Bidding for the top job are Burke, Boyle, Sidhu and Larson

BELLINGHAM — Two of the three candidates vying for the Whatcom County Council District 5 seat were present at a Saturday candidates forum put on by the League of Women Voters. Jaime Arnett and Natalie McLendon, with Ben Elenbaas not in attendance, answered questions about mental health resources, combating climate change, affordable housing and other county issues. 

District 5 is known as the Coastal one, including Blaine, Birch Bay, Lummi Island, Custer, Point Roberts and Ferndale in an area west of Interstate 5 outside of Bellingham. The district currently does not have a representative, amid redrawing of lines. Council members’ annual salary is $35,802. 

Arnett, a Blaine City Council member who grew up around commercial fishing, highlighted a need for more mental health resources in the county. She spoke to her own experience of losing a loved one to mental illness last year, and how the person’s family had struggled to find an available bed for him.

“I believe we can do better,” she said. 

Arnett proposes a potential 1% property tax as a way to raise funds, saying the current 0.1% sales tax designated for mental health resources actually ends up going toward jail services in general.

Asked about the current Whatcom County Jail, McLendon, former chair of Whatcom County Democrats, said she favors getting rid of the current jail and building a smaller one in downtown Bellingham. Arnett said triage services should be added to the jail, as well as diversion programs. 

“We need an easy solution,” Arnett said. “Stop putting so many people in [jail].” 

Both candidates called for more county action on climate change, expressing support for declaring a climate emergency in the county. Both also spoke to measures for reducing pollution in Lake Whatcom and preserving water in general. Arnett values a water banking system, especially in agricultural areas, while McClendon sees a need for cities and the county to collaborate in tackling water conservation and usage in the Nooksack River basin.

“This is one of the most difficult issues we have, as it deals with time and geography. What we need to do is rationalize our water rights system,” McClendon said. “I believe we have enough water in the Nooksack basin to serve all our needs.”

Also present for their own forum slot were all four candidates running for Whatcom County Executive. Karen Burke, Jim Boyle, Satpal Sidhu and Tony Larson were asked about topics from jobs at Cherry Point and the Whatcom County Jail to broadband access across the county. The annual salary for the position amounts to around $185,000.

Burke is the executive director of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services in Whatcom County and has also helped develop diversion and justice programs as director of Lummi Nation Tribal Court. She said her priorities are affordable housing, climate change and homelessness. 

During the forum, she focused her answers on the need for equity in resources such as broadband access, focusing on keeping low-risk offenders out of jail, and better protections for immigrants and refugees who come to the county.

“We have people in our community who are vulnerable, and I think we all want to protect those individuals. I know through my work at [DVSAS], we’ve certainly seen individuals who are extra vulnerable to violent crimes and afraid to call law enforcement, and I think in our community we want to come together and make sure everyone is safe,” Burke said.

Sidhu, a current County Council member, emphasized his commitment to a reduced carbon footprint in the county and including tribal stakeholders in environmental policy decisions, such as managing the watershed. He also called for an audit to determine the county’s environmental impact and for a major tree planting project over the next five years.

“The climate emergency is obvious. ... If I am so lucky to be in that position, I will order a complete audit of county operations so we have a baseline of our carbon footprint and how we can improve that,” Sidhu said.

Sidhu grew up in India before moving to Whatcom County, and in his time on County Council, has been part of the Natural Resources Committee as well as chair of Finance & Administrative Services. He has worked for years as an engineer, small business owner and senior business executive, according to his campaign website.

Candidate Boyle has worked for years with a number of local and national agencies on conservation and salmon recovery efforts, currently serving in charge of philanthropy at the Organization for Tropical Studies. He said he is the only candidate endorsed by upwards of 10 labor unions.

Boyle highlighted the importance of unity and leadership, and how they both positively impact Whatcom County. He would like to attract new businesses to Cherry Point, keep fishing rigs out of the Salish Sea and move the Whatcom County Jail into downtown Bellingham and have it focus be more on recovery than incarceration.

“For the last 20 years I have worked nationally, internationally and locally at organizations going through a time of transition to help bring stakeholders together and move toward a common solution. That’s what is needed in Whatcom County,” Boyle said.

Larson is the president of the Whatcom Business Alliance and a former Whatcom County Council member who has owned multiple businesses. He emphasized the management responsibility of the executive position and his commitment to tackling the challenges of a growing population in the county. 

When asked about action surrounding the Whatcom County Jail, Larson said there has been “significant distrust” in past years and that more political pressure needs to be involved to improve the jail, calling it inhumane and unsafe.

Larson said that despite political differences, the county needs to come together for changes to happen. 

“We need to get rid of political toxicity,” Larson said. “The only way we’re going to be able to solve these is to come together and we need to focus on ideas, not politics.”