Red herrings not on endangered species list
RED HERRINGS NOT ON ENDANGERED SPECIES LIST: Rising to crisis, Port of Bellingham Commissioner Jim Jorgensen this week joined the motion of fellow Commissioner Michael McAuley, agreeing to place a proposal to expand the commission to five members on the November ballot. If approved by voters, two additional members could be added to the commission roster in a special election as early as February 2013, according to Whatcom County Auditor Debbie Adelstein, who advised the commission on their options.
While the increase admittedly does not guarantee good decisions, it perhaps stalls bad decisions. Given a dysfunctional port authority, that is no doubt a preferred outcome.
At their creation, port commissions by default have three members. State law enacted in the early 1990s allows voters to add representatives, creating five-member commissions. Former state Sen. Harriet Spanel, who sponsored the original legislation, attempted to explain its intricacies to a confused commission on Monday.
Under the law, the commission can place the option on a ballot for consideration by voters. Citizens also have the option to collect signatures, and force the question on to a ballot by initiative. A citizen’s initiative would require about 7,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, the auditor explained.
Civic leaders—former mayors, activists, and board and commission members—spoke in favor of the measure introduced by McAuley, urging the commission to action.
While Jorgensen and McAuley untangled their tackle, Commission President Scott Walker chummed the waters with red herrings aplenty. Opposed to the expansion, Walker suggested supporters go right on gathering signatures in an effort to demonstrate depth of support for the idea—as if tendering the matter to Whatcom voters was an insufficiently high bar.
“I don’t see how this makes us any more accountable to the public,” Walker complained. “It just means we’d be subject to more lobbying” and decisions would take longer.
Evidently, throwing obstacles in the way of the public’s control of their commission—in the form of dissembling non-sequiturs, misleading arguments and procedural obstructions—is Commissar Walker’s way of improving the commission’s accountability to said public.
Yet inefficiency in decision-making, which creates time and opportunity to attempt to persuade (“lobby”) elected leaders, is the public’s guarantee—the only guarantee, really—of accountability in government. Small inefficiencies (we call them checks and balances) are in the very gears of our Madisonian instruments of government, as brakes to machinery. A decision to structurally improve the port commission—to in effect make it a more representative, more deliberative, more responsive body—extends far beyond trying to overwhelm one commissar’s obsessive experiments in micromanagement of port operations. As one commenter wryly noted, the only thing more efficient than a commission of three is a dictatorship of one.
Under the current structure, Commissar Walker need only twist the feeble arm of one other commissioner to gin up a series of disasters that have rocked the agency in recent weeks. Two can negate one. Under an expanded commission, a commissar would have to manipulate at least two others to achieve the same mischief. Other commissioners could cross-check the details of the blind con, without breaking state sunshine laws. But beyond that, and long after the peculiar mischief of any single commissioner is long forgotten, better structure invites better government.
Commissioners and petitioners also have the option of creating an expanded commission in different flavors: Easiest is a commission with two at-large representatives, commissioners not tied geographically to one of the county’s three legislative districts. More cumbersome, the port commission could draw its own five districts, based on voting populations, and require one commissioner of each distinct district.
The added complication of flavors appeared to stir apprehension in Jorgensen. The Blaine resident expressed unease representation could become heavily weighted by Bellingham. Yet there’s no malady for the cure: Ultimately, all county elections in Whatcom County involve all county voters, and Bellingham—as the county’s population center—will inevitably produce a surfeit of candidates for office. Moreover, by reason and design, Bellingham is pieced and parceled out to every county legislative district.
At sea, Jorgensen’s waters were further chummed by the port’s legal counsel, Frank Chmelik, who—appearing to read the governing statutes for the first time—saw these flavors as mutually excluding one another. One path chosen, he suggested, would prevent the commission from considering the other. Chmelik’s hesitant herrings nearly swamped the commissioner’s resolve. But, in fact, the law allows for the commission to readily adopt either flavor, or for petitioners—again, in the law’s symmetry—to force a preference on to a future ballot.
Listeners urged commissioners to expand the commission now, and allow the expanded commission itself to sort out the preferred details of representation.
While time permits the proposed expansion to appear on the coming August primary ballot, McAuley expressed his preference that the measure appear in November’s general election, where more voters may participate.
“There it will receive far more attention, far more participation by voters,” he reasoned.
Yet even that produces a prickly outcome: While it’s true more people may be involved in the decision to change the commission’s structure in November, fewer will vote on the commission’s actual representatives in a special election in February. Given the latter will have a much more profound effect on the commission and its decisions, a November election might’ve yielded a better balance of competing imperatives.
If approved by voters, the top vote-getter in the special election will serve through 2015. The candidate in second place could stand for re-election to a full four-year term in the fall of 2013.
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