Bellingham/Whatcom County Recreation Commission 

When I came to  Bellingham in 1967 I found many units of government were under the control of what I referred to as “The Old Boy’s Network”, i.e. persons of long residence in Bellingham who knew each other and took public money to do good things in organizations that were formed by government but not accountable to it.  Among these was the City/County Recreation Commission.

I required students in my Community Organization class to attend public meetings of various committees, commissions and authorities.  Those assigned to attend meetings of the Recreation Commission came back with reports that the members of the Commission resented the presence of the students and, on occasion, would call a recess of the meeting and reassemble at some site the location of which was not shared with the students.  “Hidden government” I called it.  When on the Bellingham City Council I determined to do something about it.

The Commission was made up of very prominent members of the community including the Superintendent of Schools, Gordon Carter and Hal Arneson, President of the School Board as well as President of the Board of Realtors, etc, etc., all well known citizens of the community and of impeccable reputation.  Funding came from the city, the county and the school district.  They met monthly and determined the recreational programs they would fund and would write the budget to achieve those goals.  

At the same time the City of Bellingham had a Park Department that was responsible for the development and maintenance of the facilities needed by the Recreation Commission.  I felt it would be more efficient to have both operations under one roof so, as Chairman of the Planning and Community Development Committee of the City Council I called a public meeting to discuss the future of the Recreation Commission.  I placed notices of the meeting in the local paper and with the local radio and TV station.

On the date of the meeting about 100 men and one woman attended the meeting.  It seems someone has started a rumor that I was out to kill “Little League” programs and the men came loaded for battle.  After I opened the meeting one old garrulous man with a loud, confrontational voice queried “If it ain’t broken there is no need to fix it.  What do you find wrong with the Commission’s programs?”

I responded that the local programs matched those of Dubuque, Iowa, in the 1950’s.  “Wot the hell are you talking about?” queried the fellow who had asked the question.  I pointed out that Dubuque, Iowa had no mountains, no waterfront, no forests and other opportunities for outdoor recreation.  I pointed out that the commission had totally ignored the opportunity to develop a strong wilderness program or ocean kayak program.  I further pointed out that the Bellingham program was focused on baseball, football and basketball, i.e. it was, to a great extent, a summer camp for the local school district school athletes.  Hal Arneson, Chairman of the Commission, had been a letterman in all those sports when he was a student in the local high school and went on to athletic fame at the university.  That was his claim to fame and he wanted our local school students to have that same kind of opportunity.

Then someone asked what is this 1950’s issue about and I had to point out to him that something had been discovered since 1950, girls. There was nothing programed specifically for girls. Focus was on baseball, football and basketball.  At this point Hal Arneson spoke up and asked “Drake, what right do you have coming into our community and try to tell us how to do things?  You are not even from Bellingham.”  I was shocked by his question and responded “Mr. Arneson, I have fought as a soldier in the Korean conflict to protect democratic institutions, including our own.  I have served in the U.S. Foreign Service in South America where my office was dynamited and was always at risk in a county in the throes of a civil war.  Are you telling me that there is nowhere in the U.S. that I can now move to and call my home?  Bellingham is my home and there is a basic difference between us.  Your position as Chairman of the Recreation Commission is a voluntary one, mine is an elected one and tonight at the City Council meeting we will dissolve your organization and create the City of Bellingham Department of Parks and Recreation.

After hearing further comments from the floor the meeting was ended at which time Hal Arneson came to me and apologized for his question.  I responded to him that an insult in public is not righted by an apology in private and invited him to the City Council meeting to apologize.  He did not show up.

At the City Council meeting that night I gave the following presentation to the Council after which we dissolved the Recreation Commission and formed the City of Bellingham Park and Recreation Dept.

The City/County Recreation Commission and the City of Bellingham Department of Parks and Recreation

By George F. Drake, City Councilman, 4th Ward

“The City of Bellingham currently contracts with the City/County Recreation Commission to run the recreational programs for the city. I maintain that the City/County Recreation Commission is a failure as it is not effective in meeting the needs of our community in the field of recreation. Effectiveness is the organizational property that can be translated as goal attainment.  A goal statement must relate to a problem that needs to be resolved through collective action.  The effectiveness of the organization can then be measured by the extent to which it has resolved the problem.  When we look at the Articles of Association of the Bellingham & Whatcom County Recreation Commission we find only one sentence that can be construed as a goal statement, “The purpose of this Commission shall be to promote and administer a Community Recreation Program.”  An evaluation of the Community Recreation Program then becomes a very elusive thing.  It depends on how one defines a “Community Recreation Program.”  As the Commission currently operates it seems that the program director defines that as he sees fit since there is no organized formal or professional input into providing an independent definition.  This lack of a clear statement of a program goal or a clearly defined problem that is being addressed reinforces the lack of accountability noted above.  How can program management be held accountable if they are essentially told “go and do good” and then allow staff to define what is “good?”

The alternative that we recommend is to dissolve the Recreation Commission and turn the responsibility for the development and management of a recreation program for the City of Bellingham over to the Director of the City Department of Parks and Recreation.  He/she, in turn, will hire a Recreation Director but will be accountable to the Mayor and City Council.

The Director of the Department of Parks and Recreation for the City of Bellingham shall have the authority to enter into cooperative agreements with the local school board for use of school facilities for recreational programming.  Such cooperative agreements might be entered into with the Whatcom County Park Department, the YMCA, etc., as the Parks Director sees fit but he shall have to answer to the Mayor and City Council for his program and fiscal decisions.

Currently, the City of Bellingham Parks and Recreation Director by not having authority over any part of the recreation program in the city, including the planning of it, is in a very weak position for long-range planning for facilities development and long-range acquisitions.  The City of Bellingham Parks and Recreation Director ends up lacking control over the planning of the use of the facilities he is supposed to be developing and maintaining.  As an example, the City of Bellingham has no bikeways program because the Recreation Commission never thought to expand its programs into that field.  The City of Bellingham has lost control of the city recreational programs and it is time we took it back”.

Years later one of the employees of the Recreation Commission informed me that the Commission has a “secret” bank account with over $110,000 dollars in it that was never made part of the budgeting process presented to the City Council and to the other funding organizations.  It was their private slush fund. So much for the honesty of the “Old Boys Networks.”