Update: County Executive Pete Kremen and County Council President Sam Crawford have responded to my request for clarification on language in a county ferry deal with Lummi Nation that appears to put some level of restriction on what county officials can tell the public
Kremen replied by sharing an email he sent to Dan Gibson, assistant chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney, who is handling the legal end of the ferry negotiations for the county.
“I also would like an explanation of what it means and why it was inserted,” Kremen wrote Gibson. ” Please contact Mr. Stark tomorrow as early as possible. Thank you.”
Here is Crawford’s email in response to my inquiry yesterday:
“I just saw this, and don’t know yet how to interpret it. As you know, the majority of the county council appears to have agreed to the fundamentals of a lease (cost, agreed-upon improvements, length of term, etc), and in the time since has been waiting for the attorneys to present some specific language.
“Now that we have it in front of us, we’ll need to parse the language in the upcoming weeks. I’ll reserve judgment on any aspect until after we’ve had a chance to read all of this, ask questions, hold a hearing and give the language in its entirety an appropriate amount of careful review and consideration.
“I’m anxious to hear public comment on the lease terms, as it took a long time of negotiations to get where we are today, and now the details can be reviewed and discussed with public input,” Crawford concluded.
As Kremen requested, Gibson did call me, and he downplayed the impact of the language in the “intergovernmental framework agreement. ” He says that language will not change the way that county officials disclose information.
“I don’t see that that language makes any significant shifts in the way that we’ve conducted ourselves,” Gibson said today in a telephone interview.
The framework agreement is part of a draft lease that will be submitted to the County Council on Tuesday, July 12.
Here’s the part that raised my eyebrows yesterday:
“Any potential media announcements or discussions regarding this agreement and the implementation of this agreement will be jointly discussed with the goal of agreement by the parties in advance to ensure that the sentiments expressed represent an accurate and balanced description of the subject matter involved. The parties will discuss foreseeable public events or open meeting where media may be present and/or where communications on the parties’ discussions may occur with other parties — with the intent to avoid surprises if at all possible. Neither party will make a statement characterizinig the position of the other party to any media relating to the substantive issues under discussion. Statements to the media by the individual parties apart from those referenced above should be limited to acknowledgement that discussions are ongoing between the parties with a view towards reaching agreement on issues concerning the project area, or other matters as may be appropriate.”
Gibson noted that in the negotiation of any legal agreement, there is some degree of confidentiality until the process is complete. But he said county officials also recognize that they have an obligation to be accountable to the public.
“We don’t want our statements to the press to undermine the progress we are making,” Gibson said. “Within negotiations, there is a certain tension … We recognize that the public has a right to know … the general process and also, at appropriate times as progress is made, we can say ‘this is what’s happening’ … Our goal is that we will treat each other respectfully in terms of our communications.”
It seems to me that over many months of negotiations, full of stops and starts and seeming impasses and looming deadlines that were extended at the last minute, the system ultimately worked. You and I would both have preferred to have more and better information about what was going on every time three County Council members met in private negotations with Lummi leaders, with millions of dollars and the fate of Lummi Island residents hanging in the balance.
But county leaders never left us completely in the dark. Gibson, County Executive Pete Kremen and County Council President Sam Crawford gave me timely progress reports after each session.
Lummi leaders weighed in as well, including an extensive briefing for The Bellingham Herald’s editorial board.
County officials were irritated by tribal statements, and vice-versa. Perhaps that irritation prolonged the negotiating process. Too bad. But it didn’t stop the two sides from reaching a deal–proving that you don’t need to negotiate the disposition of millions of dollars in public funds under a total news blackout, convenient as that might be for the parties involved.
Gibson said nothing in the framework agreement would stop county officials from providing the same level of public accountability that they have provided up to now. Let’s hold them to that.
In any event, both the framework agreement and the draft leases themselves will be on the docket for a public hearing on July 27.