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Mayoral candidates talk homelessness, housing, new jail at forum

Candidates overwhelmingly support home construction, green energy

An inmate pulls a trolley of items as a guard sits watching from a reception desk.
During a July 11 meeting, Whatcom County Council voted to place a measure for a new jail on the ballot, and mayoral candidates concurrently offered opinions on jail construction during a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Julia Lerner Staff Reporter

With five Bellingham residents vying for the mayor’s seat in the August primary election, each candidate sought to stand out from the crowded field during a League of Women Voters of Bellingham-Whatcom County forum Tuesday, July 11. 

Candidates — incumbent Seth Fleetwood, Kombucha Town founder Chris McCoy, former executive director of the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation Kim Lund, Bellingham City Council member Kristina Michele Martens and former Port of Bellingham commissioner Mike McAuley — had the chance to speak about solutions to some of the key issues facing Bellingham voters, including rising rates of homelessness, protections for renters, development at the waterfront, construction of a controversial new jail and moving away from fossil fuels. 

Of the nine questions candidates answered, three were directly related to housing and homelessness, while two addressed growth management and planning for the future. 

Universally, candidates agree the mayor will have to address protections for renters and ongoing challenges with the rental inspection program, and will have to do more to respond to the rising homelessness crisis. And across the board, candidates said the city needs to increase affordable housing options, add new tiny homes, incentivize workforce housing development and plan for multi-family zoning. 

Throughout the forum, Fleetwood touted his support for housing initiatives and work his administration has done to combat homelessness, like supporting the creation of tiny home villages. Even so, he acknowledged some of the obstacles in combating “our community’s most vexing challenges,” including the high cost of living and home construction. 

During a separate meeting Tuesday night, Whatcom County Council voted to place a measure for a new jail on the November ballot, and mayoral candidates concurrently offered opinions on jail construction.

“I do not support the new jail as has been proposed,” McAuley said. “I don’t think we need a new jail. I think we need all the services that go along with [a new jail].” 

Martens voiced similar concerns and said rehabilitating the current jail should take priority.

“It seems like the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department let it really fall into this disrepair, and are now asking for a brand-new building when we don’t have any reassurance that we won’t be in this exact situation 30 years later,” Martens said.

Other candidates, though, offered support for the jail proposal and the tax. 

Fleetwood, who sat on the stakeholder advisory committee for the jail proposal, called existing facilities “inhumane,” and said some of the tax funds each year will be dedicated to behavioral health services in Bellingham city limits. 

Lund called the jail facility “an opportunity to think critically about what justice looks like,” and said she supports a new jail facility as the existing facilities are “a huge potential liability.” 

McCoy, a local business owner, said he believes the community needs a new jail, but isn’t sure the current proposal is the right proposal for Bellingham. 

“I don’t believe it needs to be something that is necessarily as broad as it is currently scoped to be,” he said. Even so, he added, “If the public should choose that … I’m going to make the best of it and make sure it’s a lasting investment for everybody and community health.” 

Looking forward, the candidates are planning to increase access to public transit and reduce the city’s fossil fuel footprint while redeveloping an economic center downtown. 

Ballots for the Aug. 1 primary will be mailed to voters Wednesday morning. In the meantime, the League of Women Voters will host a separate forum for county executive candidates at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 12. 

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