Thursday, December 31, 2009

Welcoming 2010

Tonight -December 31- traditionally marks the beginning of a New Year and the ending of the old, accompanied by joyous celebrations.
But, it will also be special for other reasons too, including a rare event involving the moon.

Even though local cloud cover may obscure it, tonight is the second full moon to occur this month -which makes it a so-called 'blue moon' .
And, because this is also happening on New Year's Eve, it is even more rare, with some cultures considering it a particularly auspicious event.

I am personally glad to see 2010 arrive because 2009 was mostly a time of discomfort, inactivity and stress for me.
Fortunately, I have now received a clean bill of health and am steadily regaining strength and a degree of normality in my life.

The year 2010 is considered another Chinese Year of the Tiger. [my 7th since I was born in 1938]
And, since I'm also a Sagittarius, the combination of these two zodiac signs may explain a few of my traits and preferences.
Horoscope aficionados might have fun analyzing that.

Also, this is the time of year for good football games, both college Bowls and professional play-offs.
[I wonder if you can get a mild concussion from just watching too much football?]

For the most part, the New Year means a time of renewal and reflection, a time to reset our priorities and outlooks.
Those things are clearly beneficial and do not constitute a real interruption to the continuity of life.

So, let's welcome this special time of year and use it to conceive of ways to improve our collective human condition in 2010.
Wishing all a Happy & Prosperous New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

County Council: Appointment or Disappointment?

As predicted by Dec 15th's Gristle column in the Weekly;
In any event, Pete—who has spent the last year cannily splitting the differences and then mending them on a variety of issues in front of County Council—will undoubtedly appoint someone who best benefits the aims of his administration.

Also, my own blog of December 12 supplied my logic and preferences to this process.

Herald articles from yesterday sum up what actually happened plus a few reactions

Turns out Pete picked Ward Nelson, an existing Council member who was to retire at the end of this month.
He did not pick Dan McShane, a previous Council member who ran for election this year for the other District 1 seat, but was narrowly defeated.
I believe - like others - that deferring this appointment to Pete allowed him to demonstrate his true political preference, and restructure the Council in a way that does not challenge his well-known 'do-nothing' agenda.

Not that Nelson is a poor choice, but his political leanings and history do NOT align very well with his predecessor, Bob Kelly, a progressive who resigned last month.

Also, Pete essentially ignored the fact that Nelson recused himself and therefore did not receive 3 votes of support from the current Council members. Instead, he simply substituted his own choice -as the Council in its dysfunction allowed him.

I am not surprised by Pete's action, since I have observed his management style and preferences fairy closely over the last 10 years.
He does not like to be challenged by either Council members or the Council itself, which has happened during the last year or so.
Just witness Pete's unusual step of endorsing Carl Weimer's opponent - and indeed the entire 'conservative' slate - during the last election.
Think that wasn't out of resentment for being out-maneuvered on the Flood Tax issue and a few other things?

But, Pete's recent veto of the budget changes recommended by the Council seemed to be the real tip-off as what he was up to.
[Only Nelson and Brenner opposed the Council's recommendations.]

With one conservative [Nelson] leaving the Council and two [Knutzen & Kershner] being elected, means a net gain of one.
And with three progressives [Kelly, Caskey-Schreiber, Fleetwood] leaving the Council and one [Mann] being elected, means a net loss of two - depending upon Pete's choice of appointment.

So, inside of one month, the political balance of the Council has shifted from a 4-3 majority favoring Progressives, to a 5-2 super majority favoring Conservatives -partly thanks to Pete's choice of Nelson.

Pete surely has to be more comfortable with the new political 'balance', don't you think?
He ought to be, because he now has tighter control over what that mischievous Council might do.

And, actually DOING something isn't anywhere near the top of Pete's agenda. At least that's been my observation.
After all, DOING something might further polarize this County!
"it is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing." - Thomas Jefferson 1787

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Hallelujah, Halleluyah and Alleluia!

The Senate's early Christmas Eve vote on healthcare reform was another step in this slow, but necessary and overdue process.
Although some folks disagree, I welcome this as tangible progress addressing an long-standing issue of great importance to millions of Americans, and therefore clearly a reason to rejoice.

But, more hurdles must be overcome before any of the anticipated benefits are manifested.
The Senate and House bills must be reconciled and the all-important final approving votes cast, before the measure can be sent to the President for his signature.
Then, the real work begins of explaining and implementing the changes over time.

Will this measure address all the identified problems to every one's satisfaction?
Of course not, but it is the best that could be agreed upon for now.

As likely improvements are proposed and defects are discovered, these will provide valuable impetus for further refinements.
Often, initial progress on an issue is the hardest part, and the difficulty witnessed during this year's debate certainly fits that profile.
But, like it or not, adversarial debate is the primary method by which this country changes its policies and regulations.

And, despite all the vitriol, posturing rhetoric and costly lobbying, a majority -actually a super majority- of our elected Congressional representatives have supported the respective House and Senate bills now awaiting melding into a single bill that both bodies can approve.

The process has been anything but pretty to watch, fueled by unusually nasty partisan politics, ideological arguments and outrageous claims and speculation.
But, this issue is one that our President prioritized during the past election, so its debate should been no surprise.
What was a surprise -at least to me- was the partisan ferocity exhibited by those calling themselves 'conservatives', who seized upon this issue as a way to stir up public anger and frustration to help sway voters during next year's elections.

That kind of mindset and motivation has become all too prevalent lately.
While elected members of Congress do represent different constituencies, they also share the responsibility for representing all Americans and what is in the best interest of our Country as a whole.

To achieve that goal, some degree of true bipartisanship is necessary to forge workable compromises.
I find it very hard to accept that there were NO Republican Senators willing to demonstrate the caring and courage to vote their conscience instead of political party line!

The three main elements of any healthcare reform are ACCESS, COSTS and QUALITY, with their priorities in the same order.

Who really believes its not important to make some level of healthcare access to over 30 million citizens who don't have it?
Whose interests are served by continuing to ignore this situation and deny no reform is necessary?

And, who doubts that healthcare cost effectiveness can be dramatically improved by more competition, less paper shuffling and less reliance on for-profit healthcare providers?
You know, government run healthcare in this Country is pretty well administered; just think of MediCare and the Veterans Administration.

I have had MediCare as my primary health insurance for the last 2 years and find it remarkably good and easy to use, despite my earlier, uninformed doubts.

As far as healthcare quality is concerned, that is generally considered pretty good.
But, as healthcare expands to cover millions of new people, more doctors, nurses and technicians will certainly need to be trained and qualified.
Perhaps equally important is the emphasis on healthy diets and habits and wellness programs which can help prevent many illnesses and disabilities before they become major health problems.

While there will remain healthcare gaps, inequalities, financing difficulties and new methods of providing timely care, I believe the first step now being taken, is a step in the right direction.
And, it is something for which most Americans can rejoice during this Christmas season!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

US Healthcare: Big Tent or Big Top?

Doesn't it seem like the more things change, the more they stay the same?
Over 2 months ago it seemed like the national healthcare reform debate in Congress was nearing a conclusion, but here we are 2 days before Christmas and the Senate still has not voted on this issue.
Of course, the Senate bill now under discussion bears but limited resemblance to the collection of proposals that existed 10 weeks ago.

One constant is the vehement delaying tactics being employed by the 'Party of 'No', which is embarked on a scorched earth policy designed to obstruct, delay, water down and hopefully kill any measure that comes to vote.
And, if that doesn't work, expect more misinformation/scare campaigns backed by big money, phony 'Tea Parties' and election tactics to match.

For one party to opt for non-participation, then claim not having their views heard and considered is ludicrous!
Last time I witnessed such behavior probably dates back to elementary school, maybe kindergarten.
That our Congress has come to this type of spiteful dysfunction is a real pity, but the seeds of this type of conduct have been evident for a while.

Just look at how the current administration contrasts with the previous one.
The 'W' White House years in office never advocated anything approaching a 'big tent' philosophy.
Quite the contrary, W pursued his own agenda and R ideological dogmas from the very beginning.
And the D's gave him the benefit of the doubt, much to their later chagrin.

It was only after 6 years of W's damage had been done that the D's regained a majority in Congress.
And, two years after that when Obama was elected with an ambitious agenda and an inclusive, 'big tent' approach to governing.
That is an admirable goal, but also inherently difficult to achieve.
The R's have exploited this by essentially boycotting it and substituting a militant form of obstructionism, in hopes of political gain.

The public's prolonged exposure to the congressional 'sausage-making' around healthcare reform has managed to tarnish its original beneficial objectives.
Instead, what could have been an enlightened national discussion about a very important issue has been deliberately turned into a protracted ugly squabble, with an outcome not likely to not satisfy anyone.
We may be on the verge of seeing this debate turn into a debacle, which would be most regrettable - especially after 60-plus unproductive years of failure to significantly improve healthcare in the country.

Unfortunately, the 'big tent' envisioned is instead being used as a 'big top' to house a circus with several unfunny clowns competing to be the Ringmaster!
Maybe it has always been this way, but this time it's just more visible.
Democracy isn't always pretty to watch, but militant, mean-spirited obstructionism is really ugly, and demeans the public as well as the spirit of our Constitution.
I hope the art of compromise with civility can be restored, but that kind of reform might be even more difficult, unless, we -the public- demand it with our voices and votes!

Winston Churchill once said he admired the Americans because they always get things right... after they have tried everything else!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Affordable Housing Toolkit: Inclusionary Zoning

Rarely has there been a topic that engenders more instant heat than zoning proposals.
And, whenever the word 'inclusionary' is included that heat is turned up to high.

It seems the development community, including land owners/speculators, builders and the real estate industry see inclusionary zoning as a threat to their very existence; a slippery slope to be avoided at all costs - despite the clear potential for generating some very tangible and beneficial results.

Actually, these folks are simply protecting the status quo, which they know and want to keep - and in the process, their profit margins.
That's OK, but it does externalize the often heard problem of housing affordability to 'others', including financially strapped local governments.

Here, I must make clear the definition of 'affordable housing' that I'm talking about; it is the HUD definition used by the US Government that is based upon actual household income, compared to local averages.

While there are some private developments that are built specifically for lower income households, our local Housing Authority, the city's Community Development Department and other non-profit organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Kulshan Community Land Trust [KCLT] provide for most of this housing, whether for rental or purchase, rehabilitated or new.

But these organizations chronically fall short of meeting affordable housing needs.
The Housing Authority generally has a waiting list of 2 years or more.
Community Development Block Grant [CDBG] funds from the US Government are inadequate and have steadily fallen most of this decade despite growing needs.
A few years ago, Habitat for Humanity reported the lack of building sites as its greatest single need.
Kulshan has been very successful in both raising grant monies and promoting the creation of opportunities for permanently affordable housing in our area, but the need far outstrips its ability to provide this type of critical housing.

Both Habitat and Kulshan have found their homeowners to be excellent citizens who truly appreciate the housing provided, which is largely scattered in neighborhoods throughout the city.

What inclusionary zoning [IZ] can provide is a more steady supply of building sites for affordable housing, concurrent with new development.
The State of Washington legally allows IZ as long as certain guidelines are followed, but it is up to individual municipalities to take advantage of this provision.

Two articles by Jared Paben appeared in the Bellingham Herald recently on this subject which illustrate some history and pro and con arguments.
The first dealt with a City Council proposal and related information at this URL.

The second listed a synopsis of a study on possible IZ impacts at this URL.

A few years ago the City Council considered inclusionary zoning as a fair and reasonable way to provide more building sites for affordable housing.
That effort morphed into a countywide task force which took about 18 months to conclude it couldn't agree on recommending IZ.
Instead, the task force ended up essentially reviving an old study done in 1991.

I think Bellingham should adopt a reasonable IZ policy on its own.
Here is a summary of my rationale:

• Up-zoning creates an instant windfall for landowners, sometimes increasing value by 10, 20 or 50 times.
Transfer of Development Rights [TDR] -based Zoning was proposed over 35 years ago as a means for sharing windfalls with municipalities to help pay for public improvements.
Unfortunately, this concept never caught on widely, but remains a useful potential tool.

• If the cost of growth is to be fairly shared by development, system development charges, impact fees and inclusionary zoning are mechanisms to help achieve this result.
Otherwise, the municipality, taxpayers and rate-payers end up over subsidizing new development.

• As onerous as permitting fees, sdc's and impact fees seem to be, they are preferable to having none, for the reason above.

• City policy is to create livable neighborhoods with ready access to schools, jobs, parks and transportation, not exclusive gated developments. IZ can help do this.

• Since the cost of a lot may cost up to one third [1/3] of home costs, setting aside lots for affordable housing can dramatically lower their cost.

• Setting aside 10% of lots in a multi-dwelling unit development is a reasonable policy that can greatly help insure affordability by effectively leveraging scarce public funding and charitable gifts.

• In lieu of land dedication, payment of a reasonable monetary amount could be allowed.

• Inclusionary Zoning should not be considered a panacea, but another tool in the city's toolkit to benefit the entire community.

• Inclusionary Zoning probably fits urban areas better than rural areas or small towns, so it is no surprise that the countywide CHAT Task Force failed to agree in recommending it.
That should not prevent the City from adopt this idea on its own.

• Scare tactics and misinformation loudly proclaimed by elements of the development community should be taken with a grain of salt.
There is no reason why a well-considered Inclusionary Zoning policy can not work for the greater good of Bellingham.
But, voluntary compliance doesn't work very well, which is why a fair, mandatory regulation is necessary.

There are likely other thoughts that could be added to this list, but this will suffice for now.

I'm glad the City Council has renewed its interest in this subject, but it will still take perseverance and courage to get a reasonable ordinance ready for public comment and eventual approval.
That is often the way it is with controversial issues.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

County Council: Who Would You Appoint?

A recent Herald blog reflected a brief interview with County Executive Pete Kremen about whom he might appoint to take Bob Kelly's place as interim Council Member for next year.

I suspect Pete already has an idea of who will be on his 'short' list, but may take his time to let the excitement simmer at reduced heat, plus further evaluate the political tea leaves.
There are several clues that may have bearing on what is now Pete's decision:

• Whoever is selected must have been nominated by the Council, per the list of 25 names shown below.

• Preference would likely be given to those applicants who attracted 3 Council votes. [no one got 4]
By my reckoning, 11 applicants received 3 votes - 8 'liberal-leaning' and 3 'conservative leaning'.
This would eliminate 14 applicants.

• Since Kelly was elected 2 years ago and considered 'liberal-leaning', maintaining the Council's voted political balance would mean appointing an applicant with similar views.
This would eliminate 3 additional applicants.

• Since this appointment is only for one year -until another 1-year election next November - there is little time for an appointee without prior experience as a Council member to adequately come up to speed on his/her responsibilities as well as the important issues under consideration.
Accepting this logic would eliminate 7 more applicants, leaving Dan McShane as the clear favorite.
Only McShane and Ward Nelson fit this criteria, but Nelson also did not get 3 votes since he abstained from voting for himself.
Also, I can't think of a better appointee than McShane if Pete wants the DNR Reconveyance of forest lands around the Lake Whatcom Reservoir to succeed. [unless he doesn't want to share the credit]

• The notion of barring whoever is appointed from running for reelection is not a good idea, and likely could not be enforced anyway. Not long ago, the City Council experienced a similar situation with the untimely death of Joan Beardsley. In that case the City Council was able to gather the 4 votes necessary to appoint a 1-year replacement, Don Gischer, a former Council member. Gischer ran for reelection the next year for a second 1-year term, but was unsuccessful as Stan Snapp was elected.
The following year Snapp ran for reelection to a full 4-year term and was unopposed.

Late in 2006 the City Council also had to appoint an interim mayor when Mark Asmundson resigned unexpectedly. At that time, some Council members did think it important NOT to give any new candidate the appointment because that might tend to create the advantage of incumbency later, considered an 'unfair' advantage over any challengers. We were fortunate that former Mayor, Tim Douglas, garnered the 4 Council votes required for the appointment. Also, he was not keen to run for reelection.
I believe that the position of Mayor was considered more demanding and has much more responsibility than the position of a single Council member.

I must say that I find it ironic that Barbara Brenner, the current longest serving County Council incumbent, should be the one so concerned about an appointee being allowed to run for reelection.
When I was appointed to the City Council over 10 years ago, I thought it important to convince that Council that I would take the job vary seriously and and at least be prepared to run for election the following year.
That did seem to work out OK, but I do understand the kind of disappointment and jealousy that politics can engender.

So, how about it Pete?
After all, McShane did run for office even though he lost narrowly to a newcomer.
And, he does know the County issues well, plus he closely reflects the voted political balance that has prevailed this year and last.
Please don't make this decision based on anything other than simple common sense.
And, make it sooner rather than later.
The citizens of Whatcom County deserve to know they will be well represented, at least until another election can occur next year.

My tabulation of nominees:

* Beattie 3-3 L
* Dupre 3-3 L
Franklin 2-4 C
Gorman 0-6 L?
* Grah 3-3 L
* Hansey 3-3 C
Helm 2-4 C
* Hunter 3-3 L
Jacoby 0-6 ?
* Keys-Halterman 3-3 C
Kole 0-6 ?
* Lysne 3-3 C
* Melious 3-3 L
McRoberts 1-4-1 C?
* McShane 3-3 L
Nelson 2-3-1 C
Pros 0-6 L?
Quinlivan 2-4 C
* Schissler 3-3 L
Smith 2-4 C
Starcher 0-6 L?
* Starr-Culverwell 3-3 L
Sygitowicz 2-4 C
Thorndike 1-5 C
Ungern 2-4 C

* Applicants receiving 3 Council votes
L or C denotes my perception of political leaning

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Endurance & Politics

Since mid-October [when my last blog was published] I've learned more about endurance than I thought possible.
Now that my chemo treatment has finally been concluded, I have been declared free of cancer and am now on the mend.
While it's good to again have the energy and interest to formulate and share thoughts and perspectives, likely I will become more selective about subject matter.
Anyway, to those who care, I'm back and slowly getting stronger.
And, thanks for your support!

Monday's Herald contained this article:

Last night's County Council meeting produced 2 more applicants, for a total of 25!
That's truly remarkable, considering the appointment is only for one year -actually less.
What is illustrated by this unusual show of interest?

Here's what I think:

• The Council has had a progressive slant for the past 2 years, with 4 of seven members generally sharing similar views.
Now, with 'progressive' Bob Kelly resigning, the balance of power is at stake.

• Several hot issues are pending resolution, not the least of which can be broadly categorized as property rights related.
Zoning and growth management issues always seem contentious, but also lately the 'TEA Party' organizers have succeeded in stirring up political interest, particularly outside of Bellingham, which accounts for about 40% of the County population.
That we are now in the midst of an economic downturn just adds to latent discontent.

This morning's Herald blog published this report, along with the actual voting on each candidate:

That last night's Council meeting produced no majority agreement on any candidate is not so surprising given the level of dysfunction that exists among the 6 Council members who could have made this decision.
That, despite 2 of the candidates included both a current and a recent Council member, neither of which could garner 4 votes!
For a 'non-partisan' elected office, it is regrettable that the Council's non-action leaves this appointment to the County Executive, who says he will wait until the end of the month [year] before deciding.

Talk about endurance! There aren't that many candidates who would willingly endure this type of dysfunction for even one year!
No wonder Kelly decided to leave early, but what does that say about his ability to endure?
He did run for a 4-year term and many people helped him get elected.
Somehow, it doesn't sit right for him to summarily resign after less than 2 years on the job.

In 2006, I seriously considered resigning from the City Council after 3 years of my 4-year term, but decided against it when Mayor Mark beat me to it. So, I know the temptation can be strong, but in the end -barring unusual circumstances- the voting public expects its elected representatives to understand and honor their commitments.
Often that requires a good measure of endurance.

But, there is another kind of endurance that isn't so desirable.
That is the habit of some elected officials to use their incumbency primarily as a vehicle for their own repeated re-election.
You don't have to be a close observer of local politics to know who some of these folks are either.
They are the ones who have a penchant for grandstanding, tooting their own horn and generally avoiding taking courageous stands on important issues.

If you don't believe in the power of incumbency, try to explain why 25 applicants show up for an appointment, while we are lucky to get 2 candidates per office for an election!
The only ways I know to lessen the power of incumbency are term limits, or simply getting more qualified candidates to run for office.
Until one or both of these things happen, we will be forced to endure the dysfunctions of the status quo.