Homelessness, fossil fuels, food deserts: primary candidates face the issues in Bellingham, Whatcom forums - Salish Current
July 30, 2021
Homelessness, fossil fuels, food deserts: primary candidates face the issues in Bellingham, Whatcom forums
Mike Sato

With the 2021 primary election just around the corner, the League of Women Voters of Bellingham-Whatcom County has posted recordings from their recent candidate forums. (Salish Current photo ©)

July 30, 2021
Homelessness, fossil fuels, food deserts: primary candidates face the issues in Bellingham, Whatcom forums
Mike Sato


The League of Women Voters of Bellingham-Whatcom County hosted primary election candidate forums for an at-large Bellingham City Council position and three positions on the Whatcom County Council: an at-large position and positions for District 1 (South Bellingham) and District 3 (Foothills). The forums were held online and are available for viewing at the LWV 2021 Election Forums website.

Bellingham City Council at-large position 

The forum was held on July 8 and was hosted by Jan Catrell. It featured candidates Tonia BozeKristina Michele Martens and Russ Whidbee.

In her introduction, Martens said 2020 inspired her to run for office and to work for transparency and accountability in how government does its work. Boze said as a mother and business owner she sees growing abuse of public places and wants a safe city by supporting first responders and dealing with livability issues. Whidbee, a 40-year city resident, spoke of his civic involvement and the need to combat homelessness through partnerships and innovative solutions. 

Asked how they would address the city’s declaration that its residents should have access to healthy and affordable foods, Boze said it was necessary to partner with other organizations like the local mission and to reach out for more residents and businesses to help. Whidbee said he lives in the Birchwood neighborhood which is a food desert and the city should renegotiate a noncompete agreement with Albertson, work with food banks and partner with local cooperative growers. Martens agreed with Whidbee and said pressure needed to be put on government to fix the problem it created. 

Moderator Jan Catrell (upper left) presented questions to candidates (clockwise from upper right) Tonia Boze, Russ Whidbee and Kristina Michele Martens.

Whidbee chose being on the council’s Community and Economic Development committee given his financial expertise and, if allowed a second choice, Public Health, Safety and Justice. Martens chose Economic Development because, being a black woman raised by a single-parent mother, she knows there is always money in the city budget to do what people need. Boze said she would want to work on affordable housing since she is a recipient of a Kulshan Community Land Trust house. 

Regarding adequate shelter for the homeless, Martens said much blame goes to past cuts in mental health care but now it is now necessary to work with as many partners as possible to meet the needs of people where they are, and to find more property to build shelter housing. Boze said it is necessary to provide mental health services and community support and look to places where shelter programs like tiny home villages are working. Whidbee said the city can’t do it alone but needs to think bigger by working with federal, state and local partners like the port and the housing authority.

When hiring a new police chief, Boze listed transparency, integrity and honesty as important, as well as educating people about the challenges the police face and having the community involved. Whidbee said a chief should embody the adage “protect and serve” and understand the secondary role of the police as partners with mental health and addiction professionals. Martens said that asking police to do everything was a set-up to have them fail but that they were set up to make the majority of White America feel safe from Black and Brown people, so there needs to be strong leadership to change the old system.

In measuring success, Whidbee said he was a bridge builder and collaborator so he would be successful if he listened to both sides. Martens said personal success would be the end of the Birchwood food desert and if the community tells her that their lives are better. Boze said if she listened to concerns and reached out to people, and remained honest and transparent, she’d be successful.

Asked about replacing fossil fuel technologies with electricity in new house construction, Martens said it was absolutely necessary to wean ourselves off coal and gas but was concerned that transition would be difficult because of the cost to the homeowner. Boze said she was in favor if there were lower cost options for people who didn’t have the means. Whidbee spoke of the local talent and employment opportunities in green energy that can help slowly move away from fossil fuels.

In a closing statement Whidbee urged facing challenges with integrity and not to be afraid because the solutions are here locally with partnerships to make it a collaborative effort. Martens never thought before 2020 that she would be in politics but it is necessary to be in the solution and to be in the demographic of young people who will be affected by decisions made now. Boze said she was disheartened by not being able to feel safe and doesn’t want that feeling to become normalized so will work to make the city a place welcoming to all.

  • Tonia Boze campaign website 
  • Kristina Michele Martens campaign website 
  • Russ Whidbee campaign website 

Whatcom County Council at-large position

The forum was held on July 8. It was hosted by Janet Ott and featured candidates Kamal Bhachu, Barry Buchanan, Bob Burr and Misty Flowers.

In his introduction, Burr said his singular single reason in running is to educate, remind and alarm voters that we are on the path of mass extinction and the end of the earth. Buchanan, the incumbent and current council chair, described his work on criminal justice reform, mental health treatment, law enforcement diversion and climate change. Flowers said county families need stability after the pandemic and she seeks local government accountability. Bhachu described his life as an immigrant growing up in the county, his passion to serve humanity and how he would bring diversity to the council.

The top priority for Buchanan is mental health access because it is an intersection of issues of homelessness, incarceration, poverty. Flowers said that emergency orders like those during the lockdown should be based on data because they caused great hardships. Bhachu said first responders need to be fully staffed and fully supported. Burr reiterated the reality of global heating and the need to plan for change.

Forum participants included (clockwise from upper left) moderator Janet Ott and candidates Barry Buchanan, Misty Flowers and Bob Burr; candidate Kamal Bhachu also participated via audio.

To ensure public safety from fuel train car derailments, Flowers said she only recently became aware of the incident and favored more accountability and investigation. Bhachu said the cause was still being investigated but having first responders patrolling the area would make it safer. Burr said the greatest fear is saboteurs but not much county can do because the federal government controls interstate matters and railroads. Buchanan said the Cherry Point land use amendments deal with transport of fuels by rail and marine traffic, and liability issues related to public safety.

Regarding homelessness when the rental moratorium ends, Bhachu said that by treating opioid addiction and mental health and linking better paying jobs with all issues, people can live in better homes. Burr said that many of those soon to be homeless will have cars so top priority would be to have place where they can park, then separate homelessness from treatment for mental health, drug and alcohol problems. Buchanan described the continuum of providing emergency sheltering to permanent housing, financial options and value of tiny-home villages. Flowers supported tiny homes, treating addiction, allowing more attached dwelling units and not shutting people out of jobs when they need the work the most.

When developing the Cherry Point urban growth area, Burr said whatever was built should be carbon-neutral but he would prefer the area to be converted into a nature reserve. Buchanan said that any project with environmental impacts should require mitigation and that there are lots going on in the clean energy sector that could go in there. Flowers said the area should have more manufacturing for local jobs, be carbon-neutral and protective of natural habitats. Bhachu said families need better paying jobs and supports a biodiesel plant, solar fields and green energy sources.

Regarding the next heat wave, Buchanan emphasized the need to ban fireworks and educate about forest best-practices management to reduce fire danger. Flowers supported a fireworks ban but wants more discussion about financial support for those not allowed to sell fireworks. Bhachu spoke of damage to farm crops and making funding available to those hurt by the heat. Burrs said he was thankful for the heat wave as a warning to residents and thinks there will be more public support for climate plans and a year-round burn ban.

In his closing statement, Bhachu spoke of his desire to serve humanity and his living in the land of opportunity and wanting others to have that opportunity. Burr said that the Native American perspective of seven generations will end if there is no immediate action on global warming. Buchanan said there’s lots of good work being done by the council and he especially wants to work on the Child and Family Wellness Initiative and on the Racial Equity Commission. Flowers said she wants to be accountable to the people and represent the people by building bridges among all in the community.

  • Kamal Bhachu campaign email: kamalbhachuforall@gmail.com
  • Barry Buchanan campaign website 
  • Bob Burr campaign email
  • Misty Flowers campaign website 

Whatcom County Council District 1 position

The forum was held on July 8. It was hosted by Janet Ott and featured candidates Jeremiah Ramsey, Eddy Ury and Kaylee Galloway.

In his introduction Ramsey described working with his father in real estate and his concerns with affordable housing. Ury described his decades-long commitment to public service, making positive change in clean energy and fossil fuels. Galloway spoke of her commitment to making government work for all.

The top priority for Ury was affordable housing and working together to have safe homes. Galloway identified climate change and adopting and carrying out the county’s Climate Action Plan. Ramsey identified affordable housing and streamlining the county’s permit processing.

Forum participants (clockwise from upper right) were Jeremiah Ramsey, Eddy Ury and Kaylee Galloway, and moderator Janet Ott.

To ensure public safety from fuel train car derailments, Galloway spoke of her work with Senator Maria Cantwell in crude-oil transport, and the need to enforce regulations and transitioning off oil. Ramsey called out transitioning from fossil fuel refining and ensuring replacement by living wage jobs. Ury described fossil fuel safety and transition as the main issue he’s worked on for 10 years in new regulation for Cherry Point refineries.

Ramsey identified his infrastructure priorities as transportation and water and would give priority to allocate grants to get biggest bang for the buck. Ury emphasized clean energy projects, broadband, water resources and transit. Galloway said infrastructure is all encompassing and listed transit, fish passage and broadband among others.

When developing the Cherry Point urban growth area, Ury supports the county setting boundaries for development that exclude the shoreline and ensure clean development and public safety. Galloway emphasized a long-term view with tribe-government discussions that would result in good-paying jobs in green-economy industries. Ramsey supported using industrial lands for industries in public-private partnerships that provided family-wage jobs.

To ensure greater public participation in discussion and adoption of policy matters, Galloway supports empowering the underrepresented and including equity in all county discussions and decisions. Ramsey said all perspectives and interests should be heard, and spoke to the importance of reaching a quick settlement in the Nooksack water dispute. Ury called for better inclusivity and participation by continuing virtual access and meeting people outside of public meetings.

Regarding the next heat wave, Ramsey said it is important to build the county’s economy so people could afford air conditioners. Ury said it is important to adapt to future heat waves by protecting outdoor workers and the unsheltered, reduce fire risks and install heat pumps. Galloway said that heat waves mean climate change is real and require carrying out the Climate Action Plan.

In her closing statement, Galloway said her experience at the federal, state and local levels prepares her to serve from Day One. Ramsey said the county is at a crossroads and he would push for more housing because the more housing there is, the cheaper it will be. Ury said that local governments deal with issues that shape our everyday lives and he will take his years of experience in Cherry Point issues to all other issues.

  • Kaylee Galloway campaign website 
  • Jeremiah Ramsey campaign website 
  • Eddy Ury campaign website 

Whatcom County Council District 3 position

The forum was held on July 7. It was hosted by Heather Brown and featured candidates Tyler Byrd, Rebecca Lewis, Fred Rinard and Kathy Sabel.

In his introduction, candidate Fred Rinard spoke of working for Georgia Pacific, building his own house in Kendall and his concern about low-cost housing. Rebecca Lewis of Deming spoke of her work as a teacher and a union leader, and the challenge facing people coming out of the COVID pandemic. Kathy Sabel described herself as a relative newcomer wanting people to work together, specifically to find solutions to water in the Nooksack River basin. Tyler Byrd, the incumbent, said he’s running again because he despises politics and has no respect for elected officials who serve to reinforce the status quo.

The top priority for Lewis is pandemic recovery in many facets and dealing with homelessness. Sabel listed water in all the ways it affects people and for Nooksack water negotiations to avoid adjudication as her priority. Byrd said the council deals with multiple issues but what’s most important is to do it with the community and to engage people to fix problems. Rinard listed low-cost housing and allowing small acreages to be broken down into lots and having less restrictions on owner-built houses.

Forum participants (clockwise from upper left) were candidate Fred Rinard, moderator Heather Brown, and candidates Rebecca Lewis, Tyler Byrd and Kathy Sabel.

To ensure public safety from fuel train car derailments, Sabel said there is already a lot going on and she would need to read up to see if anything more needs to be done for public safety. Byrd said the council has worked for years on fossil fuel transport and only with a stakeholder group proposal regarding Cherry Point has real progress been made. Rinard said that there were no trains in District 3 so he could not comment on the question. Lewis said federal, state and local rules need to ensure safety but the trend was to move away from fossil fuels and transition to a green blue economy.

Regarding homelessness when the rental moratorium ends, Byrd said it was important to stop doing programs counterproductive to really helping people find shelter and that using the Depot Market Square and building tiny homes were good examples. Rindard said that homelessness is a cancer on the community and standards need to be set to restrict camping, panhandling and littering. Lewis said to deal with homelessness one needs to deal with housing affordability, eviction, fair rent rates as well as drug, alcohol, mental health and diversion programs. For Sabel, 50% need mental health services and the council’s role is to let experts help people in need get services and housing. 

Asked about infrastructure priorities, Rinard did not know of any tunnels around District 3 but encouraged inspection of bridges before bigger problems happen. Lewis said there is no cell phone service or high-speed internet so the number one need in east Whatcom County is internet service. Sabel said broadband was critical and fixing culverts for the fish were her infrastructure priorities. Byrd said that all those priorities mentioned were things the council is working on and the issue is whether to raise taxes or spend money wiser.

In his closing statement, Bryd urged voters to elect people based on what they’ve done and how they act and what their process is. Rinard said that he’s had a good life in the county for 50 years and would want others to have the same. Lewis said she would listen to citizens like she listens as a union leader and as a teacher to empower people. Sabel said we lost community during COVID and she will get people to knit a community together that cares for each other.

  • Tyler Byrd campaign website
  • Rebecca Lewis campaign website 
  • Fred Rinard campaign email
  • Kathy Sabel campaign email

[Ed.: Edited to retain contact information only for candidates progressing to the November general election; 30 Aug. 2021.]

— Reported by Mike Sato

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