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Two candidates face off for Bellingham City Council at-large seat

Jace Cotton, Russ Whidbee dream of brighter future for affordable housing

The ballot dropbox in front of Western Washington University’s Wade King Student Recreation Center. Ballots are accepted at any of Western’s three drop box locations until 8 p.m. on election day. // Photo by Samuel Bardsley

The Bellingham City Council is understaffed and reluctant to change, said the council’s soon-to-be former at-large representative, Kristina Michele Martens. Between candidates Russ Whidbee and Jace Cotton, Martens said Cotton was most likely to fix these issues. 

“The reality is, at least for the Bellingham City Council, we're really just there to rubber stamp things that come across the desk,” Martens said. 

One of the issues Martens highlighted was the lack of policy analysts on the city council. Without the help of a policy analyst, council members’ research and proposals fail to meet city staff expectations and the work never gets implemented, Martens said. 

According to a job description for the position of legislative policy analyst for the Bellingham City Council, a policy analyst’s work includes coordinating research on key policy areas assigned by the city council. They provide independent judgment in analyzing complex issues and situations and develop recommendations. 

“It all has to go through our policy analyst,” Martens said. “Over at the [Whatcom County Council] they have seven – we have one.”  

If elected to the at-large position, Cotton said he would support adding a policy analyst for each council member and Whidbee said he had placed additional administrative support on his “wish list.”

These additions would allow the city council to be “oriented towards what is possible and not just protecting the city from potential liability, which is inherently a perspective that leads to a bias towards prematurely saying no,” Cotton said.

Cotton said he will bring a sense of urgency that will help policy work move faster. Cotton is the campaigns director at Community First Whatcom, an organization that promotes initiatives, letting voters place proposed legislation directly on the ballot rather than running it through city council. Cotton is pushing Initiatives 1 and 2, which establish a city minimum wage one dollar above the state minimum wage and require rental relocation assistance for tenants, respectively. 

Whidbee said it would be challenging for the city if the initiatives do pass because there was not enough collaboration between Community First Whatcom and Bellingham’s legal team. 

What Community First Whatcom could have done differently, he said, was to find a city council member to bring forward their ideas as legislation so they could be better vetted from a risk management standpoint. 

“I'm still battling with this, to be honest. I understand the intent. I hear you, Bellingham, that's what I'm saying. I hear you, students,” Whidbee said.

Cotton felt that Whidbee’s lack of support for the initiatives made it clear to him that the city council needed at least one renter. If elected, Cotton would be the only renter on the city council.

“When we delay, we lose. As we address, especially the housing crisis, we can't allow perfect to be the enemy of good,” Cotton said.

Through his campaign website, Whidbee labeled himself as a skilled financial planner who is greatly concerned with affordable housing issues. Whidbee shared his hope for Western to begin building student housing over the parking lots on the south side of campus and the Lincoln Street parking lot to provide more affordable housing for students while pulling them out of Bellingham’s neighborhoods. 

Martens didn’t believe the plan was realistic. She said she couldn’t see any staff at Western sticking around long enough to oversee the project because it might take three to five years to put together and longer to execute. 

“It's not really about having a solid idea, because people can have really great ideas and be really good," Martens said. "It is about having a trusted relationship for people to buy in on the idea.” 

Whidbee had a working relationship with former Western President Bruce Shepard for many years and plans to visit current President Sabah Randhawa to discuss how Western can help Bellingham’s houselessness situation by building more on-campus housing.

“You know when you're coming to collaborate, you never come with a hammer. You come with the feather, dust it off a bit. The hammer, maybe for later, but you come with open arms to look, listen and learn,” Whidbee said.

Kira Davis from Western Votes, a nonpartisan program that works to get students interested in civic engagement, is encouraging students to vote in this election and is proud of Western’s high number of students who are already registered to vote. In 2018-19, upwards of 60% to 70% of the student population registered to vote, she said.

“There's stuff on the ballot this November that will really directly affect student life and I think we deserve to have our voices heard in that,” Davis said.

Ballots for the election are due Nov. 7 at 8 p.m. A map of ballot drop box locations can be found here.

Hayden Knoedler

Hayden Knoedler (he/him) is a city news reporter for The Front this quarter. He is a third-year student at Western working to complete a minor in News/Editorial journalism to accommodate his Creative Writing major. In his free time, he enjoys taking photos and playing video games. You can reach him at 

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