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Island County trolls for hearing examiners

Bellingham attorney Michael Bobbink has been making decisions about development and land use in Island County for 20 years. But his long run as the county hearing examiner could come to an end next year.

At a meeting with county commissioners Oct. 7, Island County Planning Director Bob Pederson proposed opening up the hearing examiner contract for bids. He said Bobbink’s “three-year, no-bid contract” will expire next March.

“My recommendation to go out to bid is no reflection on Mr. Bobbink. It’s about being a good steward of the county’s money,” Pederson said in an interview.

The three-year contract with Bobbink totals $164,700. Pederson said the county is paying him an average of $2,600 per case he handles. The county recently raised the fee for filing an appeal with the hearing examiner from $70 to $410, but obviously that still doesn’t cover the cost.

Pederson said a problem with the current contract is that it doesn’t have a clause to lower the fees if the hearing examiner’s workload changes dramatically. He would like to see that rectified in the new contract.

Pederson recommended that the county ask for prospective hearing examiners to submit bids for work on an hourly basis, as well as the flat fee that Bobbink receives. He said plenty of jurisdictions pay hearing examiners on an hourly basis.

Reached by phone Thursday, Bobbink said he’s currently the hearing examiner for Island County, Oak Harbor, Whatcom County and Ferndale. He explained that a hearing examiner is basically an administrative law judge who specializes in land-use issues.

Bobbink said most of the cases he hears nowadays are appeals from people who aren’t happy with a planning department decision. He also rules on such land-use issues as subdivision or large-scale development projects.

“Land use has gotten a lot more complex and controversial over the years,” he said.

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