Some political tension in first Whatcom charter review meeting

A spirit of goodwill and a few political sparks marked the inaugural meeting of the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission, which over the next six months will propose changes to the county’s charter.

The charter essentially is the county’s constitution, spelling out, among other things, the way county government separates legislative and executive powers, writes budgets and holds elections. The commission meets every 10 years.

The 15 commissioners, who convened for the first time on Monday, Jan. 12, were chosen in nonpartisan elections in November. Yet the outcome of the elections were strongly influenced by endorsements from county Democrats and Republicans. The group is polarized, with nine conservatives and six progressives.

Along mostly party lines, the commission on Monday rejected a proposal by progressives to require that 10 members be present to take a final vote on recommendations for charter amendments. The recommendations ultimately go to county voters in November.

The procedural move by Commissioner Richard May to propose a quorum of 10 rather than the standard eight could have serious consequences, commissioner Joe Elenbaas said.

“That flies in the face of what any rules of order are — and that is, a minority should not be able to control the activities of the majority,” Elenbaas said. “The minority can have control by virtue of not attending the meeting, and hence no action could take place.”

“It is a stipulation and a power and a motivation that is taught in organizations that attempt to thwart,” Elenbaas added. “And while I have no basis to say that’s what the intent of your motion is, it’s certainly what the impact of it would be.”

Commissioner Barbara Ryan spoke in support of the quorum change.

“I guess the question would be, if we get to the end and there are fewer than 10 people (voting on a recommendation), is that a legitimate perspective from this group?” Ryan said.

The vote to change the quorum failed, 5-10, with five of six progressives voting for it: Ryan, May, Eli Mackiewicz, Thomas Stuen and Alie Walker. Todd Donovan, the last progressive in the roll-call vote, said “no.”

“My worry was, it seemed that that’s how it was going to look: It was going to be some obstructionist tactic,” Donovan said in an interview after the meeting. “The appearances of it didn’t look good, nor did it really seem necessary.”

In interviews, Ryan and May denied making a power play. May said his motion was an attempt to ensure broader consensus among commissioners.

“It was to raise the bar ... to make sure it didn’t look like things were being done in a smoky back room,” May said.

Asked whether her vote was an attempt to wrest control from conservatives, Ryan laughed and said, “I wish I was that clever.”

Despite political differences, the first meeting was amicable overall. Commissioners quickly and unanimously agreed to install Joe Elenbaas’ nephew, Ben Elenbaas, as chairman.

Joe Elenbaas won the vice chairmanship in a 9-to-4 vote. A majority of the six progressives preferred Commissioner Jon Mutchler, a Ferndale City Council member who identifies as a Republican.

Meetings will be held at 6:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Monday of every month into July, with the first meeting of each month scheduled in Bellingham. Commissioners have the option to hold the last meeting each month in a different part of the county, to attract a diversity of public input. (The next meeting, on Jan. 26, will be in Bellingham.)

Getting any public input was a priority of the commissioners. They voted to take public comments at the beginning of each meeting, so attendees wouldn’t wait for hours to make their statements.

The next step will be to come up with a way to attract an audience.

“I’d like to ensure when we go someplace, the people in that area know that we’re coming and why we’re coming,” Commissioner Ken Bell said.