Whatcom candidate forum was a study in styles - Salish Current
August 25, 2023
Whatcom candidate forum was a study in styles
Mike Sato

The urgent and looming reality of crowded and unsafe conditions in the Whatcom County jail, complicated by mental health issues and drug use on the streets, dominated candidate comments in a forum this week. (Whatcom County SAC video image)

August 25, 2023
Whatcom candidate forum was a study in styles
Mike Sato

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No one was called a liar, no one was called a crook, no one was called a scurrilous scoundrel at Wednesday’s Bellingham City Club’s candidates forum for Whatcom County Executive, Council At-Large Position B and Sheriff.

Hosted by an organization whose mission is “to inform, connect and engage our community to strengthen the civic health of our region,” there was no shouting, only polite clapping, prepared questions, no debate.

The two-hour event was more a study in styles than policy differences.

For the Executive position, a hard-charging Dan Purdy with evangelical fervor preached a gospel of running government like a business when challenging incumbent Satpal Sidhu. For his part, Sidhu stood on his first-term accomplishments as chief collaborator working for consensus among elected mayors, councils, commissions and sovereign nations.

In the At-Large council session, there was stark contrast between candidate Hannah Ordos’ self-described “deer in the headlights” responses to the moderator’s questions and candidate Jon Scanlon’s polished, résumé-and-policy-paper responses. Ordos’ said she had difficulty answering questions in the two-minute format. Scanlon shared ample ideas in his two-minute answers.

Having an incumbent and his record to run against, like Dan Purdy has, might help to sharpen a campaign’s focus. In the case of the Sheriff’s race, Deputy Sheriff Doug Chadwick is a decades-long department employee who has the endorsement of retiring Sheriff Bill Elfo. Blaine Chief of Police Donnell “Tank” Tanksley chose not to campaign against the current department’s record. The candidates came across more as two collegial cops than rival candidates.

About that jail

County jail conditions and the intersecting vectors of arrest, diversion, mental health, drug treatment and the unhoused were in sharp focus.

All the candidates agreed that a new facility is needed, and that diversion and treatment for behavioral health problems should be expanded and improved. There may be some disagreement on the size of the facility and its capacity but there was no argument around supporting the November levy vote.

The T. Rex in the room, stalking the candidates now and the winners of the races when they take office, was the fact that even if the November levy passes, a new facility will take four or more years to build. Meanwhile, the current jail’s condition, improvements to drug and mental health diversion and treatment, court backlogs and housing the unhoused need to be addressed — not when the new facility is built, but today.

“We can’t wait five years,” summed up Tanksley. “We need to put some people together, get some community voices together — not just public officials like myself — and government officials, to really roll our sleeves up.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this situation.”

— Contributed by Mike Sato

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