Coal money flows to conservative candidates for Whatcom charter review

Thousands of dollars from the company proposing a coal-export terminal at Cherry Point have been funneled to the campaigns of conservative candidates in an obscure Whatcom County election.

The county Charter Review Commission meets for just half a year, once every 10 years, but its work is important enough to the Whatcom County Republican Party and a conservative political action committee that those groups donated almost $8,000 combined to commission races.

The money went mostly to “slate cards,” or lists of endorsed candidates that go on mailers and newspaper inserts.

The Democrats put their endorsed charter review candidates on slate cards, too, said Mike Estes, chairman of the Whatcom County Democrats. Those expenses weren’t reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Estes said the party was not required to itemize slate cards by candidate.

As of Friday, Oct. 17, most of the money spent by Whatcom First, a conservative political action committee, this election season came from Pacific International Terminals. The Seattle-based company has submitted permits to build a terminal at Cherry Point that would export up to 48 million tons of coal a year. The project is undergoing an environmental review that should be completed next year.

Pacific International’s $10,000 donation to Whatcom First (run through a second political action committee, Save Whatcom) was 55 percent of what Whatcom First had spent this year on elections as of Friday. So the export company can be credited with $2,358 of the $4,253 Whatcom First gave to charter review candidates.

Pacific International spokesmen declined to comment on the record.

Countywide, 48 candidates are running for the commission. Voters in each of the three county districts will select only candidates who live in their district, so each ballot has from 12 to 19 charter review candidates. Voters may select up to five.

The commission will do what its name implies; it will review the county charter. Often called “the county constitution,” the charter sets the rules for how county government runs. It outlines the separation of powers between the County Council and the executive. It requires that the county be divided into three districts of roughly equal population.

The 15-member commission can put charter amendments on the November 2015 ballot. Voters make the final decision.

“Charter review is the ultimate political insider’s game,” said Jon Mutchler, a Ferndale City Council member and a District 3 charter review candidate who has received $333 in support from the Republicans. “It appears deceptively inconsequential and insignificant, and only the most hardcore of diehard political junkies will research all 12 to 19 candidates in their district and vote for the five that best represent their views.”

“I keep getting asked if charter review has to do with charter schools. And indeed, it does not,” Mutchler added.

Historically, District 1, which includes south Bellingham, most of Lake Whatcom and the South Fork Valley, votes Democratic. District 2 (northeast Bellingham, Lynden and the northeast county) and District 3 (northwest Bellingham, Lummi Island, Ferndale and Blaine) have leaned Republican.

With two-thirds of the districts majority-conservative, Republican-endorsed charter review candidates are calling for a return of “district-only voting,” in which County Council members are not elected countywide but rather by the voters in their district.

Leaders with Whatcom Republicans and Whatcom First said a candidate’s stand on district-only voting was a factor in whom they supported. This system of voting is more fair, they said, because each district, with its distinct population and needs, would be better represented.

“There’s a lot of people who live in District 2 and District 3 who don’t believe they’re getting the representation they want,” said Kris Halterman, chairwoman of Whatcom First.

Democratic Chairman Estes said the conservative push for district-only voting is a response to the 2013 council elections, in which all four progressive candidates won. The council will decide on a major permit for the coal terminal, and proponents are concerned the council is stacked against the project.

“Moving to (district-only voting) would rig the system, making it hard for Democrats to hold the majority on the County Council,” Estes said. “Our candidates are basically not wanting to see that change.”

Democrats suspect a commission controlled by conservatives would seek to strip decision-making power from the council on land-use decisions, including the coal terminal.

“There’s a worry about moving more of those decisions to the executive from the legislative branch,” Estes said.

Both Halterman and Whatcom Republican Party Chairman Charlie Crabtree said they hadn’t heard of this proposal, but Crabtree liked the idea.

“That’s an interesting angle to take, at least to talk about, get it out there,” he said.

Estes suggested the coal terminal has too much influence over the proposals being considered by charter review candidates.

“It seems strange to me to change the rules for a single project,’ Estes said. “Eventually, people are going to get sick of voting either for or against coal.”

Whatever the motivation, district-only voting is by far the issue getting the most play among charter review candidates. The commission recommended district-only voting to county voters in 2005, and the voters approved it. The County Council sought to rescind district-only voting and brought it back to the voters in 2008, when voters decided to return to countywide voting for council members.

“I would not be surprised if, for the third and tie-breaking time, district-only voting will face the voters in 2015,” Mutchler said.