Water Quality and the Politics of Obstruction

To celebrate 27 years of publishing Whatcom Watch, we will be printing excerpts from 20 years ago. The below excerpts are from the April 1998 issue of Whatcom Watch.

Editor’s Note: The last paragraph indicates that Dr. Frank James was still the county health officer on April 3, 1998. Dr. James resigned on April 14 because he believed the Kremen administration had not shown a commitment to the county’s water supplies. He said he would remain on the job until the end of May but was fired on April 29 when Dr. Ken Gass was named interim county health officer while the county did a national search for a permanent replacement.

by Al Hanners

What has been happening with regard to water quality in Whatcom County is like a soap opera with new episodes regularly played out. The last one at this writing was at the special Whatcom County Council meeting at the Courthouse at 12:30 p.m. on March 31, 1998. More than 100 persons attended and showed overwhelming support for Dr. Frank James, Whatcom County Health Officer, who had spoken out asking for action on water quality. There was plenty of drama at the meeting, but the forces of entropy were in charge and little was accomplished. Instead of a chance for citizen input that many had come to give, the first item on the revised agenda for the meeting was a call for an executive session to shut out the public. Water quality per se was not on the agenda. Neither was any public discussion nor any comments by Dr. Frank James. As soon as the meeting was officially opened, a motion was made and passed to go into executive session.

As the County Council marched out of the auditorium, the question in the minds of the would-be audience was whether Dr. James would be fired, and we did not learn his fate that day. We left the hall pondering events that led up to the special County Council meeting. Barbara Brenner, County Council member, had been the first victim of political reprisal for speaking out on water quality. Now Dr. James was the target in the last round of events in the real life drama being played out that began some weeks ago when County Executive Pete Kremen blocked the original plan for the County to cooperate with the United States Geological Survey in investigating pesticide contamination in the huge aquifer that is the principal source of drinking water in northern Whatcom County. What Pete Kremen did was legal, but some thought it immoral not to help his constituents who are suffering from contaminated water.

A short time later, letters to the editor began appearing in the Herald, and they could not have been more alike if they had been written by the same person. They attacked the behavior of Barbara Brenner but did not state the issue. Clearly it was a case of attacking the messenger; surely it was an attempt to discredit Barbara while hiding the reason. I was mystified, so I asked my friends for help. One said succinctly, “Look who is writing the letters.” Another friend was more explicit. “Barbara Brenner wrote a letter criticizing the action Pete Kremen had taken but did not name names.” Barbara has been criticized before for not understanding that sometimes less is more, but “Actually,” my friend said, “Barbara’s behavior has been better than sometimes in the past.” She inferred that Barbara was right and added, “Thank you for supporting Barbara.”

Impromptu Session
With the County Council out of the hall, Dr. Frank James stepped forward and started to speak. Councilman Bob Imhoff returned shortly and told Dr. James that the council was still in session even though the members were not present, and that Dr. James did not have permission to speak. Immediately two men jumped out of their seats to support Dr. James and a shouting match between them and Bob Imhoff ensued. Dr. James cooled the situation by quietly suggesting that we move to the courthouse rotunda.

There Dr. James repeated his recommendations already made in print. At times he seemed to choke up with emotion, but after each pause would quietly go on. As he spoke, we wondered whether the same things were going through his mind as were in ours. Did the council go into executive session to discuss the future of Dr. James? An executive session was not part of the original agenda for the meeting which was revised not long before the meeting, but who did it and why? Firing a county employee is under the jurisdiction of the County Executive, not the County Council. We did not know it at the time, but Pete Kremen, County Executive, not the public, was at the executive session. Some people thought that downright firing Dr. James or cutting his salary would be a politically unwise move that would only further enrage an already aroused public.

When County Council members returned to resume the public meeting, persons working under the Board of Health made comments. Dr. Frank James, County Health Office, was excluded. The prize for a largely useless talk goes to Susan Guirl, Personal Health Services Manager. She gave a long list of generic recommendations on blood diseases couched in bureaucratese, each beginning with a different key word: support, evaluate, establish, address, dispense, and mobilize. There was no mention of anything accomplished, and the only specific recommendations for action were these: Report the reportable, and train the trainer. Yes, that is what she said.

One bright spot was the groundwater update by Regina Delahunt, Environmental Health Services Manager, who summarized a meeting in Lynden dealing with ground water. She said that water quality is a public health issue. Most people with private wells are concerned and will cooperate in the investigation of pesticide contamination in water.

Later, Council member Connie Hoag spoke expressing optimism that action would be taken on drinking water pollution problems in the county. She said that while there had been little action in the past, that would not continue. However, was Connie whistling in the wind?

Hiring a Water Quality Specialist
Barbara Brenner brought up the fact that the County Council had specifically approved hiring a Water Quality Specialist, but that County Health and Human Services was taking steps to hire a person without that specific title. She was adamant about insisting on that title to make it more difficult for the manager to assign other work to the new employee. She wanted to be assured that a county employee would work full-time on water quality issues, but Chuck Benjamin, the Health and Human Services Director who works for Pete Kremen, kept making disquieting excuses and rationalizations.

Then Connie Hoag stepped in to support Barbara. Connie missed her calling as a prosecuting attorney. In a duel with Chuck Benjamin, Connie persisted in adroitly pressing stilleto-like questions while maintaining grace and charming smile. In the end, Health and Human Services capitulated; Connie won. The new employee will have the title of Water Quality Specialist — at least we have reason to believe it will happen.

Maybe Connie Hoag, herself, is a good reason to be optimistic about the county doing something about water quality in the future.

What of the future of water quality in Whatcom County? There is enough evidence of inaction on water quality by elected and appointed officials alike to go around. The current flap was triggered by a sense of guilt on the part of two of them after confrontation at a meeting in Lynden. Media loves controversy and the publicity that followed educated the public on water issues far beyond any activist’s wildest dreams. A single loss of personal control is serious only when the target is an entrenched bureaucracy including the individual’s boss.

Will we lose Frank James, the man most dedicated to public health in my memory? When Dr. Frank James came out of the meeting with County Executive Pete Kremen, on Friday, April 3, he said as far as he knew he was still on the county payroll. Keep tuned.

Al Hanners was a retired geologist who wrote 99 articles for Whatcom Watch between 1992 and 2010.