Cooking the County Council

Voters will consider some new recipes in November

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Imagine a giant pie made of Whatcom County blueberries, sliced into three pieces. Delicious, except that each piece of the pie wraps around a fried oyster and a dollop of garlic butter.

Whatcom County’s three council districts are a bit like that. Each district contains a piece of Bellingham. Each has a swath of berry fields or mountains or seacoast, and a small town or two, all worthy of a full-color page in Whatcom Places. They all contain a piece of Bellingham. Mix them together and they clash like garlic and blueberries. Conflict seems always at hand.

Fired-up citizens from all three electoral districts jammed last week’s County Council meeting and overflowed into the rotunda, many of them already angry before the Pledge of Allegiance began.

Why? Because the Council was expected to approve a proposal for the November ballot that would change the county’s governing geography.

Speakers denounced the current system as one that allegedly leaves them disenfranchised, but were mad at the Council for proposing to change it.

Speaker after angry speaker advanced a theory that if you don’t like the Council member from your district, you are therefore unrepresented and deserve a makeover of the electoral system. But few commented on the actual change being discussed at the hearing, and certainly not anything advanced by the current Council.

“Give me a show of hands,” one speaker demanded of the Council, seeking to show how badly it lacks legitimacy. “How many of you were endorsed by the Republican Party?”

Council positions are nonpartisan, a requirement of the Whatcom County Charter, the document that governs how the county is structured and operates—the county’s constitution, if you will.

The proposed change the County Council will send to the voters in November would create five districts of roughly equal size, designed around communities of interest. The idea is that citizens living fairly close to each other, sharing common problems and common natural assets, form a more cohesive community than does a mix of cattle growers and cello players in a district spread from downtown to Canada.

If voters approve changing to five districts this fall, a redistricting committee chosen by the two major parties would work out the boundaries and submit a plan to County Council. A similar committee adjusted the boundaries of the current three districts in response to population changes reported in the 2010 U.S. Census.

Here’s how the districts could take shape, with roughly 40,000 people in each:

Two districts would likely share the City of Bellingham―one north, one south. One of three districts could include the eastern Foothills and lakes; another predominantly would represent farm country, and the town of Lynden. A seacoast district might extend from Blaine southward, and include Birch Bay and Ferndale. Two Council positions would run at-large to represent the entire county, rounding out the number of elected positions to seven, the number currently serving Whatcom County.

The five-district proposal was championed by Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University. Donovan serves on the Charter Review Commission, and is a candidate for County Council this fall.

The CRC is an elected body that comes to life every 10 years to dust and polish the county’s constitution. A conservative majority dominated the CRC this time around. They began considering charter changes in January and finished their work a week before the stormy Council hearing. Donovan presented the five-district proposal to the Commission in March. The CRC majority declined to place it on a ballot.

The idea of three rural/small-town districts would seem to offer the separation from Bellingham influence and local representation critics say they want. Conservatives could win a Council majority by carrying the rural districts and picking up one of two at-large seats. The current at-large position is volatile, and has been held in recent years by conservatives like Bill Knutzen and Marlene Dawson. In other years, progressives like Rud Browne have held the position.

But the five-district proposal is a trick, Jim Dickinson of Lummi Island warned angrily at the Council hearing.

“The [five-district] amendment absolutely guarantees control of the entire county by the City of Bellingham,” Dickinson told the council. “There’s no way the three rural districts get anything out of this at all.”

The argument is more than a little complicated. Currently we choose County Council candidates in a district-only primary. Voters in each district winnow the contest down to two candidates for each seat. In the general election, candidates run countywide. Every voter in the county helps choose the winners in all districts, as well as one council member elected at large.

County Council member Ken Mann, cautioning against rigid restrictions in elected representation last week, noted that the full council decides how to spend taxpayer money, and taxpayers deserve access to all their council members making these decisions.

That’s how it’s been for years. Candidates are winnowed out at the district level in primaries. The top two go on to be elected by voters throughout the county in a general election. Voters tried district-only voting in the general election just once―in 2007. They changed back to the original method in 2008. District 3 Council member Barbara Brenner encouraged the change back, convinced she and her colleagues represent the entire county when they preside as a body of seven members.

It’s that countywide vote that makes Whatcom County conservatives steam. They see it as a mechanism to empower Bellingham, 40 percent of county population, and disenfranchise voters from the countryside and small towns. Never mind that it produced a solid conservative County Council majority as recently as 2009, the very next election cycle after voters changed back to countywide elections.

As conservative activists explain it, the best outcome they could hope for this fall is to keep the current three-district design but change to district-only voting for both the primary and general elections. Bellingham voters would no longer have anything to say about four of seven Council positions.

The Charter Review Commission majority supports that view and is sending the proposal to voters on the November ballot (see the sidebar for a list of charter amendments proposed by the CRC). The five-district proposal is silent on the issue of district-only voting. Conceivably, both could be approved by voters.

A committee known as DOVE—District Only Voting for Everybody—has formed to promote the issue on the fall ballot. Its chair, former Tea Party board president Karl Uppiano, denies his campaign is meant to impact the outcome of Council elections.

“I was asked if I would help push district-only voting through,” he said. “I said yes, but only for the right reasons. It would make campaigning a more personal and simple process.”

Uppiano says elections conducted only at the district level would reduce the amounts of money being fed into the campaigns. The candidates run closer to home. More one-on-one campaigning, fewer yard signs, fewer miles to travel.

Would it also reduce Bellingham’s influence in Council elections?

“That’s how some see it,” Uppiano says, “but that’s not a good reason for the change.”

It is, in fact, the essential reason for the change, in the view of Charter Review Commissioner Chet Dow. In an April email message to Tea Party leader Ellen Baker, Dow declares his belief in the urgent necessity of district-only voting, and links it to the fate of the proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal at Cherry Point. Sandra Robson, a critic of the coal port who blogs as “COAL STOP,” publicized the email message following a public disclosure request of CRC records.

Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a leading opponent of the coal terminal, is the main target of Dow’s message. He refers to RE Sources leadership as “Radical Marxists” and warns:

“Their small group of believers clearly understand what is at stake with respect to Whatcom County’s demographics and the potential make-up of our County Council… should we succeed in first placing Charter Amendments 1 and 10 on the ballot.”  Amendment 1 is the CRC proposal for district-only voting; Amendment 10 was an effort to prevent any change back to countywide voting by restricting the actions of a future County Council. The latter amendment was withdrawn after legal counsel advised the state constitution establishes the powers of county governments and would override restrictions of those powers by charter.

Dow’s email continues, “It has not escaped subscribers to the environmental religion that at some point it is likely that County Council will cast votes concerning whether or not to issue the needed permits for the shipping terminal.

“It will be a long time… before another private enterprise comes along, willing to risk nearly a billion dollars of private money in Whatcom County,” wrote Dow, a board member of Whatcom Republicans and a campaign strategist in the 2013 county elections. “That is why I believe that all other topics pale in comparison to getting Amendment 1 (district-only voting) enacted,” he wrote.

The email message created something of a stir, possibly not the one the Commissioner intended.

Following disclosure of the email, RE Sources led a brief petition campaign to put the five-district proposal on the November ballot. Former Bellingham Mayor Tim Douglas introduced the plan at a County Council meeting in June.

At last week’s hearing Douglas presented the council with 2,100 signatures supporting it, gathered in a period of two weeks. Council decided, six to one, Pete Kremen voting no, to send it on to the ballot.

Voters will approve or reject the five-district idea in November, countywide.

Charter Changes: Amendments you may vote on in November.

From the Charter Review Commission:
• District-only voting: Eliminates countywide voting for County Council members.
• Charter amendments: any proposed ballot measure changing an amendment approved by two-thirds of the voters would require seven County Council votes. Any proposed ballot measure to change County Council election procedures would require the votes of seven council members.
• Ballot titles: increases from 20 to 40 the number of words allowed in the titles of initiatives and referendums.
Initiative and referendum signatures: lowers the number of signatures needed for sending initiatives and referendums to the ballot.
Charter amendments: lowers the number of signatures needed for sending citizen-initiated county charter amendments to the ballot.
• Term limits: County Council members and the County Executive would be limited to no more than three terms in office.
Redistricting:  members of as many as four political parties would choose the county Districting Committee after each ten-year census.
From the County Council:
• Redraw county council electoral districts to create five instead of the current three.
Council may consider other amendments before the November ballot is finalized in mid-August.

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