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Chapter 3: City Council Agenda Management

By On
• In Bellingham,

Neighborhood organizations are a foundational piece of Bellingham’s community activism dating back to the late 1970s. Today, these groups are “ground zero” for improving our community’s collective quality of life. From sponsorship of educational programs on emergency preparedness, collaboration with police for successful community policing programs, park clean-ups, litter control, and growth planning Bellingham’s neighborhood organizations are the community backbone. But watch out when these neighborhood groups clash with City Hall. The fur flies. I have served as my Samish neighborhood Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) rep for nearly five years. MNAC’s vital role in city politics has gradually diminished during those years, and now it is at an all time low. When MNAC originated under Mayor Ken Hertz in 1977 its directive was clear: “The prime function of the committee will be to assist in the Comprehensive Plan update.” (MNAC was at that time called the Citizens’ Advisory Committee to the Mayor.) It’s legacy was to serve as the forum for neighborhood planning.

MNAC was charged to ”formulate and/or review proposed changes to the city’s comprehensive plan and to prepare recommendations on those proposed changes for the Mayor and the Planning Commission to consider.” (Ordinance 2006-05-048) Unfortunately, with the urging of Mayor Linville three years ago the commission itself voted to revamp its function so as to only be involved in the revision process of the Comp Plan, were it to choose to do so. Its revised 2013 ordinance states: “The MNAC may ELECT [emphasis mine] 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.” (Ordinance 2013-01-004) Was this merely a semantic change, or did this signify an important shift away from true neighborhood engagement in the planning process?

[More on the questionable role and makeup of the Planning Commission here.]

I, along with several other MNAC members voted against this change, noting that “electing” to do something would likely result in that body doing nothing at all. That, regrettably, has come to pass. Not only is MNAC not providing advice on this important revamp of our Comprehensive Plan, many of its representatives were unaware it was even happening or that they had an obligation to be involved. The Planning Commission’s Comp Plan public work sessions began in February and its public hearing was held April 7. By that date MNAC had yet to hold one discussion about the Comp Plan.

In mid-February I requested the Mayor add the Comp Plan discussion to the March MNAC agenda but to no avail. First, we were told the mayor was not available to attend the March meeting, so the agenda would focus on water quality and levels of service. Second, because I used email to lobby with other MNAC reps for this agenda addition, I was scolded by the Mayor’s Communications Director Vanessa Blackburn, who wrote: “Just as a reminder, we ask our boards and commissions to follow the Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 RCW) rules and guidelines, which state that all public boards and commissions conduct their deliberations openly. Therefore, please save any substantive discussion about any topic for our open public meetings.”

What? As a volunteer neighborhood commission member I was cautioned to not communicate via email? MNAC has absolutely no decision-making authority or advisory role, yet we were told to not hold substantive email discussions as if we were subject to the Open Public Meetings Act. An incorrect application of the law. The stall tactics continued when in April, instead of a discussion about the content of the Comp Plan, we were derailed into a discussion led by the Mayor about the “process” and what is MNAC’s role in the Comp Plan review? That ship already had sailed three years earlier when MNAC’s purpose was castrated; but by rehashing it now, the Mayor and her staff avoided any discussion of the issues at the heart of the Comp Plan itself such as the controversial ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) topic or other critical growth issues. The April MNAC meeting minutes read: “Mayor Kelli expressed that although MNAC can choose to discuss the Comprehensive Plan as much as they collectively wish, this body, again, is an advisory one and not a decision-making one. The extensive history, materials, and information involved is too great to require all representatives have the same knowledge and interest as others.” Really?

At this same meeting the Planning Director Rick Sepler made a statement questioning just who these MNAC members really represent. His statement set a negative tone and representatives were marginalized. MNAC was clearly in trouble as any thing other than a group to discuss ice cream socials, summer picnics, and litter pick ups. Gone were the days when its member knew the difference between a single-family zone, a building height limit, or variance. Sharing the social agendas of neighborhoods or hearing city staff presentations was all Mayor Linville appeared to want for these agendas.

Finally, the May MNAC agenda was announced stating Planning and Community Development Director Rick Sepler and Senior Planner Lisa Pool would present an overview of the Comprehensive Plan update process – again process – as well as an update on the UW commercial zoning study, an update on the subdivision ordinance, and if there was time, an update on the city’s level-of-service conversation. Again, staff wanted to derail the discussion onto process rather than content. And, again, Mayor Linville would be absent.

Also absent was meaningful dialogue by this neighborhood representative body, who had for months been excluded from the discussions about planning for future land use, housing, transportation, open space, and parks. Only in late May, after an open revolt at its meeting, did MNAC finally discuss one housing topic: ADUs. The stall tactic to just keep putting it off had worked. We finally got thrown a bone at the end, but too late for most members to knowledgeably engage. The final City Council public hearing on the Comp Plan is October 17, and there’s only one MNAC meeting left before that on Sept. 21. You can bet the Comp Plan won’t have a starring role. It will roll into the finish line after seven months of missed opportunity for neighborhood representative engagement. This is not good government.

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Comments by Readers

Larry Horowitz

Sep 12, 2016

Dick, thanks for letting us know how bad things have gotten at MNAC.  While I agree that “neighborhood organizations are a foundational piece of Bellingham’s community activism,” neighborhoods themselves were never given power in the City’s Charter.

I have been suggesting a different way of asserting power for many years.  Perhaps now, with MNAC’s castration and essential demise, it’s time to consider it again.

The Bellingham Charter’s Article X (Direct Legislation) grants the “people of Bellingham” two methods of direct legislation:  INITIATIVE and REFERENDUM. 

Signature requirements for Initiative and Referendum petitions are based on a percentage of total votes cast for the office of Mayor at the last preceding municipal general election, which was 15,859 votes in 2015.

Under Section 10.02, an Inititative petition requires signatures of 20% of total votes, or 3,172 signatures of qualified voters.

Under Section 10.08, a Referendum petition requires signatures of 8% of total votes, or 1,269 signatures.

Both the Initiative and Referendum powers have certain restrictions as detailed in these sections.

As you know, the City will soon be passing a new ADU ordinance and a new Subdivision ordinance.  I suggest we start preparing now for a Referendum petition and line up at least 1,269 qualified voters to sign.

The link for Article X of the Bellingham Charter follows:
http://www.codepublishing.com/WA/Bellingham/html/BellinghamCH/BellinghamCH10.html#Article X

The link for the results of the 2015 Bellingham Mayor election (15,859 votes) follows:
(Scoll down past State, County, and Port results to “City/Town”)


Tim Paxton

Sep 12, 2016

Good points on the failed by design MNAC system.  It seems MNAC is merely a way to round up potential opposition to City Staff and put them at meaningless busy work.

Initiatives are always fought by City legal Staff and they have an unlimited budget to crush them. They do bring publicity to issues however.

It might be best just to get rid of the Council that lets this system happen.  They know whats going on.  Time perhaps for MNAC people who object to being used to consider running for Council in 2017.


Larry Horowitz

Sep 12, 2016

Tim, it’s true that Initiatives are extremely difficult to get on the ballot.  That’s why my focus has always been on Referendum, which serves as a “citizens’ temporary veto” of a particular ordinance.  While the Initiative can be fought by Council based on legal grounds, it is vastly more difficult to fight a Referendum.  Also, the Referendum requires less than half the signatures.

Through the Referendum Power, citizens have the ability to deal with a ‘runaway Council’ that refuses to listen to the people they were elected to represent.

I suggest we use the Referendum Power when necessary.  If nothing else, by exercising our power, Council may be more willing to collaborate with us, as they have asked us to do with them.


Bob Aegerter

Sep 12, 2016

As one of those who meet with more than a majority of the first meeting of MANC groups in 1977 I hope they will survive this not unexpected attack on their purpose and standing.  They are the model upon which Seattle built a similar system.  I recall informal conversations with Mayor Ken Hertz and other staff about concerns that the neighborhood groups could develop more power than the administration might find comfortable.  Neighborhood chairs did run successfully for city council and Tim Douglas’ involvement in their development as a member of the City Planning Commission probably play a part in his successful run for mayor years latter.  We are witnessing a new style of public activism at all levels of government.  Be aware that nothing in permanent.  The citizens need to be heard loud and clear.


Anne Mackie

Sep 12, 2016

Hey Dick. Seems that someone in City Hall has logged on to this site to take the temperature. During tonight’s City Council meeting Mayor Linville commented there’s been recent social media criticism about how her neighborhood advisory commission has been running. Your report of the failure to actively engage MNAC in the Comprehensive Plan update this year is accurate. I attended those meetings. It was difficult to get the Comp Plan on the agenda; and fInally in May, at the disgruntlement of staff, you were able to have one item from the Housing Chapter discussed: the ADUs. Had MNAC’s role not been redefined by the Mayor in late 2012, and then rubber-stamped by the Council in January 2013, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion about MNAC.  What neighborhood advocates are looking for is an opportunity to have more than three minutes at City Council meetings to hold an in-depth discussion about Bellingham’s affordable housing crisis, zoning changes, and quality of life issues impacted by these factors. York’s Community Forum on Housing Concerns will offer that opportunity on Wed. Sept. 14, 7pm, at Garden St. Methodist Church.


John Servais

Sep 13, 2016

The mayor was her normal disingenuous public persona.  She stated that MNAC involvement in planning was great and that she had told them they could “ask any questions” they wanted to.  What is missing?  She does not want suggestions from MNAC.  Ask away.  But we do not want to hear what you think should be done. 

Being allowed to ask questions is not involvement.  Some of our elected officials think that is as far as citizens should be allowed to go.  The mayor has made it clear to staff on more than one occasion that she wants any projects the city pursues to be staff suggestions and never ones from the public.  Several staff have told me that. So allowing only questions from MNAC is in line with her overall manner of being our mayor.


Larry Horowitz

Sep 13, 2016



Mickey McDiarmid

Sep 23, 2016

Agree MNAC has been cut off at the knees. Neighborhood association members as myself have fought their way through the bureaucracy for many years and feel those who sit on council, work for planning department and yes the Mayor all are biased to developers and builders. Those of us who reside in Bellingham and have invested in homes, come second, or as in recent cases are blatantly ignored or marginalized as unimportant to being part of decisions.

Real solution - work diligently to replace people on council and in office. Hold meetings, pass out printed information in neighborhoods to educate people on how our rights and opinions for our city are being eroded by those in City Hall. Unfortunately after beating our heads for years, we tend to give up rather than revolt. An age old tactic of the opposition.


Larry Horowitz

Sep 23, 2016


I could not agree more.  In addition to the groups you mentioned, the Bellingham Planning Commission (PC) also has a clear group bias in favor of higher levels of growth and development.  The vast majority of PC members generate household income from occupations that are tied to the buying, selling or developing of real estate for profit.  Meanwhile, existing residents are treated as second class citizens.

The State of Oregon was so concerned about the potential pro-growth bias of planning commissions that it placed a limit on the number of PC members that engage in these occupations to two members.  See ORS 227.030(4) at www.oregonlaws.org/ors/227.030 .

It’s true that the natural inclination, after years of beating one’s head, is to give up.  I’m hoping to change that trend by exercising the two powers reserved for the people in the Bellingham City Charter under Article X (Initiative & Referendum - http://www.codepublishing.com/WA/Bellingham/html/BellinghamCH/BellinghamCH10.html#Article X ).

It only takes 1269 valid signatures on a Referendum petition to temporarily veto a poorly designed ordinance.  Instead of giving up, wouldn’t it be more fun (not to mention more productive) to exercise our rights and strengthen our power?

Is there anyone else prepared to sign a Referendum petition should the city adopt an ordinance that fails to meet our needs?

We only need 1268 more signatures…  Who’s in?


John Servais

Sep 24, 2016

Actually, Larry, there is no good way for folks to answer your question.  My guess is getting 1,268 city registered voter signatures on a common sense and well worded referendum would be a piece of cake.  We can certainly post the information here and where the sign up sheets are located.  And you can write about it. 

The initiative and referendum processes are basic democracy tools.  Many governments try to limit them once they become effective tools.  Fortunately our Bellingham and Whatcom County charters protect those rights. However, the city council and local judges have stopped voter approved ballot measures in the past by using very questionable reasoning.

If the council and judges do not scuttle the process, then a successful referendum puts the issue on the ballot for the people to decide.  The effort can become prolonged.  But is worth it.

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