The 950 people who live on Lummi Island can breathe easier, following 18 months of a legal standoff between Whatcom County and the Lummi Indian Nation. The county council’s expected to approve, early next month, a new lease agreement that will keep the Whatcom Chief hauling cars and people across Hale Passage for another 35 years.
One curious feature of the agreement is that it appears to prevent the county from talking about the issue unless tribal leaders approve of the language. This would seem to set up a strange kind of public hearing July 26, when county officials are supposed to answer questions from their constituents about the new lease.
For a passage that’s only a mile wide, this has been some stormy crossing. The tribe’s leaders discovered more than a year ago that the lease agreement that Whatcom County thought it had with Lummi Nation since 1985 was not valid. They announced that a new one was going to cost the county more money. At one point the tribe was demanding $14 million in additional county spending, not counting the $200,000 annual rent. As late as February of this year the chair of the Lummi governing body, Clifford Cultee, returned the county’s monthly $16,667 rent check, said the Lummis were through negotiating and told the county it should get ready to shut down ferry service in April.
Now the new lease agreement, which the Lummi Nation and county administration officials have agreed to, heads to the county council and a public review process, beginning Tuesday, July 12. It requires the county to continue paying the same rent for the Lummi Nation’s tidelands, which the Whatcom Chief crosses to and from Lummi Island, but with increases pegged to inflation. In addition the county commits to $6 million in road improvements over a 15-year period.
Along with the rental terms there’s an “intergovernmental framework agreement” that somewhat resembles a gag order. As reported by the Bellingham Herald's John Stark today (July 8), the agreement reads as follows: “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.”
In other words, either side can veto what the other side can say.
Further language in the agreement seems to restrict what can be revealed at public hearings: “The parties will discuss foreseeable public events or open meetings 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.”
Terms of the new lease appear to amount to major concessions by the Lummi Nation. Only a few months ago the demands included a $4 million lump sum payment to help build a new Lummi marina, payable whenever the tribe might acquire federal permits to build. That item seems to have disappeared from the terms of the new lease. Sort of hard to tell, since neither side can talk without the other’s approval.