The members of the newly elected Whatcom County Charter Review Commission, which holds its first meeting on Monday, Jan. 12, already agree on one thing: They want to hear from the public.
Based on interviews by email and phone with most of the commissioners (The Bellingham Herald reached out to all 15), what the commission comes up with will be determined by public input and the political predispositions of its members.
The Charter Review Commission meets every 10 years to scrutinize the charter, which is essentially the county’s constitution. The charter governs how the budget gets written, how the executive and the seven-member council share power, and how offices are elected. The commission can put forward changes that county voters will ultimately decide on.
One topic likely to get batted around by the commission is whether to give rural folks more influence in council elections. District-only voting, which would have council members elected by voters only in their district rather than countywide, has become a lively topic because of the role the council plays, deciding how property owners get to use their land.
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Debates around these types of decisions come up again and again in the county, pitting progressive and typically urban environmentalists against rural, conservative landowners.
“This is not just a local issue,” wrote charter review commissioner Yvonne Goldsmith, in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “As seen in other, nationwide elections, the bigger the city, the more control of the electoral outcome — i.e., more social-liberal agendas. Each of our districts are unique, and voters in each district should determine their representative and not the county at large.”
For an idea of how the districts vary politically, consider who was elected to the Charter Review Commission from each district. District 1, south Bellingham and the south county, elected five progressives. Districts 2 and 3 — north Bellingham and the north county — voted for nine conservatives and one progressive.
Goldsmith leans conservative, along with the eight commissioners endorsed by the county Republicans. (Goldsmith, a former county Republican officer, did not seek the party’s endorsement.) Six commission candidates endorsed by the county Democrats were elected, putting conservatives at a distinct voting advantage.
Goldsmith and other commissioners, both left and right, emphasized gathering public comments before making any decisions.
“Sure, I have ideas and opinions for myself, but this is a process for the people of Whatcom County,” commissioner Eileen Sobjack said by phone. Sobjack is the county Republican vice chairwoman. “I hope people show up and talk about the things that are most important to them.”
Left-leaning commissioners generally called for a cautious approach to changing the election process or other parts of the charter.
“I know there will be a discussion about having our council elected by ... districts,” wrote Todd Donovan, a commissioner who was endorsed by the Democrats. “My hope is that anyone proposing that is willing to give serious consideration to all aspects of our elections,” including why the county is divided into districts, and how many there should be. (With three districts, two council members come from each district and one serves at large.)
“I do not support district-only voting,” said commissioner Barbara Ryan, who was endorsed by the Democrats. “I think that disenfranchises most voters. We would like to be able to elect our (entire) Whatcom Council.”
Ben Elenbaas, a Lynden-area farmer and a conservative county planning commissioner, is amenable to both district-only voting and term limits for elected officials.
“I have a feeling the longer a politician is a politician, the more institutionalized they get,” Elenbaas said. “I just think our government was set up to be run by a citizenry. I think the longer somebody’s in the system, the more the system runs them.”
As the top overall vote-getter in the commission elections in November, Elenbaas will open the commission’s first meeting as chairman. He said he would propose that public comments be held early in the meeting. Another idea for making meetings more convenient for the public, expressed by more than one commissioner, was to convene in different parts of the county.
The proposals commissioners ultimately advance must go to county voters for final approval in November. The commission will submit its ballot proposals by July to the County Council Office, which must turn them in to the Elections Division of the Auditor’s Office by Aug. 6 or so, counting back 90 days from the election.
While members of the conservative majority are indicating they support some of the same issues, Republican-endorsed commissioner Ken Bell rejected the idea that conservatives will be able to pass a raft of proposals onto the fall ballot.
“There will be issues we agree on, based on principal, but the idea of a platform is absurd,” Bell wrote in an email. “Neither party holds exclusive rights to good ideas or the truth. The best outcome will be through good ideas presented with vigorous debate.”
Elenbaas also wouldn’t endorse the notion of a partisan approach to decision making on the Charter Review Commission.
“I’m sure there’ll be partisan agendas here and there, but I would like to see things that make it on the ballot not make it with a 9-to-6 vote,” Elenbaas said. “I would like to see things make it on the ballot that are well supported.”
“Knowing the cast of characters involved on this commission,” Bell wrote, “it will be akin to herding cats. I do not envy the chairman.”
Attend the meeting
What: Charter Review Commission.
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 12.
Where: Civic Center Garden Room, 322 N. Commercial St., Bellingham.