What should be the way forward for downtown Bellingham vitality, a new jail, waterfront development and housing? The League of Women Voters of Bellingham-Whatcom County hosted a Bellingham mayoral primary election forum online on July 11. Responses to these questions and others posed to candidates Seth Fleetwood (incumbent), Kim Lund, Kristina Michele Martens, Michael McAuley and Chris McCoy are curated below.
LWV: What experiences have you had outside of your professional life that would shape and inform your service to the city?
Seth Fleetwood: I’ve been public spirited my entire life. I’ve had an interest in community betterment pretty much from the very beginning of my involvement. When I returned to Bellingham after living away for about 10 years, I got involved in environmental work and had an interest in land use.
Kim Lund: I think being a parent has been transformational in the way that I see the world. When I think about how my 22-year-old daughter is living in Boston, what her prospects are for moving back to this community that she grew up in and loves, that shapes the sense of urgency that I feel around her uncertain climate future right now.
Kristina Michele Martens: As a black woman who was raised in America by a single mother who was on every available government subsidy, I intimately know what is happening to the community members here in Bellingham. I feel like they have been left behind and have experienced absolutely traumatic events.
Michael McAuley: I have an undergraduate degree from Evergreen focused on urban ecology and urban studies and have a master’s degree where I wrote my thesis on growth management. I’ve managed troops in combat.
Chris McCoy: Starting at a very young age, I was driven to community development as early as my eighth grade year. I was part of the steering committee for the grand reopening of Bellingham High School back in 2000.
LWV: A recent survey found a significant portion of downtown businesses plan to close or move away from the downtown area within the next year. What are the major components of your plan to attract and retain businesses in our commercial district?
Lund: Listen to the 200 businesses that are telling us that they’re feeling unheard and unsupported. Keep investing in the Downtown [Bellingham] Partnership and other security solutions that are working, return to bicycle cops and a narcotics department. I want to activate the downtown core. I want people living, working, investing, shopping, eating in our downtown because that’s what’s at risk.
Martens: Develop a community center downtown for people just to gather and be in community and get to know each other. The biggest current thing affecting businesses is the population of people experiencing homelessness and mental health crisis. A substantial increase in all wages for people who are on the front lines doing this work will lower the attrition rate of people leaving those jobs and is a solution for which we might have funding within six months to a year.
McAuley: We have to reestablish authority. We need to show our entire region downtown is clean and it’s safe and we do that by reestablishing authority. We need more policing, but the kind of policing with the right mission, the right training and the right tools. The county has been promising diversion services; we need push on the county so that when the police do interact with someone downtown, they’ve got some place to take those people.
McCoy: Make sure we reassess and take stock of the values downtown and then put the right economic tools behind it to make downtown thrive.
Fleetwood: Downtown was doing well, it was coming back right up until the pandemic. We created a new patrol of officers that are walking the beat downtown, established a sanitation division and created a downtown mayoral solutions workgroup, including a million dollars in security and an ambassador program. Things are getting better downtown.
Reduce fossil fuels?
LWV: In 2022, the city council voted to require increased energy efficiency to encourage solar installations and to require that water and space heating to be all electric for commercial and four-plus-story multifamily buildings. What next steps do you propose, if any, to reduce the use of fossil fuels by Bellingham residents?
Martens: Make everything more accessible other than having to drive your car. If we have less cars, we will need less parking and that space can be used for housing development.
McAuley: Create a zero- or low-interest loan fund to help people install energy efficiency equipment. Install third-generation EV chargers from now on since second-generation chargers are outdated. Turn streets into micromobility corridors, where everybody that’s not in the car has priority.
McCoy: Look for governmental financing to attract new businesses that will create lasting sustainable green jobs in our community.
Fleetwood: We’re doing a pilot project to help moderate- and low-income people afford heat pumps and then scale up with a funding source. Staff is working on adaptation for extreme weather events to help make our citizens safe, who otherwise wouldn’t have access to clean air and cool air.
Lund: Incentivize walkability by connecting trails. Charge for using city EV chargers. Do away with WTA fares.
Housing for the unhoused?
LWV: In addition to the many programs and policies already in place at the City to serve our unhoused neighbors, please describe any new programs you would propose and how to fund those programs.
McAuley: Get at least 300 micro homes [see website/tiny homes] deployed in my very first year.
McCoy: Decentralize tiny home villages and support services and place them into different neighborhoods.
Fleetwood: Need to discuss how money is going to be spent and deciding how to prioritize what goes to permanent subsidized housing and emergency shelter care, but that’s done through a public process and vetting.
Lund: Hire more planning department staff to reduce permitting time, reduce costs, give more incentives to build, like the expedited permitting projects, especially for multi-use and affordable housing.
Martens: People experience homelessness because they don’t have the support system or the tools they need once they [are] finally housed. We need to increase the amount of positions we have in case-working services and mental-health professionals.
LWV: What do you believe are the most important opportunities for the city of Bellingham?
McCoy: To say we care about homeless people and we want to take care of them is to me really impressive and a big opportunity that will help this town thrive.
Fleetwood: The comprehensive plan update that’s coming forward, which is going to be historic in our community by allowing us to create an absolutely inspired necessary vision for the future of Bellingham.
Lund: Elections are opportunities for community to reflect on where they want to double down and where they want to pivot. There are opportunities to be intentional in our placemaking, in our public spaces.
Martens: Provide a community space where our service providers can communicate more effectively in one place with people who are in need of assistance.
McAuley: Deploy my micromobility plan, push for regulatory reform for lower-cost housing options, change our building codes and our zoning codes.
LWV: Over 50% of Bellingham residents are renters. How satisfied are you that the city’s rental inspection program is working well for tenants and landlords? And would you suggest any changes?
Fleetwood: Staff will present on this topic at the council meeting on July 24.
Lund: We need to eliminate the two-tiered system — private and public inspection system. When there are issues found in the inspection process and the city notifies landlords what improvements need to be made, we need to be following through and enforce what we say and the actions that we are calling for. We could also reimagine a climate action fund to direct some money to do energy efficiency upgrades.
Martens: We have to get real tough, really bold and demanding of predatory landlords and property management companies and hold them accountable. With the fines that should be enforced and collected we can establish an office of tenant protections, bringing more people to the table, bringing more inspectors to the table.
McAuley: If we need and want these programs, they’ve got to be fully funded so that we are getting what we ask for.
McCoy: Train and retrain everybody and automate some of the communications pathways to reduce the existing caseload, get the inspections done, fines issued, collected and really incentivizing ownership to make sure residents can own in this town.
Waterfront on track?
LWV: Do you believe the process for developing the waterfront is on the right track? Are there changes or actions you would support as the plans move forward?
Lund: I see it as an attractant for the green-energy future we want to bring here and other economic growth. It is a working waterfront so we have some issues with ABC Recycling and residents that live nearby and some of the investments.
Martens: There are some housing developments going up like the one-bedroom condo for $650,000 so we’re celebrating having more housing but it’s not attainable for anyone in this community. And I personally am nervous about the current MillWorks project and Mercy Housing, the developer, because of a plethora of issues with the construction at the Eleanor Apartments. The city council is getting a lot of emails about ABC recycling and how it is at odds with what the community says or what the city champions.
McAuley: I don’t think it’s on the right track. The port commission does not have the appropriate staff to properly redevelop land. I think the most critical thing that the port can do is work harder at job creation. The public has owned that land and put hundreds of millions of dollars into the land and produced almost zero jobs on that land.
McCoy: I agree that the ABC Recycling facility is an antiquated use that is not acceptable at this point. We need to make sure we have a clear vision. We need to pick the right developers and we need to attract the right businesses.
Fleetwood: It’s a long-term, legacy project. It’s going to get implemented as the market bears. It’s a dynamic process. It’s a partnership between the port and the city: the port owns it, the city regulates it. There are processes in place for making change on it.
More workforce housing?
LWV: What can the city do to incentivize the construction of more workforce housing units in our community?
Martens: I would love to see a relationship between Bellingham City and Whatcom County to purchase land that we would identify as potential building sites 15–20 years in the future, but have Kulshan Land Trust purchase manufactured homes and alleviate stress on the rental market.
McAuley: We need smaller lots. We need incremental housing; it’s a fantastic way for housing to be built at a much, much lower cost. We need tiny homes allowed in more places than they are allowed now. And we can sell municipal revenue bonds to build public housing at a not for profit rate and the rents pay for it. No tax increases.
McCoy: Streamline and push through some small policy issues around getting some density bonuses for low- and middle-income housing and fast-track projects that have been worked on for over two decades.
Fleetwood: The theme is density. I keep going back to the comprehensive plan and how it comes precisely when the state legislature is requiring or allowing dramatically increased density. We’re going to be charged with determining how we do all this, how we take all of this energy and incorporate it through an important process.
Lund: Seattle passed I-35 to create a public development authority. There are some pension funds willing to invest with stipulations than benefits go to union employees. Let’s invest in ways that increase supply and rely less on ADUs or tiny homes. How can we create pre-approved designs for middle housing for townhomes, for cottage courtyard concepts that have community inherently built in. Let’s look at our multifamily tax exemption. We have 8- and 12-year options. Let’s go to 20-year options and condition it on workforce housing being part of those projects.
A new jail?
LWV: Please describe your position on the potential November ballot issue that asks for a sales tax increase to build a new jail and what are the reasons for your opinion? Please be specific.
McAuley: I don’t think we need a new jail. We need all the services that go along with what we’ve been talking about that go with the building where people are incarcerated. The most important thing people in jail need is, they need hope, because these people are only going to be there for a very short period of time. For those people that do need to be incarcerated for longer periods of time, a smaller building, maybe even one we already own can be repurposed, but we don’t need everybody that’s in the jail to be incarcerated the way that they’re incarcerated now. I do not support the new jail.
McCoy: I think that that’s kind of narrow-minded for us to not be really taking into consideration not only is Bellingham growing rampantly but also so is the extended community. I do believe we need a new jail. I don’t believe that it needs to be something that is necessarily as broad as it is currently scoped to be.
Fleetwood: I support the ballot proposition put on by the council. The needs assessment had something like 34 particular proposals; 29 of them or so are all related to getting people the services that are needed. This is the funding mechanism by which we do that. The existing jail that was built in 1983 is an inhumane jail. The funding mechanism will bring in around $13 million a year. $5 million of that is going to be given to the cities proportionate to population. That means City of Bellingham is going to get about $4 million of that $5 million. And, as mayor, I’m going to recommend that we dedicate over half of that to behavioral health.
Lund: The current facility as a huge potential liability for the county and our community. We absolutely need a new facility. And I do believe that the stakeholder advisory process, while not perfect, has had a long strength of conversation across stakeholders.
Martens: I think that the levy is in lieu of trying to actually develop sustainable affordable housing. We have so many people that are in need of other services that the Stakeholder Advisory Committee did recommend and it is being sold as part of the package. I don’t know how many people know this, but the Whatcom County sheriffs are not actually accredited by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
The mayoral forum will be rebroadcast on BTV and on KMRE-FM (audio only) on July 16 at 4 p.m. and available on the League’s website.
For more information, candidate websites are found at:
— Reported by Salish Current Editorial Staff