect places better left un-mangled by development. MPDs aren’t satanic. Many cities have them. But they are far easier to pervert, or corrupt, than the Greenways model we used to have here.
4) The first order of business, in my view, is to get this committee filled with honest Greenways advocates before the mayor floods it with toadies and political shills. (This is “a thing” now, and more so with campaign managers and political groups helping to pre-lubricate their candidates for insertions into power positions. An example could be seen in Pinky Vargas, out of nowhere, walking into the GAC one fine day and announcing herself a member. It doesn’t, ever, work that way. The GAC gets applicationsfrom candidates and they review them, first, then approve them. The mayor then recommends them to City Council, and then, and ONLY then, did people get to join the committee. Most committees in town are like this, of course, but Vargas got the greased skid so she could put it on her resume – “I was on the GAC for three months!” – before running for City Council.) We need frisky fighters, not gladhanders or place-holders, defending this committee’s efforts.
- Mayor Kelli Linville elected November, 2011
- Park Impact Fund: “Impact Fees collected on new home construction are accumulated in this fund and used to expand the capacity of the city park system; the fund is managed by the Parks and Recreation Department.” Estimated Reserve Ending Balance for fiscal year 2019: $5,297,895
- Nov. 8, 2016 Greenways IV passes with %69.73 approval by Bellingham voters: provides roughly $32 million over seven years to parks, trails, and open space projects, with about $11 million dedicated to Acquisition of new properties for recreational, environmental, or connectivity purposes. Estimated Ending Reserve Balance for fiscal year 2019: $ 5,523,118
- Table of land acquired by the Greenways program since 1990 (It is, perhaps, fitting that this table was last updated in 2011 as it effectively marks the end of acquisitions and the start of Mayor Linville’s two terms: 733 acres were acquired over the past 28 years at a cost of $30.6 million dollars. Linville, since 2011, has only allowed addition of a further 22 acres to that tally, as far as I know, and this in the form of one park purchase, Cordata Park, in 2015.) https://www.cob.org/documents/parks/development/greenway-program-land-acquisitions-table.pdf
- Map of Greenways acquisitions by levy: https://www.cob.org/documents/gis/maps/greenway-levy-purchases-map.pdf
- “Which of these three is most important to you, if any?” asked the Greenways Levy Study from February, 2006, done by Applied Research Northwest, LLC. “Thirty-nine percent (39%) of voters selected ‘Buying more land’ as the most important use of greenways funds,” according to the survey. “Another 34% selected ‘Renovating and improving’ existing greenways. ‘Developing existing land’ was selected by 20% of voters. The remaining 8% of voters could not decide or did not have a preference.” Full survey: https://www.cob.org/documents/parks/development/2006-02-27-greenway-levy-survey.pdf
- Other City of Bellingham Greenways information and resources: https://www.cob.org/gov/dept/parks/greenway/Pages/accomplishments.aspx
- “Four, or Forever” – Cascadia Weekly’s Tim Johnson visited the 2016 MPD vs. Greenways debate: http://www.cascadiaweekly.com/cw/currents/25510