NWCitizen News

Home Contents Info Correspondents ©1998 NWCitizen.com

Referendum drive steams ahead

© 1998 by Paul de Armond
Special to NorthWest Citizen

Bellingham January 10 -- It was a clear and cold Saturdaymorning, but over thirty people showed up to launch a petitiondrive to overturn a Bellingham ordinance over a land deal. Under acrisp blue sky, John Servais, one of the organizers of the referendumcampaign, greeted arrivals at the Fairhaven Library. Outside on thesidewalk, a small group shivered together as they discussed the issueof the Hoag's Pond land swap.

The half-dozen people standing in the biting cold outside themeeting in the Fireside room showed that the campaign had alreadyturned the corner from a South Side neighborhood issue to a citywideconcern. The conversation was continually restarted as more peoplejoined the group, words tumbling out in white vapor in the icy air.There were people from South Side, North Side, Downtown, AlabamaHill, York, and all around town.

As political meetings go, it was an instance of grass-rootscoalescing. Neither Tip Johnson nor John Servais -- who organized themeeting -- made the slightest effort to turn people out for it. CarolRondello, who facilitated the mechanic of the Saturday petition drivelater described the meeting as having a "laid back" effort to getpeople to the meeting. "I did some calling," she said.

Instead, people found out through ordinary word of mouth followingthe Bellingham Herald article about the referendum. The Heraldarticle gave the time and place of the meeting in a sidebar. Othersattended after reading about the Hoag's Pond land swap at theNorthwest Citizen web site http://nwcitizen.com/bellingham/hoagspond/ -- the first bonafideconfirmation that electronic democracy is alive and well inBellingham. All told, over thirty people attended the meeting andgathered signatures that day.

The referendum campaign is an attempt by citizens toexercise their right of legislative oversight. The issue is anordinance enabling a land trade and property consolidation by a cityemployee.

Ordinance 10910 is one of three parts of a complicated deal whichhas never been fully spelled out to the public. The first part is aresolution declaring some city-owned lots near Hoag's Pond to besurplus, thus allowing the Choats to purchase them. The second partis ordinance 10910 vacating two very small pieces of city streets andtrading them for some thin strips on the eastern edge of the Choat'sproperty. The third part -- which has not happened yet, but isrequired by City policy -- is the vacation of the remaining Cityrights of way on Choat's property, a much larger amount of acreagethan is addressed by the first two parts.

After a six-month muddle, the City Council passed the ordinance --which is not the entire deal, but rather the glue that holds the dealtogether -- in December. It went to Mayor Mark Asmundson forsignature. He waited until the last possible day before grasping thenettle and vetoed it. Council President Pat Rowe immediatelyscheduled a special meeting two days before Christmas to overturn theveto. When the Council reaffirmed its 6-1 approval on December 23,citizens launched a referendum campaign to put the decision beforethe voters.

The winter holidays ate up two of the four weeks available to thepetition drive and Saturday's meeting was the first public gatheringof the nascent election campaign. The referendum supporters have twoweeks left to gather the approximately 1,500 signatures required toput the issue on the ballot.

Which brings us back to the people standing in the frosty airoutside of the Fairhaven Library on Saturday morning. One of the lastarrivals was Mayor Mark Asmundson, who came to tell citizens of thelatest developments.

The meeting was held in the Fireside Room in the library basement.Decorated with a mural of photographs from Bellingham's past, theroom was filled with circle of folding chairs. Four tables near thedoor held literature, petition forms, and information about theordinance and the referendum drive. Sunlight through the southernwindows illuminated parts of the room. All of the seats were filledand late arrivals stood during the next hour and a half.

Tip Johnson opened the meeting with a brief statement aboutthe need to gather 1,500 valid signatures by January 20th and thenintroduced the Mayor.

Mayor Asmundson encouraged people to gather signatures. He alsoexpressed his hope that the mistakes could be rectified in time toavoid a "divisive" election. These two themes summed up his positionon the referendum: get the signatures and hope that they aren'tused.

Asmundson was very candid in his appraisal of both the dealand the process. "It was a mistake and it was stupid," he said.

The deal was a mistake because "it eliminates options." Both theCouncil and the administration have effectively removed themselvesfrom a legal or legislative solution because Ordinance 10910 is"fundamentally different from a legislative act... because ittransfers property rights." Having passed the ordinance andoverridden the mayor's veto, the Council "can't undo it if theydiscover their mistake."

The mayor said that the essence of the mistake lay thedeal's evolution and timing. The critical error occurred after BeyondGreenways became a reality at last November's election. "A lotchanged since the Real Estate Review Committee [in April,1997]," said Asmundson. By November he was convinced that it wasa mistake. He said that his staff is now "working to extricate us allfrom the mess."

The mayor stated that he had "a practical political concern" thatthe referendum might divert public attention from moving forward withthe new council and would instead direct attention on a pastpolitical mistake. One of the side effects of this could be that thedebate would not focus on the issue at hand, but would become an"anti-government political environment."

The mayor compared the current situation to the campaign toscuttle the art center in 1993. That election mobilized the "propertyrights" interests and determined the composition of the City Councilfrom 1994 through 1997. "We suffered for years from that," Asmundsonsaid.

Turning to his recent activities, the mayor showed that he isgiving the matter considerable attention. The administration isnegotiating with Mr. Choat to preserve future City options. Therestriction of these options was the major reason for vetoing theordinance, but it is possible that these can be salvaged by anagreement with the Choats. This will require attention to all thelegal details of such an agreement, but the aim of the negotiationsis preserve the City's option to repurchase the property for the sameprice as it was disposed of.

Such an agreement would take a lot of the heat off of the deal,since it would allow the City to go forward with proposals for longterm planning of parks and trails on the South Side. The essence ofthe negotiations is to "freeze the sale price" should the City laterdecide that it really didn't want to give up the property.

The mayor said that the response to the offer of negotiations waspositive. Mr. Choat requested time to talk to his attorney and wantsa two-year time frame on the agreement.

Turning to the purpose of the meeting, the mayor said it wasnecessary to get petition signatures and keep the pressure on. At thesame time, he was not enthusiastic about the possibility of areferendum at the polls.

"I don't think we need the referendum and an election campaign ifwe can keep the resale price frozen," he said.

An election would be good for the pond, but bad for politics inBellingham, the mayor explained. He expressed concern that the"property rights" interests would hijack the election and bend it totheir own agenda. As an example, he cited the 1993 referendum on thedowntown art center. Out of that election came a City Council whichgave billboards an expanded role in the city landscape and maderetail development the focus of planning efforts.

The mayor concluded his remarks by praising Choat's intentions andinitial response to the negotiated settlement.

Larry Williams then spoke and pointed to a long string of Cityplanning mistakes: Hillcrest Chapel, Western Washington Universityand the Chuckanut Ridge development. Williams said that communityplanning issues require a "bigger picture" and expressed concernabout the "continuing lack of effort in the planning department tolook at community issues." Williams said that he saw this referendumas an opportunity to air those larger issues and the City's failureto address them.

The mayor replied that "an election is the worst possible way toeffect this kind of change." The planning confusion was because shortterm planning and long term planning were not in the samedepartment.

Short term planning, such as individual project proposals, comeinto the department from the outside. Staff has no control over whois going to walk in the door with a project on a particular day. Thestaff tend to identify with the short term task, the mayor said."This is where long term planning needs to step in."

After some additional discussion about the problems that citizenshave experienced with the planning process, the mayor encouraged thecitizens to "get all the signatures you can" and expressed his hopethat they wouldn't be necessary.

John Servais then took the floor and posed the question to thegroup: is the referendum a "card" to play? A brief discussion showedthat the feeling of the meeting did not endorse the mayor'ssuggestion of collecting but not submitting signatures for areferendum.

Tip Johnson expressed his concerns with the potential"divisiveness" of the election campaign. He noted that "things taketime" and encouraged the mayor to pursue possible solutions. "Get thesignatures and the heat stays on," Johnson said.

Johnson cautioned signature gatherers about raking the past overthe coals. "Blame doesn't get any more signatures," he said."Concentrate on 'is this a good deal?'"

Johnson listed some reasons for supporting thereferendum:

Doug Starcher pointed out that Jack Choat's desire to consolidatehis land was normal and proper. "There's nothing wrong with asking,"he said.

Tip Johnson agreed that "Choat's intent to consolidate was OK."However, he continued, "The City needed to consider consolidatingtheir interest, too." He then pointed out that "by next Saturday[January 17] we should know" about the success of thesignature gathering drive, the progress of the mayor's deal, and allthe other pieces of the campaign that are currently in motion.

Starcher expressed concern about the cost of the election. Hesuggested that the mayor's proposal to gather signatures and withholdthem as a negotiating tactic was a reasonable way to accomplish theintent of the referendum without incurring the cost.

Johnson said he was "not sure I can support a solution thataccepts the deal. There are aspects of this problem that are notunique to this deal."

Mayor Asmundson said the negotiations "return the trump cards tothe City's hand... It was a mistake to foreclose the City's options."A successful agreement with Choat to freeze the financial aspects ofthe deal will "restore the status quo ante."

John McGarrity asked, "How is the Real Estate Review Committeelegally responsible?" He referred to his personal experience as acontract administrator back east. When he signed off on a deal, healso assumed full legal liability for his decision. Where, he askedthe mayor, does the responsibility lie in this deal?

Mayor Asmundson stated that the responsibility lay in CityHall. He pointed out that the Real Estate Review Committeedevoted no more than three minutes to their approval of the deal inApril, it being just one of many items that were before them.

The mayor then grew slightly heated -- the only time that heshowed irritation during the meeting -- and said that it was "naive"to think that the referendum was the solution to the administrativeproblems at City Hall. He was directing his attention to theseproblems, but felt that the referendum would make it more difficult,not less, to find solutions. His greatest concern was a "side effectof the election would be that the people who hire lawyers to attendmeetings would win."

Tip Johnson wrapped up the discussion and turned the meeting overto Carol Rondello, who handled the mechanics of the weekend petitiondrive. Approximately 30 people picked up petitions, literature andset out under the cold blue sky to gather signatures.

Back to section index

Home Contents Info Correspondents ©1998 NWCitizen.com