Barbara Brenner is the longest serving and currently only female member of the Whatcom County Council.
It’s a polarizing time in Whatcom County.
I can’t think of a time it’s been more polarized.
So what are the poles?
It’d be easy to say far left and far right but I think there is more selfishness involved than that. A lot of times people just want people to be like them. That’s not the way I operate. I feel like it would be the most beneficial if we all embraced the way we live and didn’t push our personal opinions on other people. It’s like: you live the way that you wanna live as long as it doesn’t harm me. A lot of it has to do with personal opinions and nothing else.
I live a certain way—I love it and I think it’s great. I am a walk-lightly-on-the-earth kind of person. But I wouldn’t require anybody to live like me. I do a good job and I balance that part of my life with economics because it’s how I want to live. But there should be room in there for all kinds of voices without the shrillness that’s getting worse.
I got on the council because I didn’t trust my government. My government wasn’t listening to me. I went to my health board on an issue—my health board is the county council and still is— and I was ignored, insulted, and made fun of. So I took my kids and did an sit-in in the governor’s office for months. My sons were just toddlers.
Before the sit-in people were doubting me and questioning my commitment. When I came back I was a hero. That bothered me. I didn’t like being called a hero or a joke for what I did.
There are too many sheep out there—people who just believe what the media or other people tell them. And I think the same is true in government.
This is my opinion but I think it’s true—people who work in government and in administration especially and even on the council, most of them hang out with the same people eight hours a day five days a week. I don’t think they mean to but they are getting most of their information from each other.
When I first got on the council I was angry with everybody in government and now I can say that 98% of them I would love to have as my neighbor. I still don’t always trust them on issues but it’s not personal anymore.
You used the word sheep to describe people who follow the crowd. What would you say to someone who fears that they are a sheep and wants to get new perspective?
There is no substitute for making good government happen. It takes a whole bunch of research to understand all the different sides of the issue. The information is out there. There are State, Federal, and International groups who research and publish on almost any topic that you’d want to explore. And if you clear your mind and become objective, then you can learn from every kind of perspective.
I also try to find people I can trust, which are not necessarily people I know well. I get a feel for people and if they are being honest. They don’t have to be objective for me to get information that I won’t have to do more research on. Even if I don’t trust where they are coming from I get the information they are giving me then research that through different perspectives. I am pretty low-tech but it is easy to let Google give me information from different perspectives. The problem is: that’s simple but it isn’t easy—getting rid of your prejudices is not easy.
What’s a day in the life of a County Council person?
Well, I’m not normal. You can’t really compare me to anybody. I am bipolar and obsessive. I never sleep. At night when my husband is home I try to take time to be with him but when he’s not I get on that computer because I want to know more. I read emails. I like to be personal—to make phone calls and meet with people often.
I gave up my business. I used to own a furniture, and predominantly antique, refinishing business. When I got on the council I realized I couldn’t do both and give them the time they deserve. I felt like I owed that to the people who elected me.
I resent when people say that I don’t have to work for a living. I did have to work for a living. My husband was a logger, a forrester, and now he is a pilot. We worked our way up. We were not handed anything.
Do the council members have research staff who help them?
Funny you should say that. We just got a policy analyst. We had a policy analyst years ago and I voted against hiring a new one. I watched what happened when we had policy analysts before and invariably they count noses. You gotta make four people happy which means eventually you give in and give up some of yourself for the politics and I don’t ever what that to happen.
So you have one policy analyst for the whole council?
Yes. That is what we have now. My fear was that some people on the council would monopolize this person’s time for what they want. But then our clerk of the council—who I have tremendous respect for—said, “Oh this guy, he can do it” So I met with him and talked to him and was so impressed with him personally. I still didn’t want the position but when it came time to vote I said I totally support this person. He’s a techie guy. He’s young and smart and unique. I want objective information and so far he is exactly that.
Do you see yourself as a representative of district three or a representative of the county?
I have always have felt that I represent everybody. That includes Bellingham, all the cities, and all the unincorporated areas. County council members have alway been voted in by all of the people in the county. But now it’s going to change. Instead of having seven people who maybe will listen to you, you will have maybe two who will listen. You’re not going to have a majority. The more people who affect your being in public office the more people you are accountable to. People were told that this charter review would mean better representation for their beliefs. You may have better representation from this tiny piece of Whatcom County, but their are four others who don’t support it. I agree with people about wanting to be heard but I think that this is a bad way to do it.
How do you spend a free sunny day in Bellingham—a day with no meetings, nothing to research? Where do you go? Where do you hang out?
Oh, god! [Laughs] You’re asking for a lot. You know where I like to hang out? In my house. My house is my home. My kids grew up there. I tracked their height measurements in that house. We also were on the ReStore’s tour of recycled homes and we were on Sustainable Connections for low impact development.
Is there a Whatcom County business or organization that the world needs to know about?
I think there are probably lots of them. I love Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association and I love Sustainable Connections. I think the Building Industry Association is great. I find it’s really nice to with different organizations from all over—economic to environmental to small business.
If you could go back to Western and study anything you wanted what classes would you take?
I did take classes at Western. I have been to ten or twelve different colleges over the course of my life but never graduated. I don’t know what classes I would like to take anymore. But I think one of those colleges should give me an honorary degree for what i’ve done. I’m 69—at my age it’s just paper.
I have two sons. The older is a King County prosecutor and my younger is a civil engineer. They have taught me more than any university could teach me. Unfortunately I don’t really trust universities. More often than not there is more indoctrination than education.
What do people most often misunderstand understand about the role of a County Council person?
Few people understand the difference between legislative and administrative. They will come to us with problems that don’t have a legislative solution. In our charters we have a separation of powers. We as Council are meant to be a check and balance for the administration. But little by little, through Council members being lazy, we have allowed the administration take power away from the legislative side. We are not supposed to be a team.
Is there anything that you would like people to understand about you?
I could have just as easily ended up being a bag lady on the street. I’m on a medication now and it keeps me a little more balanced. I don’t like the side effects so I open another door. I exercise all the time—seven days a week, forty minutes a day on my elliptical.
I feel like I am the lucky one. I have been given a gift. I have parts of me that are gifts and parts of me that are handicaps. And in the right circumstance a handicap can be a gift. Being a council member is a gift because I’m good at helping people. I just care about them personally.
My husband is my hero because he puts up with me. He has taught me to be better about how I act. He is everything I am not. Oh and my boys! They are very different from each other. I don’t take any credit and I don’t take any blame. What I love about them is that they are their own people. They have been through a lot with me being in politics. I hope that that helped shape them. But it was more the process than it was me.