Proposed changes to Whatcom charter include district-only voting and a way to safeguard it

The Whatcom County Charter Review Commission is considering a proposal, introduced by its chairman, Ben Elenbaas, that would prohibit the County Council from overturning a charter amendment approved by at least two-thirds of voters.

Had the commission, which meets once a decade, successfully put this rule forward in 2005, voters might still be choosing County Council members through district-only voting.

The commission, which proposes changes to the Whatcom County charter, is holding the first of four scheduled meetings outside Bellingham at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 23, at the Lummi Administration Center, 2665 Kwina Road, on Lummi Reservation.

At three commission meetings held so far in Bellingham, the 15-member commission has proposed seven amendments to the charter, which is the county “constitution,” defining how county government operates — from how elections are held to how power is divided between the council and the executive.

The commission will meet into July, voting to place amendments on the November ballot for final approval by voters.

In an interview, Elenbaas said it was appropriate to set the bar for protecting voter-approved amendments at two-thirds because he seeks to limit the council’s power.

“If the people think by a two-thirds majority that it’s a pretty good idea, it might be a pretty dang good idea,” he said.

Elenbaas cited the five state initiatives, approved from 1993 to 2012, that limited the Legislature’s ability to impose taxes but were all later overturned.

“With those state tax things, the voters would say something overwhelmingly, and it gets overturned,” Elenbaas said.

The most successful of those five initiatives was I-1185 in 2012, which had 63.9 percent approval — still less than two-thirds.

An example more on point would be the 2005 vote in Whatcom County to establish district-only voting for County Council members. That was approved by 67.3 percent of voters — more than two-thirds — but was overturned in the 2008 election after the council returned it to the ballot.

Under Elenbaas’ proposal, the council would not have been allowed to ask voters to overturn a charter amendment they had already approved by such a large margin.

District-only voting is on the table again this year, introduced by Elenbaas’ uncle, commissioner Joe Elenbaas. Council members would be elected only by voters who live in their district.

The county is divided into three districts — the more liberal south county, and the more conservative northwest and northeast districts. Conservatives favor district-only voting because they say it would create more rural representation on the seven-member council.

For a list of the seven charter amendment proposals, see the agenda for Monday’s meeting at whatcomcounty.us/council. Click on “ Charter Review Commission” under “Topics of Interest.”