District-only voting for Whatcom council members may be on Nov. ballot

District-only voting for Whatcom County Council members is likely headed for the November ballot, after a party-line vote of the Charter Review Commission on Monday, Feb. 23, in the Lummi Nation Administration Building.

The majority-conservative commission also proposed amendments to the county charter that would insulate district-only voting from being overturned by the council.

As currently outlined in the charter, all council members are elected countywide, but six of the seven members must come from one of three county districts. The proposal introduced by commissioner Joe Elenbaas and passed on Monday would allow only voters in a candidate’s district to participate in the November election for that seat.

Conservatives on the commission have said they favor district-only voting because it would lead to more conservative, rural representation on the council. All three districts — south, northwest and northeast — include a slice of Bellingham, but voters in the two northern districts tend to be more conservative.

Of the 15 members of the commission, eight were endorsed by the county Republican Party and have voted in a predictably conservative pattern. A ninth did not seek the Republicans’ endorsement but was active in the county party and is clearly conservative. The other six on the commission were endorsed by the county Democrats.

The commission approved district-only voting by an 8-to-6 vote along strict party lines. Conservative Commissioner Ben Elenbaas was absent. Final approval of district-only voting is up to the voters in November.

In voicing support for the proposal before the vote, commissioner Wes Kentch said the makeup of the commission itself illustrates what can result from district-only voting. Five of the six more progressive commissioners were elected by voters in the south Whatcom district, while voters in the two northern districts voted for nine conservative commissioners out of a possible 10.

“If it was the case that we were elected by at-large voting, many of us probably wouldn’t have been elected,” said Kentch, a conservative.

Thomas Stuen, a more progressive commissioner, said district-only voting was undemocratic.

“The proposed system ... creates the risk of a political minority controlling the council,” Stuen said. “The political division on this commission is a stark example of the undemocratic potential because it’s almost the reverse of the division in the county, when you have countywide elections.”

Republican-endorsed commissioner Jon Mutchler cited money as a reason to have district-only voting.

Running for office “can cost a tremendous amount of money,” said Mutchler, a Ferndale City Council member. “If voting for six of those positions is done only within the districts, that means one-third of the number of signs they have to purchase, one-third the number of fliers they have to mail out, one-third the number of doors they have to knock on. It seems to me it makes elections more affordable and possibly attracts more people to run for these county races.”

One of the commission’s conservative bloc sought to boost rural representation on the council even further by requiring the one at-large candidate, who by definition is elected countywide, to live outside the cities and only be on the ballot of residents in the unincorporated county.

This amendment from commissioner Cliff Langley was one of four introduced on Monday, Feb. 23, that will be up for discussion at the commission’s next meeting on March 9 in Bellingham.

Another of the new amendments, put forward by Chet Dow, would prohibit the council from making any changes in the charter to how council candidates are nominated or elected. This would have prevented the council in 2008 from asking voters to overturn district-only voting, which voters had approved in 2005 based on a recommendation from the previous Charter Review Commission.

Commissioner Ben Elenbaas had already introduced an amendment that would block the council from overturning a charter amendment that had passed by a two-thirds or better vote of the public — as district-only voting had in 2005.

So far, 11 amendments have been introduced, with commissioners approving district-only voting and an amendment that would reduce the number of signatures needed to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot. The complete list of amendments is on the charter commission Web page. Go to whatcomcounty.us/council and click on “ Charter Review Commission” under “Topics of Interest.”