Part Three / Anatomy of a shutdown: How Whatcom officials pursued silencing one member of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup

May 20, 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.]

Series Prologue:

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 One / Anatomy of a shutdown: How Whatcom officials pursued silencing one member of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup

Part Two / Anatomy of a shutdown: How Whatcom officials pursued silencing one member of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup

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 HSW 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.


Part 3

The last bullet point of the prologue to this three-part series provides a spoiler to those who don’t already know that at the Whatcom County Council’s May 4, 2021 meeting, Council Members passed a resolution that resulted in shutting down the Whatcom County Homeless Strategies Workgroup (HSW).

There is a critical need for community and government action to help people who are falling through the cracks in our local homeless services. So, reducing efforts on this front and taking away opportunities for community input is significant.

This third part in the series about how Whatcom County officials pursued finding ways to remove Markis Stidham from his HSW position, provides a chronology of government actions leading up to the shutdown of the HSW.

But first, to provide a little additional insider info, it appears that numerous Homeless Strategies Workgroup (HSW) Members were never informed, prior to the County Council voting to conclude the HSW on May 4, 2021, that the April 16, 2021 meeting was to be their final one.

Sandy Robson, who obtained much of the public records material used in this series, contacted HSW Member Riley Sweeney, a City of Ferndale representative on the workgroup. He indicated he had received no advance notice of the resolution vote.

Also, HSW Member and Bellingham City Council Member Michael Lilliquist had written to Whatcom County Council Members Barry Buchanan and Todd Donovan on May 5, the day after the resolution had been approved on May 4, to inquire, “I heard a rumor that the county council disbanded the HSW. Yes or no?”

So how and why did at least some community members, service providers, and elected and appointed officials serving on the HSW get left in the dark about the fact that their work together would be halted? That work included identifying: additional temporary winter shelters; added capacity for year round shelters; and ways to address the needs of the county’s homeless population, preventing people from having no other option than to sleep outside. The public records cited in this report offer some insights.

Replacing Stidham

In the evening of April 19, 2021, after Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu had sent an email at 10:26 that morning to Whatcom County Council Members Rud Browne and Barry Buchanan, requesting that the Whatcom County Homeless Strategies Workgroup (HSW) consider replacing workgroup member, Markis Stidham, Browne sent an email to Sidhu, Buchanan, and the Whatcom County Council’s legal counsel, Karen Frakes.

The message that Sidhu had sent in the morning was part of an email chain between himself, Buchanan, and Anne Deacon. Buchanan served as the chair for the HSW. Deacon is Whatcom County Health Department’s human services manager. Discussion of this email chain occurs in Part One and Part Two of this series.


In his email that evening of April 19, Council Member Browne let Sidhu, Buchanan, Deacon, and Frakes know that according to Resolution 2017-055 – which established the Homeless Strategies Workgroup – the workgroup was considered an ad hoc (or temporary) committee. He indicated the Council can change or disband it if they feel it’s appropriate.

Browne’s email introduced an idea in the email exchange that was additional to simply replacing Stidham on the HSW: the idea of dissolving the workgroup.

From: Rud Browne

To: Satpal Sidhu, Barry Buchanan, Karen Frakes, Anne Deacon

Date: Apr 19, 2021 at 5:34 PM

Subject: HSW resolution

Attachment(s): 1

As I read the attached this is an ad-hoc committee which we can change/disband as the council feels is appropriate 

https://www.whatcomcounty.us/DocumentCenter/View/42355/HSW-Packet-07-26-2019-s

Be well.

Rud

Rud Browne

Councilmember for District One
Whatcom County Council
311 Grand Ave. Suite 105 <x-apple-data-detectors://0> 
Bellingham, WA 98225 <x-apple-data-detectors://0> 
Phone: 360-820-9494 <tel:360-820-9494>
Email:   RBrowne@WhatcomCounty.us <mailto:RBrowne@WhatcomCounty.us> 

NOTICE: All emails and attachments sent to and from Whatcom County are public records and may be subject to disclosure pursuant to the Public Records Act (RCW 42.56)


Meanwhile, Sidhu responded to Browne’s email that same evening at 7:02 p.m., referring to Stidham by his Facebook profile name, Markis Dee. Sidhu explained that if he was correct in his interpretation that Stidham was appointed to represent HomesNOW!, with Stidham having subsequently resigned from the organization, the HSW can ask HomesNOW! to offer a member to replace him on the workgroup:

From: Satpal Sidhu <SSidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us>

Sent: Monday, April 19, 2021 7:02 PM

To: Rud Browne <RBrowne@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Barry Buchanan <BBuchana@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Karen Frakes <KFrakes@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Anne Deacon <ADeacon@co.whatcom.wa.us>

Subject: RE: HSW resolution 

As I read the Council resolution, Mr. Markis Dee was appointed to represent HomesNow!

If this is correct, then HSW can ask HomesNow! To send a replacement member, because Markis has resigned from HomesNow! Board since many months.

Thanks!

Satpal S Sidhu    

BS BSEE MBA Fulbright Scholar     

Whatcom County Executive      

Phone: 360 778 5200 

ssidhu@whatcomcounty.us <mailto:ssidhu@whatcomcounty.us> 

311 Grand Avenue, Bellingham WA 98225 

This email is subject to disclosure through the Public Records Act.


At the time that Stidham first applied to be a member of the Homelsess Strategies Workgroup, an amended version, Resolution 2019-034 was in effect, which added additional member positions to the workgroup. Stidham filled the position of Homeless Advocate. The resolutions associated with the HSW are posted on the workgroup’s page on the Whatcom County website.

After Stidham had been a member for a year, he reapplied to be appointed by the County Council for two more years, for which he was approved by unanimous vote.

Below, is a copy of Stidham’s application for the two year term on the HSW. (Any contact information in the document has been redacted by Noisy Waters Northwest.) He notes in the application that, since he had applied the year before, he had become the Vice Chair of HomesNOW! Not Later. However, he does not state that he is seeking to be a representative for them.



After Sidhu sent his April 19, 2021 7:02 p.m. email suggesting that HomesNOW! could be asked to send a replacement member, Browne responded that same night about half an hour later. While Browne supported Sidhu’s idea in his email and urged action on a letter, it is unclear what he meant by suggesting they “do both at the same time”:

From: Rud Browne

To: Satpal Sidhu, Barry Buchanan, Karen Frakes, Anne Deacon

Date: Apr 19, 2021 at 7:35 PM

Subject: Re: HSW resolution

Attachment(s): 2

Satpal

That sounds totally appropriate. 

Let’s work on the letter and do both at the same time

Be well.

Rud

Rud Browne

Councilmember – District One
Whatcom County Council
311 Grand Ave. Suite 105
Bellingham, WA 98225
Phone: 360-820-9494
Email: RBrowne@co.whatcom.wa.us

NOTICE: All emails and attachments sent to and from Whatcom County are public records and may be subject to disclosure pursuant to the Public Records Act (RCW 42.56) 

The public records related to the request for HSW materials did not reveal if a letter was ever sent to HomesNOW!. There is an email Browne wrote a week later on the evening of April 27, to Whatcom County Legislative Clerk Lisa Bruner, asking for “copies of the applications provided by the for [sic] 4 Homeless Strategies Workgroup members the council appointed.”

Bruner sent those applications to him the next morning. There was nothing further in the public records received by Robson that mentioned those applicants.

Plan B

The effort to have Stidham removed from HSW membership seemed to sputter out. In the meantime, a couple days following the April 19, 2021 emails written by officials who were exploring removing Stidham, an additional approach began to emerge that could eliminate the voices of Stidham and members of the community who had been offering public comment at HSW meetings which those officials viewed as problematic.

On the afternoon of April 21, 2021 at 1:21 p.m., the Health Department’s Anne Deacon sent an email to Buchanan. Attached was a copy of an April 21, 2021 staff memo she had prepared for his review and suggested edits. The title of the document was “Staff Memo HSW Recommendations.”

In the first two paragraphs of the memo, Deacon offers background on HSW recommendations she will be presenting at the May 4, 2021 County Council Committee of the Whole meeting. She describes staff actions that were performed, “with guidance from the HSW,” in assembling the recommendations.

The last two paragraphs then go on to chart the course of putting an end to the Homeless Strategies Workgroup:

Whatcom County Resolution 2017-055 established the Homeless Strategies Workgroup, and was amended in July 2019.  Both resolutions resolved in part, ‘…The workgroup shall determine its own meeting schedule, but shall attempt to complete its work as expeditiously as possible.’  The COVID pandemic may have slowed the work of the HSW due to unexpected challenges, but the recommendations to County Council are now complete and ready for review.  The HSW has met its obligations as set forth in resolution(s), and submits these recommendations for approval and subsequent action by the county. 

In order to assure continued accountability of progress in these recommendations, the Whatcom County Housing Advisory Committee (WCHAC) can assume that role as it aligns with their current role, and already provides that oversight.  The WCHAC was established by an Interlocal Agreement between the county and all seven cities, and includes membership from homeless advocates, small cities, city of Bellingham, Tribal Nation, housing developers, and homeless housing providers.  Regular reports on progress of the HSW recommendations will be provided to the County Council and upon request.

That evening of April 21, 2021 at 8:39 p.m., Buchanan responded to Deacon’s email, which contained the memo, saying, “This looks really good!” The next morning, Deacon replied, “OK – we’ll submit it with the packet of materials for the presentation to the Committee of the Whole on May 4th.”

A link to a final copy of Deacon’s memo can be found on the County Council Legislative Information Center’s “Meeting Details” webpage for the May 4, 2021 Committee of the Whole meeting.

Related to the information in Deacon’s memo, shortly after noon on April 27, 2021, Whatcom County Legislative Analyst Cathy Halka, sent an email to Buchanan, in which she included an email from a week earlier that Anne Deacon had sent regarding the subject: “May 4 Committee of the Whole.”

In her email, Halka explained to Buchanan her understanding related to a presentation that Deacon would be giving, the following week, at County Council’s Committee of the Whole meeting. Halka stated, in part:

While these items for the May 4th meeting, I understand that you’d also like me to put together a final report for the HSW, which I am working on with the suggest [sic] table of contents below. This would not be for council, but rather for the May 14th HSW meeting (Please confirm date). 

At the last HSW meeting on April 16, 2021, the majority of workgroup members had approved a motion that the HSW switch from meeting every two weeks, to every month. The Friday that was one month from April 16, would have been May 14. There had been no indication from discussion in workgroup meetings that a final report of any kind would be presented to them for any reason.

in her email, Halka had gone on to list the table of contents she had mentioned. In addition, she asked for Buchanan to let her know if he had any edits to the contents and whether she could confirm the May 14 meeting date with HSW members.

Among the items in the table of contents were listed:

3. Letter from Chair (Buchanan) – I can draft this.
a. Purpose of final report
b. Contents
c. Accomplishments
d. Gratitude
e. Next steps

Buchanan responded back to Halka a half hour later that day of April 27, saying, “Not sure we are on the same page.  I will call later this afternoon.”

Just after 2:00 p.m. Halka responded to Buchanan with another email saying she was attaching the “draft final report” she had started working on the week before. There were actually six attached documents, one of which was titled, “Final Report – HSW – Draft 1.”

Included in the draft report was a proposed letter from Buchanan, which stated in part, “On behalf of HSW Members, I would like to present for your consideration this final report of community accomplishments along with
recommendations for next steps, which were developed through workgroup meetings with assistance from staff.”

During their April 16, 2021 meeting there had been no indication given to, or from, HSW members that the Health Department staff recommendations (which the HSW had approved that day to send on to the County Council) would be considered their final report.

Buchanan’s draft letter closed by saying, “At this time HSW Members ask that the Whatcom County Council provide direction on any next steps for the workgroup.”

This so-called, final report, which included Buchanan’s proposed letter, was the only document attached to Halka’s April 27, 2:05 p.m. email to Buchanan that was not subsequently posted on the “Meeting Details” webpage for the County Council’s May 4, 2021 Committee of the Whole meeting. The other documents that did end up being posted were: “Shelter InventoryPoint-in-Time Count Data,  Identified Needs and GapsRecommendationsAccomplishments List.”

Draft resolution surfaces to conclude the HSW

The next day, April 28, which was about a week before the May 4, 2021 County Council meeting, Halka sent an email at 1:18 p.m. to Buchanan, with the subject line, “Draft HSW Resolution.” It included a draft copy of the resolution that she provided in the email for him to review and edit.

After the preamble – or “whereas” – section, the last statement in the operative – or “be it resolved”- section of the resolution stated: “BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED that the Whatcom County Council hereby concludes the work of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup.”


Buchanan responded to Halka’s April 28 email shortly after she sent it, saying, “This looks good to me.  I think we should run it by Anne D. and Karen.” He was likely referring to Anne Deacon and Whatcom County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Karen Frakes, but there is no confirmation of that in the records. Halka replied within the one o’clock hour and said she would do so.

After 6 days went by, at 3:22 p.m. on the day of the May 4, 2021 County Council meeting, Browne responded to a 1:47 p.m. email of Halka’s that same day to which she had attached a copy of the draft resolution for concluding the HSW. In Browne’s email, which was sent while the County Council’s Committee of the Whole meeting was taking place, he, in turn, attached a copy of the resolution, to which he had added his name in the “Proposed By” space. He noted that there were no other changes and requested she publish it for a vote that same night.

“Action Details” that were posted for the May 4, 2021 Committee of the Whole meeting, note that just prior to the 4:16 p.m. adjournment of the meeting, “Dana Brown-Davis, Clerk of the Council, asked whether a draft resolution mentioned by Councilmember Browne should be added to tonight’s Council meeting agenda.” In the meeting audio, Council Member Browne indicated this was his intent, and Council Chair Buchanan agreed to have Brown-Davis add the resolution to the agenda.

Notice of the resolution showed up on a 4:30 p.m. County Council agenda revision which was sent out to certain community members who request Whatcom County notifications, and it is posted as a link on the meeting details page for the 6:00 p.m. May 4, 2021 County Council meeting.


Click the image of the May 4, 2021 Whatcom County Council agenda revision to access a copy on Whatcom County Council’s Legislative Information Center

At the beginning of the last half hour of the May 4, 2021 Whatcom County Council meeting, a motion was made by Council Member Browne “concluding the work of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup and transferring responsibilities to the Whatcom County Housing Advisory Committee.” Council Member Frazey seconded the motion to approve the resolution that had been added to the agenda three hours earlier.

And just like that

After six minutes of discussion, Council Members voted, 5-1 to approve the resolution, with Council Member Donovan opposed, and Council Member Byrd absent.

Stidham was no longer a member of the HSW, nor were any other now-former HSW members. The opportunity provided at HSW meetings for community members to bring emergent issues and questions before stakeholders in a position of power – every two weeks – regarding emergencies and ongoing crises their homeless friends and neighbors were experiencing, was eliminated.

Aftermath of a shutdown

Many of our community members continue to be left with no other option than to sleep outside every night, and threats of tenant evictions are looming. Sweeps of homeless encampments continue in the City of Bellingham. City employees at public meetings and material that is posted on the COB website dissuade people from contributing aid directly to people who are unsheltered.

But civilian outreach continues everyday and every night. Individuals in our county continue to provide aid to those who have not found other shelter; work to get people moved when they are evicted from spaces they have found where they can exist without a permanent roof and four walls; take people to medical appointments; prepare meals for them; tell them where there might be water and restrooms and showers and laundry services nearby; help them find replacements for essential possessions that have been lost or disposed of during sweeps; talk to them and acknowledge the crisis and trauma they are experiencing daily; raise awareness about the gaps that people are falling through, including those that have not yet been disclosed by the Whatcom County Health Department.

The Housing Advisory Committee (HAC), which the County has asked to take responsibility for the recommendations of the disbanded HSW, meets the second Thursday of every other month. There is no information on their webpage to instruct people how to attend their meetings. People would have to know to go to click the link on that page, View Most Recent Agendas and Minutes, and download an agenda to find out how they could attend or if there is a public comment opportunity.

It is now six weeks since the last HAC meeting of April 8, 2021. No minutes have been posted for April 8, and the agenda for June 10 has not been posted yet. Looking at the agenda for April 8, ten minutes during the meeting were provided for public comment.

There is one other group, addressing homelessness issues, in addition to the HAC, that is listed on the Whatcom County Housing and Homeless Services Program webpage: the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness (WCCEH).

Information on that County webpage states: “This group meets every other month on the 1st Thursday of the month. (Feb, April, June, August, October, December) The purpose of this meeting is to focus on ending homelessness through education, training and advocacy.” It is noted that there is time set aside at each meeting for public comment, but people have to call the Opportunity Council at 360-255-2091, “for more information on this meeting.”

If people have a phone and can call the number, they can be placed on an email list to receive meeting notifications. You can also request a copy of their steering committee roster.

There are no Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness agendas or meeting minutes available online. The City of Bellingham website, also provides some information on the WCCEH, however their information on meeting locations is outdated. The WCCEH has been holding virtual meetings during the pandemic.