BELLINGHAM - Port of Bellingham commissioners agreed Tuesday, June 5, to amend a ballot measure that would expand the three-member port commission by two members, after confronting possible legal issues surrounding the measure they had approved on a 2-1 vote May 14.
But all three commissioners said they still expect to get the issue to Whatcom County voters this November. Despite its name, the port district includes all of Whatcom County.
The amendment to the ballot measure did not appear on the June 5 meeting agenda, and that drew wrath from backers of the commission expansion.
During the public comment period at the start of the meeting, Northwest Citizen blog publisher John Servais told commissioners he had learned through unofficial sources that the matter would be discussed, and he asked them to confirm it. Commissioner Scott Walker then admonished Servais that the public comment period was "not a two-way dialog," despite the fact that Walker himself had initiated a dialog with a previous commenter who had asked the commissioners' help in reducing railroad horn noise in Fairhaven.
But Commissioner Mike McAuley answered Servais and confirmed that the matter would be taken up.
Tip Johnson, another outspoken advocate of an expanded port commission, then took the microphone to accuse port attorney Frank Chmelik of stirring up bogus legal concerns at the Whatcom County Auditor's Office, where ballot measures are processed.
"Chmelik is running around at the auditor's office meddling in election politics," Johnson said. "Who gave him the direction to do that?"
Rob Fix, acting executive director, replied that he had asked Chmelik to look into possible legal concerns and consult with county officials. Fix said this happened on Monday, too late to get the matter onto Tuesday's agenda for public scrutiny.
Royce Buckingham, deputy prosecuting attorney, told commissioners there were some legitimate legal concerns about the form of the ballot measure commissioners had approved May 14, with Walker casting a "no" vote.
Buckingham said that measure asked county voters for a vote on whether the port commission should be expanded by adding two commissioners to be elected at-large to the port district commission. Buckingham warned that a court could conceivably rule that this measure actually contains two questions: expansion of the commission, and the at-large nature of the two new commission seats. The state's courts have previously ruled that separate questions require separate ballot measures.
Buckingham told commissioners that he could not predict what a court would rule, and he could not offer them legal advice because they are not his clients. But he noted that when a similar question was put on the ballot in Everett, commissioners there chose to place it before voters as two measures.
Johnson scoffed at the idea that the ballot measure contained two questions, but Buckingham said the issue was far from clear-cut.
"You may have an opinion about that, the court may have an opinion about that," Buckingham told Johnson.
Commissioner Michael McAuley said he thought it best to be careful.
"If it gets challenged as illegal then it's kind of pointless," McAuley said. "What we need to make sure is, that it's real and legitimate and written properly."
Commissioners, including Walker, agreed to have a redrawn ballot measure ready for approval at their next meeting June 19.
"We've already committed that we'll put it on the November ballot," Walker said.
Reach JOHN STARK at email@example.com or call 715-2274.