Whatcom charter amendment would prevent County Council from changing election rules

Among the amendments to the Whatcom County charter that could appear on the ballot this November is a proposal to eliminate the County Council’s ability to propose changes to the way council elections are held.

The county Charter Review Commission recommended this charter amendment in a 9-2 vote on March 23 in Lynden.

In other action at the Lynden meeting, the commission rejected a proposal to add a phrase about respecting diversity in the charter’s preamble.

The commission next meets on Monday, April 13, at the Civic Center, 322 N. Commercial St., Bellingham.

Commissioner Chet Dow introduced the amendment that would prevent council members from asking voters to change how council elections are conducted. This is just what the council did in 2008, which led voters in November of that year to reverse their own 2005 decision to make council elections “district only” — a format in which only voters who live in a candidate’s district can vote for that candidate in the general election.

After 2008, council general elections returned to being held countywide. The reversal didn’t sit well with conservatives, who see district-only voting as a way to get more representation for rural residents.

Roughly speaking, the 15-member commission is split between nine conservatives and six progressives. The 9-2 vote on March 23 fell mostly along political lines, with eight conservative commissioners in favor.

District-only voting is likely to be on the ballot again in November, as the Charter Review Commission tentatively voted in February to recommend the proposal.

Conservative commissioners also swayed the vote March 23 against a change to the charter’s preamble to include the words, “respecting the different cultures and traditions among our citizens.” The proposal, by commissioner Jon Mutchler, was defeated 9-5, with eight conservatives voting “no.”

“Putting in the concept of diversity is in some ways contrary to the way our nation was founded,” said commissioner Cliff Langley. “It divides us. I think what we want to do is focus on being unified.”

The following are among the proposed charter amendments scheduled to be debated on Monday, April 13:

• Explanatory ballots: The county assessor and auditor would appear on the ballot as “property assessor” and “auditor and elections officer.”

• Open meetings: Training on the state Open Public Meetings Act would be required for county officials and violations would be fined.

• More parties: Four political parties would participate in redrawing the county districts every 10 years, instead of just the two “major” parties.

The Charter Review Commission meets once a decade to propose amendments to the charter, which is essentially the constitution for county government. Any amendments the commission approves by the time its meetings end in July will go on the November ballot, where county voters will have the final say.

For more information, go to whatcomcounty.us and type “ charter review” in the search box.