October 7, 2021
Election 2021: Grassroots effort puts four People First Bellingham initiatives before voters
Ella Banken

Four initiatives sponsored by the left-leaning coalition People First Bellingham will be on the ballot in November in Bellingham, giving the city’s voters a chance to weigh in on proposed privacy, renter and worker protections. (Salish Current photo)

October 7, 2021
Election 2021: Grassroots effort puts four People First Bellingham initiatives before voters
Ella Banken

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In just over a week, when ballots for the Nov. 2 election will be mailed out, Bellingham voters will determine whether they want to live in a city with expanded protection for renters’ rights, where police can’t use invasive technology, where the right to unionize is protected and where hourly workers’ compensation is protected . 

Four initiatives on the ballot were introduced and promoted by People First Bellingham, a coalition of left-leaning community organizations. Volunteers collected over 6,200 validated signatures for each initiative to ensure inclusion on the November ballot. 

“What we really want to get out to voters is that these measures do protect workers and renters, and that is exactly why there’s a lot of resistance to them,” People First Bellingham volunteer Maya Morales said. “They do put people first. They do put people over profit.”

The initiatives address four areas:

  • No. 2021-01: Renter Protections, expanding tenant rights to require 90-day notice for uncaused eviction, mandatory communication of raised rental rates of more than 8%, and relocation assistance for eviction without cause and more.
  • No. 2021-02: No Invasive Police Technology, prohibiting facial recognition software for police, prohibit the use of data collected by facial recognition software, prohibit predictive policing technology, prohibit the use of information collected by facial recognition and predictive policing software in court proceedings and more.
  • No. 2021-03: Protect the Right to Organize, encouraging labor neutrality, prohibit the use of city funds for blocking unionization efforts, protections for nonmanagerial workers to participate in union activities and more.
  • No. 2021-04: Worker’s Rights, ensuring consistency and good-faith assurance of hourly employment, $4 per hour hazard pay during declared states of emergency for certain hourly wage employees, compensation for schedule changes without sufficient notice and more.

After qualifying the initiatives for the ballot, People First Bellingham worked on three main goals, according to Morales. First, the campaign is getting out information about the initiatives. Morales said misleading information is being spread about the initiatives, and they are encouraging people to read and educate themselves on the initiatives. 

In addition, People First Bellingham is registering new voters and developing relationships with the Bellingham community. Volunteers are door knocking, tabling at the Farmer’s Market and organizing a mailer.

The campaign has received endorsements from many organizations, including the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, Whatcom County Jobs With Justice, Imagine No Kages, Whatcom Peace and Justice Center, Sunrise Bellingham, Bellingham Unity Committee, Riveters Collective, Bellingham Tenants Union, Whatcom Democrats and Democratic Socialists of America. The Lummi Indian Business Council has endorsed Initiative 1 (Renter Protections) and the ACLU of Washington has endorsed Initiative 2 (No Invasive Police Tech). 

What do the voters think?

Elsa Blythe was born and raised in Bellingham, and will be voting ‘yes’ on all four initiatives. She has been a renter for the past four years, so is particularly in support of Initiative 1. 

Volunteers spent many hours gathering signatures to ensure that the People First Bellingham initiatives would move forward. (Salish Current photo)

“I’ve felt kind of at a loss when it comes to dealing with companies/landlords,” Blythe said in a message. “In a more general sense, people have the right to protect themselves in regard to privacy, worker’s rights, living situations etc., and with that it’s important to provide the ability and ‘space’ to do that.”

Zach Norris, resident of Bellingham for almost four years, had not fully researched the initiatives, but expressed support for the mission of putting people first. However, Zach expressed some doubts about the effectiveness of the initiatives. 

“I definitely don’t have a whole lot of faith in the electoral system … and think initiatives like that can only take us so far without an overhaul of the system as a whole,” Norris said in a message.

Impact on businesses

Some initiatives have drawn concern, such as the topic of hazard pay in Initiative 4 (Worker’s Rights). Alice Clark, Executive Director of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, expressed worry over the effects that Initiative 4 could have on businesses. 

Many businesses are still weathering the storm of the pandemic, and barely holding on, Clark said. She worries that businesses may not survive having to pay $4 an hour hazard pay during a state of emergency, given current instability and the unpredictability of a state of emergency. 

As outlined in Initiative 4, businesses with fewer than 30 employees would only be required to provide the hazard pay for 14 days. Despite the provisions, Clark believes this initiative could have a devastating impact on businesses, including nonprofits and those that provide essential services, like child care. 

Over the next month, the Partnership will spend time to inform Bellingham businesses of these possible impacts which they may not be aware of, Clark said. 

People First Bellingham doesn’t deny that these initiatives could have big impacts. From their perspective, that’s the point. 

“Look, we need to protect workers first, and we need to figure out how to formulate business practices that do that,” Morales explained. “So if this is going to force a bunch of businesses, and landlords for that matter, to make adjustments to how they’ve been doing things and do things differently going forward … then that’s what needs to happen.”

Council questions on legality

In July, Bellingham City Council members expressed concern about the legality of the initiatives. After the initiatives qualified for the November ballot, the council had three options. They could propose alternate ballot measures that address the same subjects, they could vote to enact the initiatives into law, or they could defer the initiatives to the voters, resulting with the initiatives appearing on Bellingham’s general election ballot.

The council voted to defer the initiatives to the voters. Some council members expressed interest in proposing alternate measures, but felt there was not enough time before the Aug. 3 deadline. The City Attorney’s office did not disclose to the public what the legal issues might be. (Read more: ‘People’s choice: renter protections, police tech, workers’ rights initiatives make November ballot,’ Salish Current, July 26, 2021.)

Morales expressed frustration over this situation. Acknowledging that signature gathering took several months, they believe that the council did have time to propose alternate measures, if it was deemed necessary. 

‘We recognize that the city council, if they found flaws, did have a chance to correct those flaws and chose not to,” Morales said. “So I think part of our disappointment with the City of Bellingham is that … the signature gathering process took months, and they had plenty of time to read the full text of all of these initiatives and to come to the table with alternative proposals if they had issues with them. And they didn’t do that; they chose not to.’

In the face of misinformation and criticism from opponents, People First Bellingham stands firmly behind the initiatives, according to Morales. The campaign will continue to encourage voters to make informed decisions and understand the mission of the movement. They will participate in a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Bellingham-Whatcom County on Sat, Oct. 16, to discuss each initiative.

“Change is not easy, change can be hard, it can be bumpy,” Morales said. “These kinds of adjustments that expand the rights of workers and renters are not, you know, perfectly easy and smooth, but that’s because we have a system that’s maladjusted. And so it’s going to take some adjusting to set that right, and create more equity for everybody in our city.”

— Reported by Ella Banken

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