Charter review a chance to change Whatcom County government

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 7, 2014 

Don't like the way Whatcom County government is run? Here's a chance to do something about it.

Everything from the county's name to the number of people on the council is spelled out in the county charter. Voters will elect a Charter Review Commission this November, then the commission will consider changes to the charter, which is a sort of constitution for the county.

The commission will have 15 members, five from each of the three County Council districts. People interested in becoming a commissioner must file with the county auditor the week of May 12-16.

Considering that the commission meets only once every 10 years, for about half a year, and its members receive no pay, it attracts a lot of candidates. In 2004, the last time the commission was elected, 62 people ran.

While the commission is nonpartisan, the people elected tended to have a distinct place on the political spectrum. The commission tilted just slightly to the left in 2005, said Charlie Crabtree, Whatcom County Republican Party chairman and a charter review commissioner a decade ago.

In a close vote, the commission recommended district-only voting of council members in 2005. The proposal went to the voters in November of that year and passed. Under that system, council members were elected only by voters within their districts.

Republicans favor district-only voting because it can increase rural representation on the council.

Council members later decided voters needed to revisit the issue, and council put the same measure back on the ballot in 2008. Voters overturned district-only voting, and the general election reverted to countywide voting for all council candidates.

"The disappointing thing to me was that (district-only voting) wasn't given a chance to work," Crabtree said.

The chairman of the Whatcom Democrats said he would not like to see the issue come up again with the next commission, which could begin meeting as early as December.

"That was tried 10 years ago, and the voters quickly decided to switch back," Chairman Mike Estes said.

Active members of Whatcom Democrats probably will appear on the ballot for charter review, he said. The Democrats would like to build on their success promoting candidates for the council last year.

"We will use that to our advantage to promote candidates for the review that share our values," Estes said.

Other changes to the charter that made the 2005 ballot were the local voters' pamphlet, which passed, and removing the salary cap in place at the time for council members. That measure failed, but the cap on council members' salaries was effectively lifted after voters approved a citizens salary commission in 2011.

Whatcom County is one of six counties across the state with a charter. The others are Clallam, King, Pierce, Snohomish and San Juan. CHARTER DETAILS

Whatcom County charter: codepublishing.com/wa/WhatcomCountyCH. Article 8 describes the charter review process.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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