When I moved to Bellingham from a rural community in 2012, I was delighted to learn of the City’s designated neighborhoods and the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC). I was fortunate to first live in Puget Neighborhood for nearly seven years. The Puget Neighborhood Association was everything I hoped for, even with limits placed on neighborhood associations and MNAC during Mayor Kelli Linville’s administration. I also occasionally attended monthly MNAC meetings and appreciated the apparent commitment of neighborhood associations to the welfare of their respective communities.
In late 2018, I relocated to Lettered Streets Neighborhood and found a stark difference between this and other associations. I assumed the City of Bellingham (COB) had criteria for neighborhood associations to be recognized for MNAC membership, that the associations be accountable to represent established neighborhood residents, businesses, and property owners to receive COB funding and venue support. My assumptions were wrong.
One Leap Forward, Two Steps Back…and a Hole in the Middle
The Bellingham Municipal Code (BMC) established MNAC in 1976 as a citizen-driven commission comprised of neighborhood association representatives for the purpose of communicating “neighborhood interests and concerns to the City administration” (BMC Chapter 2.33). BMC Amendments in 2006 specified the role for MNAC in formulating and contributing to the City’s comprehensive and neighborhood plans (see BMC “History of This Section” ) and mandated MNAC control its own organization and meetings (see BMC “History of This Section”). These provisions for MNAC prevailed until Kelli Linville was elected mayor in 2012. At the outset of her eight-years tenure, Mayor Kelli presided over BMC Amendments that divested MNAC of its authority and abrogated the role of neighborhood associations and MNAC in city governance. She effectively flipped the purpose of MNAC from a citizen-driven to mayor-driven commission, and she assumed control of MNAC meetings contrary to BMC 2.33.030 (see “Restore the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) to Its Former Role in Planning”).
Adding to MNAC’s disempowerment these recent years, there was from its inception in 1976 a structural deficiency that has become increasingly consequential to neighborhood welfare. Bellingham provides neighborhood associations formal recognition, funds, administration and venue support for the purpose of MNAC membership. However, the Bellingham Municipal Code does not specify criteria or accountability for neighborhood associations to be recognized for MNAC and receive COB support. The city doesn’t even require neighborhood associations comply with provisions for organizational transparency as specified in the WA Open Public Meetings Act (RCW Ch 42.30).
To be recognized by COB for MNAC membership and city support, a group of citizens need only file with the State as a non-profit neighborhood organization; submit Bylaws to COB for filing purposes only – the Bylaws are not vetted by the City; and nominate someone for the mayor to appoint to MNAC (see Peter Ruffatto, City Attorney (Bellingham), written responses to questions about MNAC dated 12/3/2019 and 12/4/2019 ). The nominee is confirmed at the mayor’s pleasure and forthwith recognized as the neighborhood association representative, whether or not the association represents the collective welfare of the neighborhood, its residents and businesses. This absence of specific criteria and accountability in Bellingham Municipal Code leaves neighborhood associations vulnerable in two ways: power grabs and politicization by citizen special interests; and MNAC appointments aligned with the Mayor’s agenda rather than neighborhood concerns.
The Good News
Though COB doesn’t vet neighborhood associations, nor hold them accountable to represent established residents and neighborhood welfare, most associations nonetheless merit public trust. From all appearances, community service leaders and members in nearly all active neighborhood associations endeavor to elicit and address the concerns of established residents and their collective welfare.
The Puget Neighborhood Association (PNA) demonstrates what neighborhood associations are doing well. PNA actively solicits involvement from the range of demographic groups residing in the neighborhood: parents of school age children in subsidized housing; high-end homeowners along the crest of Puget Hill; seniors in Lakeway Mobile Estates; and owners of neighborhood businesses from pizza shops to funeral services. Generous forenotice is given for Association meetings held at the elementary school and coordinated with the PTA to arrange child care for parents to attend. PNA Board members respond promptly to member questions and requests, and they enthusiastically encourage Board membership that represents neighborhood composition.
In recent years, the PNA Board worked with their constituents to address a range of neighbor-driven concerns: safe pedestrian crossings and vehicular access on major arterials; street flooding from inadequate stormwater drainage; planned construction of high-rise student housing amidst single-family residences; and coordination with non-profit family services. Many MNAC members report similar responsiveness by their associations to neighbor concerns and advocacy for the collective welfare of the neighborhood and residents they represent.
There are also several dormant neighborhood associations not represented on MNAC. These neighborhoods without active associations warrant watchful attention by their residents as they are especially vulnerable to power grabs by special interests. I know of at least two neighborhood associations in recent years appropriated by boards with narrow social and political agendas that neither elicit nor address the concerns of many established residents.
Say It Ain’t So, Joe
My first contact with Lettered Streets Neighborhood Association (LSNA) was the annual meeting when a potluck dinner, board elections, and amending Bylaws were on the agenda. Only a handful of neighbors remained for the business meeting. Elections were completed and revised bylaws adopted without detailed review or discussion. My self-introduction to Board members as a new neighbor was flatly received. Rather than welcoming, I found the meeting atmosphere efficient and vigilant.
During the ensuing months I attended LSNA Board and general meetings that were always sparsely attended even by Board members. My suggestions to the Board for increasing neighbor participation were mostly ignored or dismissed, as were similar offers by other intrepid neighbors who eventually fell silent. Also ignored by the Board were my expressed concerns about public health consequences of intensive infill construction and unhoused people camping in Lettered Streets parks, business properties and residential streets. Lettered Streets Neighborhood hosts Lighthouse Missions and two smaller shelters that together serve several hundred homeless people daily.
While dismissing my public health concerns, board members consistently expressed advocacy at association and MNAC meetings for expanding rights of unhoused people and rent control legislation. I eventually questioned the board’s advocacy for expanding rights of homeless people and renters as matters beyond the purview of a neighborhood association. The chairperson informed me that LSNA Bylaws recognize homeless people and transients as neighbors and association members.
-Enfranchises hundreds of unhoused and transient people served at Lighthouse Missions and smaller shelters for homeless and rehabilitation services in Lettered Streets, and homeless people camping in neighborhood parks and living in their cars parked on residential streets;
-Enfranchises countless people who work but don’t live in Lettered Streets;
-Disenfranchises non-residential landlords and business and property owners;
-Deleted the original statement of association purpose to enhance the “neighborhood character and quality of life for the residents and landowners” (note: Lettered Streets was the earliest established neighborhood in Bellingham);
-Centralized Board control thus making it exceedingly difficult to democratically reform the association.
Sadly, these Bylaws and Board actions have not served community building in Lettered Streets Neighborhood that is in the midst of accelerating development and population growth. Perhaps fortuitous, the LSNA Bylaws are likely invalid; their adoption process did not comply with the established Bylaws. In any case, challenging the current Board and Bylaws on procedural grounds is a Sisyphean task when the City has no criteria or accountability for neighborhood associations to serve the established neighborhood.
Time for an Upgrade
In the midst of momentous growth in Bellingham and accelerating changes at every level of our environment and society, it is time for an upgrade to the codified relationship between Bellingham citizens, neighborhoods and City Hall: an upgrade that recognizes the deep symbiotic relationship between established residents, neighborhoods and our city; that restores an authoritative citizen voice for city policies and planning; that specifies criteria for neighborhood associations to be recognized by COB for material support and MNAC membership; and that requires accountability by recognized associations to demonstrate they are representative of their collective neighborhood.
We can consider the original BMC as amended in 2006 that established and improved MNAC as a basis to restore MNAC’s intended role in planning, citizen voice, and authority over its organization and meetings. While there is no existing COB code for recognition or accountability of neighborhood associations, Vancouver, WA offers a well-developed model for city-neighborhood collaboration. The City of Vancouver, WA Office of Neighborhoods provides criteria, resources, and material support for neighborhood associations to be representative voices of their constituents in city governance.
I encourage you to visit the Vancouver Office of Neighborhoods website, attend your next neighborhood association meeting, and stay tuned for opportunities to join neighbors city-wide to upgrade the Bellingham Municipal Code and expand the role of neighborhood associations in our City governance.