What about that civilian oversight? / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click the graphic to access the April 22, 2019 Regular Bellingham City Council meeting discussion of the safe space program

May 12, 2019 Dena Jensen

Community members continue to show up weekly to call on our local government agencies to engage with members of the immigrant community, of all statuses, to reduce and hopefully put an end to, the daily fear and apprehension that they endure living under the Trump administration, not to mention the profiling and mistreatment numerous individuals experience at the hands of local officials. 

Consistent messaging has been presented via social media, letters to Council Members, signs on the front steps of City Hall, and most recently (near the end of February) in initial interaction between immigrant advocates and Bellingham City Council Member Hannah Stone: There’s a call for a work group with City officials to pursue a true Sanctuary City ordinance. There’s a call for civilian oversight of law enforcement. 

Meanwhile, the City remains mired in painfully slow actions that are effectively closed off from input from people that Council Members seem to be saying they feel could need some protections. According to what they said in a regular Council meeting at the end of April though, they are not at all clear on who they are really trying to help and how they should do it. 

At the February 25, 2019 Bellingham City Council Justice Committee meeting on the topic of immigration issues (to which members of the immigrant community were not alerted) besides reviewing the Council’s ordinance regarding immigration issues they passed in February 2017, the committee talked in a general way about a contract for a “safe space,” for community members to report complaints, that the City was arranging with the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center (WDRC). 

At that February 25 meeting there was a sense this program was intended to provide a safe space for immigrants to report potential human or civil rights violations, even though Council Member Michael Lilliquist brought up that WDRC had indicated there was a certain level of accepting such complaints for which the WDRC did not feel they were equipped. Council Member Lilliquist was concerned this could eliminate the ability of this safe space to be of help in severe circumstances and that it would be misleading if the City said they had created a solution to a problem because that solution would be least capable when it’s most needed.

Since that time, at a regular Council meeting a few weeks ago on April 22, Bellingham City Council Members got an update on the contract with WDRC from the City’s deputy administrator, Brian Heinrich, and discussion ensued between the Mayor and Council Members regarding what a number of them perceived as the reason for this safe space program.

After Mr. Heinrich’s update, Council Member Lilliquist brought up his concerns, as he had in the February Justice Committee meeting, that this contract would not be sufficient in helping those, such as undocumented immigrants, with human or civil rights complaints.

Mayor Linville then responded, and at least a couple of the statements she made seem to contradict each other.  Earlier in her remarks she says she was aware the safe space was envisioned for people with racial issues/bias, but later she indicates it wasn’t envisioned for racial bias, i.e. “things that would be illegal; it was more for things that were uncomfortable.” 

Here is a transcript of a portion of Mayor Linville’s remarks related to Council Member Lilliquist’s concerns that evening: 

“And I guess I’ll clarify my instigation in supporting doing this is, it was said that people felt uncomfortable – there’s – certain people that felt uncomfortable making a complaint at City Hall based on whatever. 

“But it was mostly racial issues, bias, those kind of things. And I wanted to make sure that nobody couldn’t make a concern or complaint or whatever. We do this everyday, but if you feel uncomfortable I wanted to make sure there’s a place where you could go and then that could get passed on to us or we could then help to resolve it with an objective third party. So it wasn’t necessarily for things that would be illegal; it was more for things that were uncomfortable. 

“And I guess, Peter [the Mayor seemed to look toward the city attorney, Peter Ruffatto]- if there’s, if there’s something about people feeling that they were, there was racial bias and not just uncomfortableness in coming to City Hall, I’d like to explore that further too because I don’t think that was necessarily the initial reason why we wanted to do this.”

Later, Council Member Gene Knutson heartily disagreed that the reasons for the safe space were what Council Member Lilliquist had stated they were. He maintained that a group of community members had come and lobbied all the City Council Members and that Council Members had requested the Mayor go to the WDRC instead of spending around $90,000 a year on a city ombudsman. 

At this point the Mayor seems to contradict Council Member Knutson, and herself even further, saying “I don’t know what people lobbied you about,” and that when the City had contacted WDRC, according to Mayor Linville, it had asked them to determine what options were most viable for the City, “…whether it’s an ombudsman” or, “There was a concern about an oversight, a citizen’s oversight committee that would basically take care of, you know, what people considered were police problems. And so we let them do the investigation first to see what would be appropriate in addition to us raising the issue with them.”  

Along with seeming to wildly vacillate on just what she had envisioned as the potential intent of the safe space contract, the Mayor continued to assert that she was open to further exploration of options. In addition, Council Member April Barker asserted she was in favor of more Justice Committee discussion on the issues of quite a number of types of people she observed could benefit from this safe space approach. 

On this occasion, however, Council Member Barker did not mention immigrants, even though on February 25, she had spoken specifically about having someone (it wasn’t clear exactly who) reach out to Community to Community Development to say that with the safe space program, the Council really is looking for help to know they’re doing exactly what they said they’re going to do, and that then there should be outreach into the populations where people are talking to advocacy groups to make sure that they know about the safe space program. 

Council Members Bornemann, Vargas, and Hammill were present but did not participate in the April 22 discussion about the WDRC contract for safe space.  Now, it’s a wait till mid-July to get a report back from the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center to see if they know anything more clearly about what the safe space program will do than the City Council Members and Mayor do.

Here is the link for the April 22, 2019 regular Bellingham City Council meeting starting at the point where the discussion, covered above, took place: https://youtu.be/LwwPQYmwUcc?t=2322

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