[Note: This article was written by NWCitizen regular contributor, Dick Conoboy and by Anne Mackie, a community activist for 50 years. Her first encounter with authoritarianism was in 1966 when a bucket of mop water was thrown out the window of the Federal Court House building on Magnolia St. at a group of anti-war protesters that she was part of.]
The August 8 evening meeting of the Bellingham City Council must be viewed (video here) if you want to see the direction the city is taking on stifling citizen involvement in planning for our future.
But first, important background: The City Council work session on the Comprehensive Plan held August 1st, was held in an essentially empty room. The city calendar for the day only listed a “Track and Field Event.” At this meeting the committee of the whole voted to reject the recommendations of the Planning Commission with respect to a policy level statement that would have retained owner occupancy of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) in Single Family neighborhoods. This is a 20+ year-long condition for use.
The August 1 discussion and subsequent vote were carried out despite the absence of council member Terry Bornemann, who had previously asked that the topic be postponed until he could be present.
Council President Pinky Vargas ignored this request and scheduled the discussion in Bornemann’s absence. Clearly, she chose to disregard his contribution to a debate he has characterized as the single most important element for the city’s housing zoning regulations.
This irritated council member Bornemann enough for him to make a statement regarding the ADU issue immediately following the consideration of business at the committee of the whole on August 8th. He promised that the ADU vote was not final and that there remained time to reconsider the issue. You can view his comments on the committee of the whole video at 1:07:10 on the counter here.
In meetings of the Planning Commission held earlier this spring, numerous citizens lobbied hard and successfully to gain the commission’s support for several ADU regulations that would focus on zoning, density, appropriate locations, and site management. Terry Bornemann had been aware of the mobilization by citizens around this issue – an issue that has garnered decades of his attention on council – so, excluding him from the August 1 debate was a maneuver to ignore the opposition.
As the August 8 meeting was about to begin, and prior to the “Call to Order,” we heard the council president yelling at Bornemann in the City Council chambers: “That’s just your opinion, Terry. That’s just your opinion.” Vargas was literally yelling.
Tensions were high as she called the meeting into session with her usual opening statement that the council “...provides a fair and safe environment, so no clapping and jeering; we want everyone to feel comfortable.” Six people had signed up to speak during the public comment period. It was an extremely short business meeting and adjourned after 33 minutes, at 7:33pm.
Anne Mackie of the York Neighborhood spoke first. Her remarks were quickly interrupted by Vargas and council member Roxanne Murphy when they began to giggle, laugh and converse with one another. Anne stopped speaking and waited for them to stop. As her three-minute time limit was running out, she said, “In conclusion…” and continued to wrap up her remarks. At that point, Vargas began yelling into the microphone at Anne: “Your time is up, Anne. Your time is up, Anne.” Anne continued to complete her final remarks although very shaken by Vargas’ rudeness and authoritarian demeanor. [Watch the actual video here at 2:00 on the counter.] Anne’s entire presentation, including time for the disruption, lasted 3.33 minutes.
Vargas then did the same thing to another public speaker, Sean Wheeler from York, who also had the temerity to run over his three-minute time limit. After yelling into her microphone at him, the council president actually got up out of her chair and stormed down to the speaker podium to make him stop. Her intention at that point was a bit unclear. Sean eventually just walked away. He had spoken for 3 minutes and 17 seconds. This unusual behavior is captured on the video, which you can watch here at 8:30 on the counter. Ironically, as mentioned above, this council meeting lasted only a half an hour! There was a very short line up of speakers and agenda items.
It appears Vargas is more concerned with her stopwatch than providing a safe place for speakers to be heard by the council. A few seconds to briefly finish one’s thought, beyond three minutes, is an acceptable way to conduct meetings. But not with Pinky Vargas running the show.
As we all know from many City Council and Planning Commission sessions, speakers unintentionally run over their three-minute time limit and quickly try to wrap up. The only speakers I have observed to be allowed to go on and on have been representatives of the development industry. The hoi-polloi, on the other hand, are generally respectful to these speakers.
What a low point we have reached in this city when citizens are yelled at and physically intimidated to prevent them from speaking. This heavy handedness has no place in our government. While there may be examples of this on the national political stage, it does not belong in Bellingham's city council meetings.
After the meeting adjourned, Sean Wheeler and Dick Conoboy spoke to the council president, telling Vargas there was a large reservoir of resentment among those active in their neighborhoods as they have watched, over the years, every break given to developers and businesses whose representatives are paid for their time to speak before the council and meet with them during the week. Ordinary citizens do not get paid for their activism and often give up much of their time with family and friends to work on behalf of the public good. She gave assurances that in the future ALL public speakers will be held to three minutes. We shall see.
The ongoing discussion about the Comprehensive Plan update has brought to light several examples of how public discussion has been stifled. There was the four-month long battle to get the mayor to allow the topic of the update on the agenda at the Mayors Neighborhood Advisory Commission meetings. Additionally, there have been exclusionary invitations for participation in several focus groups, task forces, and special steering committees. The GMA has a requirement for genuine public process. Has it been meaningful in Bellingham, or simply a charade? More to come…