May 17, 2021 by Dena Jensen, with significant contributions by Sandy Robson
[Author’s note: In regard to the headline, officials might have hoped to silence a few more voices, as well, but I will stick to the public records that Sandy Robson recently received from Whatcom County to let readers decide. For context, I want folks to know that I have been following Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup meetings since the summer of 2019 and that I am familiar with the person who was the target of County officials’ silencing efforts.
I have interacted through Facebook with Markis Stidham – Markis Dee is his profile name – over the past few years regarding civil rights and social justice issues. Additionally, Stidham met with Riveters Collective Justice System Committee, of which I am a member, on a couple of occasions. I remember seeing him twice in public, in years past, at Dignity Vigils in front of Bellingham City Hall, and shook his hand once, although I don’t think he knew who I was at the time. Stidham read a public comment of mine at a Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting on August 23, 2019.]
On January 28, 2021, multiple law enforcement agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, along with City of Bellingham Public Works employees, swept the occupied protest and tent encampment outside Bellingham City Hall. Since that time intermittent encampment sweeps have continued, and:
- Bellingham City Council Members have begun strictly enforcing a 15 minute time limit on public comment at their City Council Meetings
- Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup (HSW) suspended the public comment period at their first meeting subsequent to the January 28 sweep, on February 5
- At that February 5, 2021 meeting, Whatcom County Health Department Human Services Manager Anne Deacon began regularly attending HSW meetings and facilitating discussion. The County Council’s Chair Barry Buchanan, who was also HSW Chair and continued to fill that role, had facilitated most discussion prior to that date
- The February 19, 2021 HSW agenda announced: “The duration of the public comment portion of this agenda will be no longer than 20 minutes.” This statement was included in all subsequent HSW agendas. Prior to February 5, the public comment period at HSW meetings had not been limited
- At the next meeting on March 5, Anne Deacon requested a four to six week period to put together material for recommendations that could be considered for forwarding to the County Council
- Six weeks later, on April 16, 2021, what would later turn out to be the last HSW meeting, took place
- Four days later, on April 20, 2021, an email chain that included communications from homeless services providers and Whatcom County officials suggesting action be taken related to Markis Stidham’s membership on the Homeless Strategies Workgroup was forwarded by County Council Member Rud Browne to the Whatcom County Council’s Legal Counsel, Karen Frakes
- On May 4, 2021 at 4:30 p.m., a resolution to conclude the work of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup was added by revision to the County Council’s 6:00 p.m. meeting agenda. The vote to approve the resolution was 5-1, with Council Member Todd Donovan opposed, and Council Member Tyler Byrd absent
Part Two will explore Whatcom County Health Department Human Services Director Anne Deacon’s remarks in her April 19, 2021, 9:06 a.m. email to County Council Members Barry Buchanan and Rud Browne, along with a response to that email from County Executive Satpal Sidhu and related material.
Part One / Anatomy of a shutdown: How Whatcom officials pursued silencing one member of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup
Part Three / Anatomy of a shutdown: How Whatcom officials pursued silencing one member of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup
Whatcom County Health Department Human Services Manager Anne Deacon made a number of unsubstantiated allegations related to Markis D. Stidham’s behavior as a member of the Whatcom County Homeless Strategies Workgroup (HSW) in her 9:06 a.m., April 19, 2021 email sent to Whatcom County Council Members Barry Buchanan and Rud Browne. Buchanan and Browne were both members of the now-defunct HSW. The email was copied to Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu and Whatcom County Health Department Director Erika Lautenbach.
An April 16, 2021 email from the Opportunity Council’s Teri Bryant, which Deacon had shared in her email to the Council Members was explored in Part One of this series.
Contention and vitriol
In the latter part of Deacon’s remarks in her email, she maintained HSW members had “contemplated quitting the committee, in part because of the contentious and vitriolic debates.” It is unclear if she was attributing the debates to HSW members or members of the public, or both.
Pick any HSW meeting audio from 2019 to date, and if you isolate Stidham’s comments at those meetings you will likely find nearly all of them are zeroed-in on either understanding/addressing barriers to providing a place to sleep indoors for people who are living on the streets and in the woods, or proactively trying to generate workgroup actions that would serve to deliver that shelter.
On April 16, 2021, among numerous questions and remarks Stidham provided at the virtual meeting, he also raised his hand a number of times and broke into Deacon’s presentation during the meeting at opportune moments, regarding a specific topic. He was seeking to have the workgroup advise that data be gathered in the near future, or to personally gather it himself at that meeting from HSW member Hans Erchinger-Davis of Lighthouse Mission Ministries (LMM), in order to ascertain the number of people currently unable to sleep at LMM’s Base Camp emergency shelter, due to those persons not being granted entry for either a temporary or permanent period of time.
This data can be critical to government agencies being motivated to provide appropriate accommodations for those who are not being provided shelter. The reason for this is San Francisco’s 9th Circuit Court ruling in Martin vs. Boise that homeless persons can’t be punished for sleeping on public property when there are not adequate alternatives. Local officials have been relying heavily on Base Camp capacity as evidence that they are providing adequate options, and sweeps of encampments have continued.
Related to Deacon’s assertion of contentious debate, there may have been isolated cases of HSW members perceiving a brief exchange between fellow members as contentious. People can listen to meeting audios to discover these moments would be, by far, an exception to the rule during any, and all, of the HSW meetings. Also, the intense nature of encountering the suffering of unsheltered community members should be taken into account when assessing the behaviors of any of the workgroup members.
Readers will find, in contrast, a higher occurrence and longer duration of contentious conversations in some of the media records of Whatcom County Council meetings. For example, regarding certain topics, going back to the year 2019 and before, Council Members at that time, Rud Browne, Barbara Brenner, and Satpal Sidhu would sometimes clash at meetings and take up considerable meeting time to express their concerns or points of view on issues such as the Cherry Point Comprehensive Plan Amendments, or Whatcom County Jail proposals.
Currently, County Council Member Ben Elenbaas will often go on, at length, to provide his perspective or present arguments on certain issues. Council Member Todd Donovan has been known to leave a meeting, seemingly in frustration, as he did in May of 2020, regarding a proposed letter to Governor Inslee asking for Whatcom County to not have to follow some aspects of the Governor’s Stay Home Stay Healthy order.
Donovan’s comment before departing, at 04:39.00 in the meeting audio, was:
“I don’t want to have anything to do with this letter. It’s not what we were talking about two weeks ago. And more than just the content of the letter – the content of this discussion, talking about conspiracy theories about the Governor funneling money somewhere, and talking about the Governor not wanting – what was it? – not ending the close-down until the Green New Deal passes. I mean, these aren’t just idle comments. There’s no reason anyone should take this serious after this sort of discussion.”
Meanwhile, ascribing vitriol to any HSW members’ remarks at their meetings, including Stidham’s, would be a speculation in conflict with anything that can be established as fact.
An ability to defend themselves and set the record straight
Regarding Deacon’s assertion that she was “concerned that we are asking highly-valued community partners to listen to abusive and false comments about their organizations and their good work, without an ability on their part to defend themselves or set the record straight,” this was not the situation in HSW meetings.
Meeting recordings demonstrate that all HSW members had the ability to ask to be recognized to speak in response to anything that was brought up in the meetings. HSW Chair Buchanan was consistently accomodating of member comments. Besides this, there was a public comment period offered at meetings where any community member could speak, whether representing for themselves, others, or organizations. Often, representatives of HomesNOW would come to clarify issues and make note of their availability to take on new projects.
Going back to County Council meetings, at a February 11, 2020 Council Meeting Council Member Elenbaas had used inflammatory language to characterize the actions of a highly-valued community partner, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, as being identifiable by some people as domestic terrorism. At the next Council meeting, RE-Sources Executive Director Shannon Wright attended, giving the first public comment of the night at about 00:01:55 on the meeting video. She stated near the end of her comment that she wanted, “to address an extremely inaccurate and explosive characterization of RE Sources non-profit activities.”
These comparisons of these two government groups and its members’ behaviors are important, because of what emails and actions followed Deacon’s April 19, 2021 claims against Stidham and the members of the homeless outreach services non-profit that he and his friends formed, Serenity Outreach Services.
In the meantime, no factual foundation has come to light for any of Deacon’s allegations, either about Stidham or Serenity Outreach Services.
County Executive Sidhu weighs in
At 10:26 a.m. on Monday, April 19, 2021, Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu sent the following email to Buchanan and Browne, copied to Deacon and Lautenbach:
From: Satpal Sidhu
Sent: Monday, April 19, 2021 10:26 AM
To: Barry Buchanan <BBuchana@co.whatcom.wa.us <mailto:BBuchana@co.whatcom.wa.us> >; Rud Browne <RBrowne@co.whatcom.wa.us <mailto:RBrowne@co.whatcom.wa.us> >
Cc: Erika Lautenbach <ELautenb@co.whatcom.wa.us <mailto:ELautenb@co.whatcom.wa.us> >; Anne Deacon <ADeacon@co.whatcom.wa.us <mailto:ADeacon@co.whatcom.wa.us> >
Subject: RE: HOT team and HSW concerns
Dear Barry and Rud,
I would like to share that I have had several citizens reach me over since November 2020 questioning Mr. Markis Dee’s disruptive conduct on HSW and the Camp 210. Many have asked me for appointing another person in his place. I did advise them that I am aware of this and his conduct at HomeNow! As well as the circumstances leading to he being asked to resign from Board of HomesNow! This is not however a County Executive appointment.
May I request that the HSW group seriously consider that this position on HSW be given to another deserving and more diligent person in our community . Mr. Markis Dee has had his turn and he has done the best he could, which at best has been counter-productive.
Satpal S Sidhu
BS BSEE MBA Fulbright Scholar
Whatcom County Executive
Phone: 360 778 5200
311 Grand Avenue, Bellingham WA 98225
This email is subject to disclosure through the Public Records Act.
The Executive conveyed stories he said he had heard from other sources but did not mention any specific evidence that would be cause for removal from the HSW, yet he still requested that the HSW consider taking action to remove Stidham.
Nine minutes later at 10:35 a.m., Buchanan sent an email to Sidhu and Browne, copied to Deacon and Lautenbach, indicating that would be an extremely rare action to take:
From: Barry Buchanan
Sent: Monday, April 19, 2021 10:35 AM
To: Satpal Sidhu <SSidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Rud Browne <RBrowne@co.whatcom.wa.us>
Cc: Erika Lautenbach <ELautenb@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Anne Deacon <ADeacon@co.whatcom.wa.us>
Subject: RE: HOT team and HSW concerns
Removal from a Council appointed board/committee/commission is an extremely rare action. I will be checking with legal to get some advice.
Barry Buchanan, Council Chair
Whatcom County Council
311 Grand Ave, Suite 105
Bellingham, WA 98225
Ten minutes after that, Deacon sent one more email that day to Buchanan and Browne, copied to Lautenbach:
From: Anne Deacon <ADeacon@co.whatcom.wa.us>
Sent: Monday, April 19, 2021 10:45 AM
To: Barry Buchanan <BBuchana@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Satpal Sidhu <SSidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Rud Browne <RBrowne@co.whatcom.wa.us>
Cc: Erika Lautenbach <ELautenb@co.whatcom.wa.us>
Subject: RE: HOT team and HSW concerns
I have further information to provide you as well if you need it. It is very disturbing.
Deacon’s claim in the email is vague and ominous. There is no other reference to this “further information” in the records Robson received. There were also no records received that suggest that just cause was ever established to merit any action being taken to remove Stidham from the HSW.
This concludes Part Two of this series. Part Three will explore an additional April 19, 2021 email exchange between Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu and Whatcom County Council Member Rud Browne related to the Homeless Strategies Workgroup and actions they considered taking in regard to Stidham and the HSW, along with other actions of Whatcom County staff and officials in the coming days before the May 4, 2021 County Council meeting.