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4 aim for Fleetwood’s seat as Bellingham mayor

Incumbent shrugs off his critics

By Ralph Schwartz Staff Reporter

Candidates challenging Seth Fleetwood in the Bellingham mayoral race this year all say pretty much the same thing:

Bellingham is stuck.

“People are avoiding problem-solving,” said Kombucha Town founder Chris McCoy, 37, one of five candidates for mayor. “That speaks to a lot of what’s going on downtown, a lot of what’s going on in our city in general right now.”

McCoy is running on a platform that boils down to homes, living wages and natural beauty for all — goals the candidate would admit are easier to put on a campaign webpage than they are to execute.

For Kim Lund, who until recently was executive director of the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation, signs of disaffection with the current administration can be heard and seen from backyard conversations to online forums such as Nextdoor and Reddit.

“It has to do with the story of Bellingham that’s being told right now,” said Lund, 49. “It doesn’t reflect a community that feels connection with what’s happening in city hall right now and the mayor’s office.” 

“I’d like to be a mayor that takes action to help us write a new story,” Lund said.

Bellingham certainly has changed in the three and a half years Fleetwood has been the city’s mayor, and few would say that change has been for the better. Crime is up, and police staffing is down. Frustrated business owners say a rise in homelessness, and the public use of the deadly drug fentanyl are keeping customers away. A recent Downtown Bellingham Partnership survey indicated that dozens of businesses may soon leave the downtown.

“These growing numbers show the gap between what we’re able to do and where we need to be, in terms of service and affordable units,” said Kristina Michele Martens, a city council member who is also running for mayor. 

Home prices and rents are outpacing incomes in Bellingham, putting pressure on family budgets and contributing to the spike in homelessness.

“Everyone (in local government) is like, ‘We just have no idea what to do,’ and that is stopping anyone from taking any step forward,” she added.

Martens initially intended to run for a second two-year term on the city council, but she decided in April to give up her council seat and run for mayor instead.

“My decision to run for mayor surprised me as much as it did the rest of the community,” she said.

Martens, 38, said she has been frustrated as a council member, seeking both protections for renters and a safe parking area for homeless people who live in cars and recreational vehicles.

Solving these problems is not high enough on the current administration’s priority list, Martens said.

“What we see in city hall, and what comes out of it, is a direct byproduct of the tempo that’s set at the top of the pyramid,” she said. “If you are a person who does not suffer from any of the issues that are plaguing so many of our community members … it does not contribute to a sense of urgency.”

Like Martens, candidate Mike McAuley, a former Port of Bellingham commissioner, wants to set up a safe parking area for homeless people who live in vehicles. One potential site is the former movie theater on Fielding Avenue, south of Sehome Village, he said. The property is owned by a holding company with a Lynden address.

“We need to push hard on these folks,” McAuley said. “If you’ve got long-term visions for these properties, great. But in the meantime, we have an emergency and we’re going to use your property.”

McAuley, 52, and McCoy both support the expansion of the HomesNOW! tiny home village program, which provides small shelters for people who are transitioning out of homelessness. 

McAuley proposes using city-owned land for the sites, including an existing community garden space downtown. McCoy has the ambitious goal of opening 10 more tiny home sites in his first 18 months as mayor.

“That takes a lot of working with neighborhoods to make sure they feel comfortable, and [they know] it’s safe, because these sites are actually really nice,” McCoy said.

Outside of her work with the schools foundation, much of Lund’s focus in the nonprofit sector has been on the environment, with Community wise Bellingham and the Whatcom Million Trees Project. 

Outside of her work with the schools foundation, much of Lund’s focus in the nonprofit sector has been on the environment, with Community wise Bellingham and the Whatcom Million Trees Project. 

Lund said she might reintroduce the stalled climate fund if elected. Last year, Fleetwood was pushing the city council to place the fund on the November 2022 ballot but changed his mind.

“I would consider reintroducing that,” Lund said, “but we have to think really carefully about what that [will be]. I feel like we’ve depleted our community’s empathy bank right now.”

Lund said voters tend to deflect conversations about the environment by asking something like, “Why are there RVs on Cornwall?”

Fleetwood, 60, said he pulled the plug on the climate fund due to a lack of support for a tax to pay for carbon-reducing and climate resiliency programs. He also said proponents of the Healthy Children’s Fund asked him not to seek a ballot measure because it would have competed with their property tax for child care and other services for families with young children. The Children’s Initiative passed last fall by only 20 votes.

Fleetwood shrugged off his critics, saying they “don’t know squat” about some of the work he has done behind the scenes to support people experiencing homelessness. He suggested that many people don’t know that he proposed what he thought was a solid solution to the tent-camp protest outside city hall during the first COVID-19 winter: a new tiny home village that could accommodate many of the campers. Protesters rejected the proposal, the mayor said.

Some critics perceive Fleetwood as more responsive to the needs of downtown businesses than to the plight of people experiencing homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction on the city streets. He is quick to tout his $1 million annual investment in 24-hour downtown security, for example. Even so, he says it’s unfair for critics to claim he caters unduly to businesses.

He pointed out that the current two-year city budget invests $30 million in housing for low-income and homeless people, and the existing tiny home villages are successfully transitioning people out of homelessness.

More significant and visible improvements to the city’s behavioral health crisis will take time, the mayor said.

“Is that a component that we can see immediate results with?” Fleetwood said. “No, but we’re actively working on it, and we’re going to see demonstrable progress.”

Ballots will be mailed Wednesday, July 12 for the Tuesday, Aug. 1 primary election. Washington residents may register to vote online or by mail until July 24 for the primary election. Voter registration is available in person until 8 p.m. Aug. 1 The general election is Nov. 7.

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