Four of six Whatcom executive candidates respond in forum - Salish Current
July 14, 2023
Four of six Whatcom executive candidates respond in forum
Salish Current Editorial Staff

Choices! Aug. 1 primary election voters will narrow the field from six to two candidates for Whatcom County Executive. From top, left to right, Janet Ott of the League of Women Voters Bellingham-Whatcom County moderated a forum with candidates including incumbent Satpal Sidhu, Alicia Rule, Barry Buchanan and Dan Purdy; two candidates did not participate.

July 14, 2023
Four of six Whatcom executive candidates respond in forum
Salish Current Editorial Staff

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Voters in the Aug. 1 primary election have some choices, with six candidates for Whatcom County Executive each hoping to be one of two elected to proceed to November’s general election.

Four candidates — incumbent Satpal Sidhu, county council member Barry Buchanan, business consultant Dan Purdy and 42nd District Rep. Alicia Rule — responded to questions posed by the League of Women Voters of Bellingham-Whatcom County in an online forum July 12. (Unable to attend were candidates Misty Flowers and Sukhwant Gill.)

Top of the list

LWV: If elected, what are the two or three things you are most committed to working on?

Barry Buchanan: Priority one is climate change with a focus on racial equity as economic equity. Priority two is housing and the potential of putting together a countywide housing levy like the Bellingham Home Fund. Three is the criminal justice system that I’ve been working hard on for the last several years.

Dan Purdy: I have four topics and they form the acronym PACE: public safety, accountability and fiscal responsibility, cost of living and environmental stewardship. I’m looking at continuous process improvement, at the permitting issues that is backlogged, at attracting new business and creating new jobs, flood mitigation and our farms and water rights.

Alicia Rule: Number one issue for me is the deadly fentanyl crisis; then public safety and the housing crisis. When we look at these social crises as systems crises rather than one problem separate from another problem, we can more boldly come forward with solutions.

Satpal Sidhu: One is public safety and treatment of mental health, behavioral health. The second is the housing crisis. The third is water security for salmon habitat as well as to preserve 100,000 acres of ag land. On public safety, our motto is treatment over punishment. On the housing crisis, making smaller lots would help. The water security crisis is an existential crisis and adjudication is going to start this fall. 

Housing for the unhoused

LWV: Whatcom County Department of Health and Community Services recently reported 1,059 unhoused people, an increase of 27% from the previous year. A third of those unhoused people live outside, outdoors and in places not intended for human habitation. What specific programs do you support to address the needs of these 1,059 people living in our county? 

Purdy: I’m in support of any program that has outreach, recovery and restoration. Between 2022 and 2023 there was a 33% increase in the number of households experiencing homelessness. We need services for mental health and chronic substance abuse. We need to be able to work with various departments regardless if they’re faith-based or if they’re government-based.

Rule: The face of homelessness varies from a very high growing number of seniors who are becoming homeless to those with complex needs. It’s not just one issue. It’s many issues at the same time and homelessness is as individual and diverse as the people who live in our community. We have a large number of families with children who are very quickly losing their homes and moving into their cars. So there’s nothing more important than getting these folks in safe housing and using the wraparound services and leveraging funds from state and federal government with our local funds.

Sidhu: One thing is land-use policies in the comprehensive plan which will impact us for next 10 years but more immediately it’s the single-family zoning where we should build duplexes, four-plexes, all that mixed housing in every neighborhood. We will allow 400 square feet studios. Where there is a 3,000-square-foot home, we can build 8 or 10 of those and spread people all over the town. Tiny homes are transitional housing, not permanent housing. We need to move people into more permanent houses. It could be 400 to 800 square feet. The other part is land-use policies we set up which can be adopted by each city. This are not overnight solutions but we can make it happen in the next four years.

Buchanan: Homelessness is a severe problem. Housing is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s a continuum and an element of that continuum is safe parking. We need to have a way for people that are in their RVs to be able to park safely. We need emergency sheltering in the wintertime and now we have a lot of heat and smoke in the summer and we have to protect people. I support tiny homes. We also need supportive housing with services that can help people that have behavioral health and substance use disorder issues. We have to partner with all the jurisdictions in the county to make sure that we are all working together to solve this issue.

Addiction crisis

LWV: The county executive is the head of the county’s health board. If elected, what specific programs or policies would you propose to address the addiction crisis in our county?

Rule: We have a 23-hour urgent care behavioral health center to be built. We have a 988 system and a 911 system with a new 911 building. We have a 30-day inpatient unit coming into town. None of these things have started yet. We have The Way Station that is underway. Our public safety system works well with our first responders, so folks get the help that is appropriate for their need. Then we start addressing our social safety system in a proactive way with operating systems that work, we are going to see a very clear quick difference and an end to this suffering.

Sidhu: The treatment services options need to be increased. We built the crisis stabilization center at Anne Deacon Center for Hope with 32 beds, 16 for detox and 16 for mental behavioral help. We’re going to build another 23-hour facility. Alicia facilitated that $9 million and we are putting another $5 million on top. We have built The Way Station with Unity Care and the Opportunity Council. We leverage federal money, we leverage state funding and we are putting county money into things.

Buchanan: Many communities have a drug program to test for fentanyl in drugs so people can feel safe when they have gone down that path. We need to up our game on medically assisted treatment where people can get the old methadone treatments. We have several programs like the GRACE Program to intervene on frequent fliers of the emergency medical system. The community paramedics can do well checks. We’re looking at putting together a hub services center where many of our service providers are in a same location and offer services for re-entry, for addictions services and for the homeless.

Purdy: This is a very complex issue. There’s lots of moving parts. It’s all about appropriate funding and making sure that the monies are in the right buckets and making sure that we’re spending for the right programs. We’ve got great services available but we just don’t have enough to address the growing concerns within our community. It’s very difficult to find professionals. We don’t have the right professionals always in the right areas. We need to invest more in our community in the mental health and the addiction services.

Heat is rising

LWV: The county’s climate goals include reducing the transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by the year 2030. What policies would you propose in order to achieve that goal? 

Sidhu: When I started my last campaign I said I will plant one million trees in five years. Whatcom One Million Trees project has all already done about 200,000 new trees. We hired a climate manager. We seated a climate advisory committee. We created a climate report and an implementation plan. These are practical things, not ideas. 

Buchanan: There is money from the bipartisan infrastructure bill that’s focused on EV charging stations that I think we should be applying for. We need to partner with other transportation agencies up and down that I-5 corridor so we have public transportation that can get people to Mariners games or to the airport or wherever they need down south. We have a climate action plan we need to follow. The comprehensive plan should reflect the best policies we can to aid in our fight against climate change.

Purdy: We have to be balanced and this means not cutting off natural gas. We’ve got to be balanced between our needs as a county for agriculture and industry. The transformation to electric needs to be done with a reasonable measured approach. We have to ensure that our businesses can continue to thrive and grow without hindering them and putting them in an untenable position.

Rule: The best way we can address climate change through transportation is to think about how it intersects with our other systems. Many people right now cannot yet afford electric vehicles. We should strategize and leverage how we’re going to rebuild our public transportation system. We’re going to see a lot of building, so we’re going to run into parking issues. Folks need a public transportation system that will work at any given time. We need to look at comprehensive solutions, not as if they’re separate buckets.

Racial equity

LWV: What specific initiatives or actions would you like to see the county’s racial equity commission take to improve racial equity for those living in our county?

Buchanan: We need to look at county hiring policies, and not only policies in the past, but policies going forward. We need to have that lens of racial equity as we as we develop policies for land use and parks and recreation. We need the Racial Equity Commission to focus on our tribal partners to make sure that their sovereignty is protected. 

Purdy: We’re all Americans, we’re all Washingtonians and we all live in Whatcom County. And we’re all in this together. What I would like to see is an even-handed policy for all people that doesn’t necessarily focus on skin color, different types of situations where we’re pitting each other against one another. I would like to have this conversation cool down. What I’d like us to do is to find the things that we have in common and focus on those. I think everybody understands that every time we put in these new policies around systemic racism or racial equity, there’s a cost and we are not able to measure what that cost is. We’ve got to help all people. We don’t want to create policies or procedures that put one over another or one building block over another. We are all going to have equal treatment for all citizens. I would like to see less of this area and not more.

Rule: I grew up right here in Whatcom County and I left and went to University of Washington and back in the ’90s. I was one of the only white people who decided to do American ethnic studies for my major. Using a racial equity lens in all decision-making, looking how it impacts everybody differently, that we are not the same, that we can’t claim all have the same opportunity because it’s just frankly not true. We have to look at where the systematic bias is and then look to leverage corrections to that. There’s lots of room to do that. This is not something that is going to put us back, it puts us forward. Inclusion helps better us. It could help better our business community. It could help better the world and prepare our children for the world that they’re about to live in.

Sidhu: This is very personal. I have lived in this community for 35 years and 10 years in Canada. I have the lived experience of being a minority and how I could bring my education from India and get it accepted here. We funded a Racial Equity Commission for three years with $200,000 each year and the first thing they need to look at is inclusion and belonging. We need to make every citizen know they belong to this place and they are included in everything. If they can start with these two premises and assure our citizens that they are part of our community, that they are included and our policies are inclusive, that is a big step, a first step. It will take years. 

The ag base

LWV: How would you approach the competing goals of protecting our agriculture land base in Whatcom County and providing non-agricultural or residential development in these rural areas?. 

Purdy: We need to have a proper balance between growth and agriculture. We need to create affordable housing options for families without taking away from our ag land. We have over 100,000 acres of ag land of which 29,000 are berries which produce 80–90% of the frozen berries for the United States. [Ed.: “More than 65% of the U.S. red raspberries for the frozen market are produced in Whatcom County.” Whatcom Family Farms] It’s important that we talk about the permits which are backlogged. We had over 1,600 permits last backlogged and we are not doing a very good job of getting through these for our real estate developers and our average citizens who are just trying to build on their own property.

Rule: We need to preserve those farmlands. What that does is increase our own food security. The missing middle housing idea, even the transit-oriented development can be used to build in the right places. When we increase options for housing, we protect those farmlands that are so dear to us.

Sidhu: Preserving ag land means that we have to make farming sustainable and profitable so that it can be passed on from one generation to the other. The question is about water. Humans consume very little part of our total water in Whatcom County. How do you balance salmon habitat versus ag needs when water shortage happens four or five months of the year at the same time when the fish need water and the farmers need water. There are solutions. We do not have water deficit. We have trust deficit. Once we start trusting each other, water is there. We have enough water. 

Buchanan: We have to make sure that farming is viable and people can make a living at it and pass it down to their families. We need to look at the urban growth areas and make sure that we are bringing those in to the cities and that the cities are annexing those and making use of them for density and housing. We have to limit sprawl and we can do with incentives for urban housing and urban development. We can look at impact fees in the rural area for development to pay for the parks and the schools and the transportation that’s involved in those areas. What that can do is level the playing field between rural and urban housing costs so people can afford to move into Bellingham rather than in rural areas where housing costs are rising because of impact fees.

Jail proposal

LWV: Tell us what you know about the current proposal for a new jail, and what you support or object to about that proposal.

Purdy: I am pro jail and the question here is about trust. My office is responsible for accountable spending. Public transparency is key. Show the public our progress through dashboards and performance metrics. I’ll also propose contracts to be voted on by county council. After taking the jail tour and talking with the people on the front line, there are so many things we can do better. A complete redesign of the jail and more of a modular format is necessary. 

Rule: I am really looking forward to having a rehabilitation center that is going to keep our community safe. It is important to me that we have public safety, behavioral health, addiction medicine, all of that together working in systems that work for people. I have worked with people as they’ve exited a jail facility and prison facilities and gone into the community to restart their life. Part of what we need to do is ensure that we are using evidence-based approaches to make these systems work together in the jail when they’re necessary. All of those things need to happen and would be improvements. I very much support moving forward with a better system than we have now. 

Sidhu: I have lived through 2015, 2017 along with the council member Buchanan and now we are in 2023. What I don’t like is we don’t have enough resources. I wish we had more resources. What I like is this is the best compromise in a long time between different ideas and different proponents. We worked very, very hard to get where we are. Is it workable? It’s very much workable. Can it get improved? Of course, it can get better and better because there are more resources we can get from the state and federal on the program side. On the capital side we have no other money but we have to come up with money and that’s what we have been able to do. And small cities need a shout out that they are giving money for this project on the capital side up front. What I like about it — compromise. 

Buchanan: We went all around the county to ask citizens why they didn’t like the first two proposals and we took that and we created a resolution that was the best principles for a corrections facility and how to how to design it and how to build what it services it needed. What I really like about it was the process, a very open public process. We put together a gap analysis and the recommendations that came out of that went into the implementation plan. The implementation plan calls out the projects that are going to help. We don’t have enough resources, just don’t have enough services. We don’t have enough to do exactly what we want to do, but I do like the compromise we have.

Housing the mentally ill and addicted

LWV: Do you think the county should or should not be investing in supportive housing for the mentally ill and the addicted?

Rule: Absolutely. We must. We have an obligation to our neighbors and to our community. It doesn’t take anything except for looking outside our doors in every corner of our community to see that we have people with comprehensive behavioral health needs out on our streets. This is not normal. We should not be used to it. It should not be acceptable to us and we must invest and commit to fixing this problem. It is not fair or humane to the people who are suffering and it is not fair or humane to those around them who are trying to enjoy the community. We know what to do. We can put in wraparound programs. There’s state money available that we could rapidly and strategically leverage, as well as federal money.

Sidhu: Addicted people and the mentally ill are not stable people. Of course, we need to support them. Of course, we need to provide wraparound services for them. There is the population within that population which we need to identify and help. We should look at the housing needs in our county. We need 5,000 homes every year to get over the housing crisis. If half of that housing is affordable housing, then low income housing will be 2,500 units. Using all the federal, state money, all the monies we have together, the best we can do is 300 to 500 units. We should make promises which we can keep. And I have done that. We have built 350 homes this last year and I’ll continue to do that but I cannot build 5,000 homes.

Buchanan: Yes, I do believe the county should support housing with wraparound services. It’s critical. It’s hard work. I can give you an example of that with 22 North. We had a lot of issues with 22 North when it first started up. One of the neighbors who lived across the street was constantly complaining about drug use, people at doorways, people harassing people. It was really a mess, but we just received a letter Monday from that same person talking about how much it’s improved at 22 North. And it should be used as a model for supportive housing because the supportive housing model is super important to getting us through this addiction and some of the homeless issues we have.

Purdy: We shouldn’t be investing funds into programs because they sound good but because they are effective in restoring people’s lives. Government plays a role in providing services and housing homeless services. But there needs to also be a mental health and an addiction service program so that we can address these. Are we addressing mental health and addiction or are we addressing homelessness as a whole? We should be investing as government with the right partners and programs to assist people in getting off the street and turning over a new leaf. There has to be more to it than just housing.

Crime today

LWV: Considering that it may be years before a new jail is built, how would you respond to citizens who perceive a rise of crime like burglaries, shoplifting and the apparent lack of consequences for these crimes currently?

Buchanan: That’s a tough situation because of our lack of capacity in the jail. We don’t have accountability for some of those burglary crimes. We just don’t have a way to do that. We were looking at trying to get some extra capacity by renting some space in Snohomish County, but that fell through. But I think we should continue to look for options because we are going to need some sort of a bridge to get from here to there before we build a new jail. We have to have space to hold people accountable.

Purdy: Everyone wants a safe neighborhood. We all want to fund the right programs with the right partners as a community so that we care for those in need and in crisis. I want to see beautiful parks for my children and yours without others polluting their play areas or taking over taxpayer-funded rec areas. We need to lower the recidivism rate for those who have been incarcerated. There’s a higher probability that those with addiction issues will re-offend. We can get them back on track with the right substance abuse and mental health services.

Rule: We are in a public-safety crisis. And we need to address it right away. I am very concerned about our downtown in Bellingham. I have a mental health practice there and I have staff that don’t feel safe taking a walk around in the middle of the day. A community that does not have a downtown that thrives really is in trouble. It should be the heartbeat of our community and we’re seeing it is essentially empty. The businesses are struggling. They’re leaving. It’s not just our downtown. It’s our outer communities as well. We recently had a very violent incident out in Custer, which is near where I live, and in many of the county areas as well. We must look for better solutions to hiring law enforcement. We need to hire quickly. It is a public safety issue. We don’t have capacity in our jail. We must look for that solution in an alternative way. But we also need to make sure that we are addressing our violent crime and our retail theft issue that consistently and persistently are real problems for public safety.

Sidhu: The very basis of a civil and just society is that there must be consequences for anybody’s actions. Right now we are not able to hold that principle. To do that will take five years for the new jail. In the meantime, We invested $6 million into the criminal justice system to clear the backlog. We may need one more Superior Court judge in Whatcom County. There’s the LEAD program, the GRACE program, solutions like electronic, home monitoring. Reduce the number of people going again to jail. We need more resources. There are solutions and we have been doing the best we could. But we need more resources to do that work.

Cherry Point

LWV: What ideas do you have for clean economic development at Cherry Point? 

Buchanan: I would look at Cherry Point as an opportunity for a clean-energy transition as we transition out of the fossil fuel world and into alternative energy. I think it’s a good spot for that. It’s got the correct zoning. So I would really look at trying to get alternative energy companies out there. I’m not a big fan of development at Cherry Point.

Purdy: Cherry Point is comprised of many different industries, not just one or two refineries. They continue to be good stewards. It’s important to prioritize good jobs while we make a responsible shift to cleaner energy. We know that companies like BP are making these clean changes already and they’re the leaders in their industry. Philips 66, same way. We need to be investing and supporting these industries. Faster permitting for them and working with them as good partners with government.

Rule: I am so excited about the opportunities that we have at Cherry Point. We can work with those leaders that are already out there and are anxious and chomping at the bit for the next new green-energy opportunity. They’re looking to do that. It’s what’s new. It’s what’s profitable. And I really do hope that we can get some of those good union jobs back here. It’s really important. 

Sidhu: Let me start with that Cherry Point is an ecologically sensitive coastal area. I would like to see the Lummi Nation take a lead on the Cherry Point development. Let them present a white paper or some kind of plan, how they see the future of Cherry Point. There are a lot of other areas in Whatcom County which we can zone industrial GMA and do all these things. Industry footprints are much smaller. Now you can have a 25,000-square-foot building and build buses, electric buses in 25,000 square feet. We need new jobs, new technologies, and we’ve been talking about hydrogen. We need family-based jobs, clean tech jobs, but we should include tribal input into our overall industry and development planning. And small cities. Lynden has done an excellent job. We should follow Lynden, how they have brought jobs. I am working with Scott Korthuis on this issue.

The county executive forum will be rebroadcast on BTV and on KMRE-FM (audio only) and available on the League’s website.

For more information, here are links to candidate websites:

Reported by Salish Current Editorial Staff

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