Issues of growth, the environment and criminal justice are shaping local elections in Whatcom County.
Voters in Western Washington’s northern-most communities are choosing candidates for four seats on the County Council, which has a new five-district system. The outcome could shape the future of fossil fuels and their role in the local economy.
Keeping Whatcom County’s economy healthy is at the heart of the council races. One big issue is where new jobs will come from to support population growth. In some circles, there's a perception the current council’s progressive majority is limiting growth, especially in one key place.
“Cherry Point certainly is sort of the key – the touchstone I think – in a lot of this,” said Mark Stephan, a political science professor at Washington State University in Vancouver.
Cherry Point is the waterfront industrial zone north of Bellingham home to two oil refineries and the source of lots of family wage jobs.
The Whatcom County Council recently extended a six-month moratorium on new shipments of unrefined fossil fuels from Cherry Point for a third time. Council members say they are exploring what kind of restrictions they can put in place without shutting down the refineries.
“It’s thinking about Cherry Point both in terms of the economic potential that it brings and also the environmental degradation it could also bring, or will bring, depending on the perspective that you have,” Stephan said.
The debate comes on the heels of decisions in 2016 that stopped construction of a major new coal export terminal. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied permits, saying construction would have violated treaty fishing rights of the Lummi Nation.
Stephan says with a re-drawn political map, Whatcom voters could see the start of a swing back toward the right in local politics.
“I think there’s a distinct possibility that the re-districting itself could begin a shift, a more consistent shift in a conservative direction for the County Council. Maybe a more balanced split between the different council members, which changes the very nature of the kind of conversations that occur around Cherry Point and any other major issue for the county,” he said.
Other issues include a proposed new $100 million jail and the future of water rights in this rapidly growing corner of the state.
Whatcom County is the source of the controversial state Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision.
The decision has led counties all over the state to restrict development on rural land where owners rely on domestic wells. Some in Whatcom County have blamed council members and vowed to vote them out of office.
Ballots are due by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 7.