Cooperative Action Dashed by Competitive Politics

Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch has been reprinting articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article is from the January 2000 issue, more than 20 years ago. We are reprinting two articles because the managing editor and staff feel they are pertinent to the article on the Lake Whatcom Watershed Advisory Board that appeared in last month’s issue of Whatcom Watch. Both articles discuss unwitten rules in the initiative process that allowed city interference. At the May 1, 2006 City Council meeting, they added to the Bellingham Municipal Code, Chapter 1.02. The chapter lists 11 procedures that were designed to provide clear guidance to petitioners, city and county employees.


Editor’s Note: The late Larry Williams was a founding member of The Initiative Group, the organization responsible for placing the Drinking Water Initiative (Proposition One) on the November ballot. 

by Larry Williams

These notes are my reflections on key actions that shaped the creation and the outcome of the Drinking Water Initiative (Proposition One) in the general election of 1999. In this article, an important distinction needs to be made between cooperation and competition. I maintain that cooperation achieves a higher goal.

Prompted by decades of non-action by elected officials and committees, Tim Paxton, Marian Beddill, and myself formed The Initiative Group in the spring of 1998. We explored how we, as citizens, could move the city’s legislative body to protect Lake Whatcom as the drinking water reservoir for the citizens of Bellingham and nearby water districts.

Ongoing Dialogue
For over a year, we met as often as three times a week, exchanged numerous phone and electronic communications, and gathered opinions from many citizens and elected officials. We brainstormed. We researched. We wrote and re-wrote. We thought we had it, and then we found new information or adjusted opinions, and had to change it again. Throughout the dialogue, we respectfully listened to one another’s ideas, took responsibility for follow-up on tasks, and communicated openly our questions and intentions.

Forest Protection
This cooperative effort resulted in The Forested Watershed Protection Program (The Drinking Water Initiative-Proposition One), a proposal to fund protection of the forests and thus the water supply from the Lake Whatcom and Middle Fork Nooksack watersheds. The Drinking Water Initiative document was drafted and printed, and we began the process of obtaining signatures to place the measure on the November ballot. With the cooperation of many citizens, enough signatures were gathered to obtain certification of the ballot measure by the county elections officer. Competition in two camps then changed the nature of the effort.

Executive Privilege
First, Mayor Mark Asmundson began influencing the citizens’ direct legislative process by:

1. Using the power of innuendo to undermine the credibility of the ballot measure. One of several misleading statements by the mayor indicated that the Initiative would likely cost each household $144 per year; however, in the Initiative, it was clearly stated that the cost to each household was to be determined by city council, not by passage at the voting booth,

2. Canceling scheduled meetings to hear the proposal,

3. Convincing an indecisive city council to follow his lead, and

4. Slapping a lawsuit, “Motion for Summary Judgment,” on the Initiative and naming the three of us as defendants. Legal action prior to the election appeared to be an attempt by the elected officials to influence voters.

This is not a democracy working in cooperation. This is a republican form of government working in competition. The precise impact of the mayor’s legal action on the ballot measure cannot be determined, except in the mind of thoughtful voters. Why would the mayor, apparently, be motivated to such action?

Stormwater Sewer Project
Rather than fund watershed protection, the current administration wants to ask the citizens of Bellingham to finance a new treatment facility and a new network of stormwater sewers to collect urban runoff from Lake Whatcom residential areas.

Their view, an insidious form of competition, has been that if citizens agreed to fund Proposition One, they would be loathe to fund the stormwater plan. I am concerned not only that further residential development in the watershed will be encouraged and supported by such a plan, but that it will be financed from citywide taxes to clean up the runoff and residue caused by lakeside neighborhoods and continued watershed development.

Competition Supplants Cooperation
The second factor related to behavioral training, in which competitive habits cannibalized the cooperative effort. This occurred when the The Initiative Group committee was expanded for the campaign effort.

Since the beginning, The Initiative Group committee had worked in cooperation for a common goal. Although, there were slight differences between us, we allowed each idea to go through a process of being brought forth and molded, shaped over many conversations, with the text being worked and reworked. Each idea was viewed from as many perspectives as possible.

When the initiative committee expanded, two lawyers volunteered to help, and a fundamental change in the committee’s values and goals took place. Their legal education was adversarial. They did not express any understanding of or make any distinction between their competitive behavior and the cooperative behavior that brought the Drinking Water Initiative to this junction.

“Flawed Initiative?”
Within two weeks, after expanding to the campaign committee, lawyers from the committee held a meeting with City Councilwoman Barbara Ryan and Mayor Mark Asmundson, resulting in their agreeing with the mayor that the initiative was flawed, and should be replaced by a city version.

The city’s version did not come close to our original intentions. Our version included dedicated funds for buying forestland, oversight by a citizen’s commission, and using certified sustainable forestry practices as a higher source of revenue for continued land acquisition.

Communication Declines
Suddenly, the free expression between committee members and the elected officials was limited to a self-appointed legal spokesperson. One member limited his involvement to business hours only, and when we had questions about the city’s version that needed to be answered, calls were not returned in a timely manner.

At that time, a full discussion of possible actions was not possible. Critical review in the strategy meetings stopped. With few individual discussions and no group discussions, decisions appeared to be left to the lawyers, City Councilwoman Barbara Ryan and the Mayor, Mark Asmundson. This dissention resulted in the fracturing of the original The Initiative Group committee.

The Ryan-Asmundson meeting led us to question why the lawyers were asked to join the committee in the first place. It was reasoned that two functions were needed, one being related to a successful campaign and the other being the need for strategy. Initially, they were asked to be part of the campaign — fund-raising, signs, advertisements, public relations. The Initiative Group founders had intended to continue their own collaboration in forming the campaign strategy.

Removal of Certified Initiative
For over a month, there were discussions between Councilwoman Ryan and Councilwoman Louise Bjornson, the mayor, the city attorney, and some members of the campaign committee, regarding the replacement of the certified initiative with a measure drafted by the city attorney.

We were told that the certified initiative, later to be referred to as Proposition One, could be taken off the ballot by mutual agreement. The method for removal was not discussed by the lawyers, just suggestions that it could be removed.

The fact is, according to state law, it could not be changed or removed after it was certified for the election. When this was mentioned in discussions, no one would comment. All lawyers involved, including the mayor, his legal staff, and lawyers associated with the campaign committee, failed to respond to the effort to protect the certified ballot measure. Their silence was a strike against democracy, against openness, against cooperation.

Trust Shattered
Through this period of haggling, there was no campaign effort of significance. The competitive internal behavior of the campaign committee, combined with the energy taken by the mayor’s interference, affected the result at the polls.

Of the 21,097 ballots counted, there were 4,407 which did not tally either a yes or a no vote on the measure. I believe that the decision to not vote on the issue, by these voters, was influenced by the actions of elected officials and the inaction of the campaign committee. Could a cooperative campaign effort have made a difference? Yes.

Of the 16,690 votes cast for Proposition One, it only lost by 226 votes. The use of honest and open communication, cooperation, and trust that would be found in a healthy “community” was shattered in favor of the competitive nature that is prevalent in our culture. The goal of protecting clean water for our community was squelched, for this year.

The roots of competition, as normal behavior in Nature, and, thus, a model to emulate, is a human misconception. It is believed that we live in a dog-eat-dog world and that only the fittest survive. Are these fallacies beneficial to our common good? I think not. With competitive reasoning, it is the individual who gains at the expense of the common good — or put another way, “my gain, your loss.”

As Lake Whatcom water quality deteriorates and natural resources around the world dwindle, we need to ask the question, is the competitive model the best management tool to manage our resources? We can look at another solution that is dominant in nature: cooperation.  


Larry Williams was a board member of the North Cascade Audubon Society and a member of the Whatcom County Flood Advisory Committee when this article was written.

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