The Election That Wasn’t
THE ELECTION THAT WASN’T: For all the fussing and farting about “fair and equitable representation by district” that has consumed the Charter Review Commission this cycle, more attention might be spent encouraging and recruiting excellent people into public office. Filing Week ended for local elections last week, and what a lackluster show it was. Incumbents filed early and vigorously for reelection; challengers trickled in late in a footsore and tuneless, glum parade. A few last-minute applications smacked of quiet desperation.
Of 106 county and city offices with candidates filed, 87 have a single candidate. That means only one election in five will have a contested outcome in November.
For the City of Bellingham, in particular, there will be no November election, with no challengers at all for any elective office.
The reasons for a colorless campaign season are perhaps as numerous as the unchallenged offices themselves. Some voting districts, such as Bellingham’s first ward, notoriously underperform. Some seats long held are considered unassailable by challengers. Several positions—notably those at the county level—are held by technocrats, people who hold very particular qualifying professional skills, such as judges and auditors. Overarching all, though, there are just a heck of a lot of very minor special purpose districts—fire districts, water districts, school districts, park districts, hospital districts, cemetery districts—with few interested bodies to flesh them out.
Flagging interest in higher offices is part of a long- emerging trend, across the state and nationally. The number of incumbents running for re-election without challenge in either the primary or general election in Washington continues to increase, from 25.9 percent in 2012 to 34.1 percent in 2014. A third of elections across the state drew no challengers at all. Politics is becoming a game of solitaire.
One county race clawed on to the primary ballot this November—a contest for the seat being vacated by Pete Kremen. Three contenders for the seat vacated by Port of Bellingham Commissioner Jim Jorgensen will also tussle in August; and the City of Ferndale continues to bubble with the ferment of democracy. But at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to run an election (estimated at about 46.7 percent of the Auditor’s total budget for 2015) these paltry primaries are an expensive proposition.
Twenty years ago, the 1995 primary featured seven vigorous contests for county, port and COB offices. By 2011, this number had dwindled to just two. In 2013, just one.
The situation in Bellingham is particularly grim.
With so little on the ballot to interest and engage voters, we might expect to see low turnouts in both August and November. Meanwhile, the Charter Review Commission continues to churn out endless proposed amendments designed to forever curtail Bellingham’s participation in county elections—amendments that without a vote of resistance from Bellingham are likely to pass. At least one of these amendments is designed to lock the door behind them all, requiring supermajorities of future voters to overturn.
The essential problem with the commission’s “district only” fixation is Whatcom County’s three voting districts were never drawn to be representative of cohesive communities. They’re an artifact left over from Whatcom’s political structure prior to the adoption of the Home Rule charter in 1978, when the county was governed by three elected commissioners. Bellingham was carved across three districts because, as the county’s population center, it eased (and still does) apportioning roughly equal populations to each district. When the charter was adopted, seven council positions were grafted on to three divisions that serve more as a bookkeeping function than a description of political allegiances.
Zooming out beyond November, elections are an excellent means to challenge ideas and assumptions and to introduce some rigor into policy.
Yes, Mayor Kelli Linville is an excellent and capable administrator, and she has a council determined to work with her to achieve city goals. But there’s not a lot of variation of opinion on City Council, and that can lead to groupthink. The one City Council member who consistently pushes back against the assertions of the administration, Jack Weiss, has not sought reelection. He recommended April Barker, president of the Birchwood Neighborhood Association, to replace him; and while that’s a powerful endorsement, she enters office without even a cursory evaluation by voters.
This week, Bellingham City Council pushed forward a number of agreements that amount to subsidies on the order of millions of dollars.
Council is on the threshold of agreeing to cover half the costs associated with recreational boating on Lake Whatcom for another season while simultaneously investing millions of dollars to protect and restore the reservoir. They approved a dense packet of incentives and tax credits to help spur development in designated urban villages that include Samish Way and the central waterfront. They’re designed to achieve the city’s infill goals and put properties back on the tax rolls, but they don’t arrive without near-term outlay and forgone revenue. Council approved the package without a detailed financial analysis of the costs of the incentives or their efficacy. Later this summer, they’ll consider additions to the city’s urban growth areas (UGAs) that will introduce capital infrastructure costs of nearly $60 million, according to planning estimates.
Meanwhile, according to data presented by the city’s Finance department, the city’s carried debt has doubled since 2010, at the bottom of the recession, climbing from $49.3 million to $104 million—or $610 per resident in 2010 to $1,261 per resident in 2014. Much of that increase arrives by way of upgrades to the city’s sewage treatment facility, but its growth against the context of other city expenses and forgone revenue deserves rigorous debate.
Unfortunately for the health of our city government, voters won’t get that debate.
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