Whatcom charter review to debate district-only voting for County Council

The elephant in the room, as one commissioner called it, now has the attention of the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission.

Commissioner Joe Elenbaas, part of the commission’s conservative majority, proposed the county charter be amended so that council members are elected only by voters who live in their district.

“I’d like to get the elephant that’s been wandering around in the corners of the room in front of us,” Elenbaas said, then he read his proposed charter amendment: “Shall the charter be amended to provide for election of council members within the council district from which the candidate was nominated?

“This is essentially the same wording that more than two thirds of the voters last time approved,” Elenbaas said.

Two thirds of voters in 2005 did support replacing countywide voting for council members with district-only voting. The county is divided into three districts — northwest, northeast and south — each one including a piece of Bellingham.

District-only voting for County Council was short-lived. Council decided in 2008 to ask voters in November of that year to reconsider their 2005 vote. The voters then reversed themselves, resetting the charter to require countywide voting for council.

The commission meets once every 10 years to discuss whether the charter, the equivalent of a constitution for county government, needs any changes. Amendments approved by this year’s commission will be forwarded to county voters for approval in November.

Conservatives support district-only voting because they expect it would lead to better representation for rural residents. Some progressives on the commission have said they do not approve of district-only voting because it disenfranchises most voters by removing them from participating in a vote for a countywide office.

Substantive debate on district-only voting could come at the commission’s next meeting, on Monday, Feb. 9. The commission will meet at 6:30 p.m. in the Garden Level Conference Room at the Civic Center, 322 N. Commercial St.

Two other proposed amendments are on the agenda for Feb. 9:

• Elenbaas proposed increasing the maximum number of words in a referendum or initiative title from 20 to 40.

• Jon Mutchler proposed adding “respecting the diversity of our citizens” to the charter’s preamble.