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Whatcom Charter Review Commission seen as battleground for control of County Council

The latest front in the political war between conservatives and progressives in Whatcom County is over how to elect County Council members.

On its surface, the debate, playing out in meetings of the county Charter Review Commission, is about what counts as fair representation on the council. Should all voters in the county get to vote in all council general elections, as happens now? Or should council members be elected only by voters who live in the same district?

People on one side of the argument say that because council members set policy for the entire county, they should be held accountable to everyone in the county and so be elected by everyone. On the other side, people have argued that countywide elections give an advantage to Bellingham voters and their ideals, such that rural and farming interests don’t have a voice on the council.

What makes the debate so politically fraught is the belief on both sides that how the election is run will decide the balance of power on the council.

The countywide elections in place now favor progressives, according to people who lean to the right politically. Kathy Kershner, a former council member who lost her 2013 re-election bid, said at the April 13 Charter Review Commission meeting that she supports voting by district even though it would have meant she would not have won in 2009.

“When you have a council that is all of one mind, in their own echo chamber, discussing issues, guess what happens? There’s no discussion,” Kershner said.

“You lose good ideas. You lose things like compromise,” she said. “You can’t just have a one-sided government, and that’s what we have right now.”

Coal’s influence

The council majority became progressive after the 2013 elections, when the dominant campaign issue was a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point that will get an up-or-down vote from the council more than a year from now, if the project makes it that far.

The last true conservative on the council resigned in March and was replaced by Satpal Sidhu, who ran as a Democrat in 2014 for the state House.

The Charter Review Commission, which meets once every decade to recommend changes to the county charter — essentially the county “constitution” that governs how the local government functions and how its elections are run — already gave preliminary approval in February to putting district-only voting on the November ballot, where county voters will have the final say.

Commissioners could rescind their recommendation for district-only voting before they wrap up their meetings in July. In an effort to make that happen, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a Bellingham-based environmental group opposed to the coal terminal, sent an email to members before the April 13 meeting, asking them to attend the meeting and speak against district-only voting.

Matt Petryni, clean energy program manager for RE Sources, sent the email and spoke against district-only voting at the meeting.

“We’re concerned that this proposal is supported by the coal industry and has been created by their strategists ... to make sure they have a pro-coal majority on the Whatcom County Council,” Petryni said.

Petryni’s “action alert” email provided more detail.

“Coal companies are now funding an effort to fundamentally alter how Whatcom County conducts its elections, to make it easier for their pro-coal candidates to win,” the email said. “Please speak out in favor of countywide elections and rejecting the coal-funded effort to change our election system.”

Craig Cole, spokesman for coal-terminal proponent SSA Marine, issued a statement in response on Friday, April 24:

“I speak for myself on this. This issue was being debated when I was on the County Council in the 1980s. The instigation of district-only voting is a ‘go-local’ concept that has been around for decades and was recently embraced by the voters of the city of Seattle. Here, the interest seems to come from those who feel that the broader county interests are not well reflected under the current system,” Cole wrote.

He added, “To my knowledge no coal companies have been involved in charter review matters. Personally, I have arrived at the conclusion that district-only voting may be a way to minimize the influence of big money being involved in telling us locals who to vote for in our elections, and that applies to all sides of politics.”

Cole also noted that SSA Marine is not a coal company but a port operator.

Conservative charter review commissioners at their April 13 meeting denied being supported by coal in last year’s elections, even though some of them were — albeit indirectly.

Pacific International Terminals, which is an arm of SSA Marine, gave $10,000 to the conservative political action committee Save Whatcom in 2014. The PAC, under the name Whatcom First, used some of that money to pay for mailers, and newspaper and online advertising, for 12 commission candidates. Eight of those candidates won, and of those, seven supported district-only voting in the preliminary February vote. The eighth, Ben Elenbaas, was absent.

The campaign funding was documented by the state Public Disclosure Commission not as direct contributions to candidates but rather as independent expenditures, done without the candidates’ involvement.

Whatcom First spent $4,253 on charter review candidates, about $2,735 of which came from SSA Marine and national coal companies, according to an analysis by The Bellingham Herald.

In an interview, Petryni said he didn’t know whether the commissioners who voted for district-only elections wanted to see pro-coal candidates elected to the County Council.

“I don’t know if all of the nine conservative charter commissioners … are supportive or coal or not; you’d really have to ask them,” he said. “I do know the coal industry is supportive of (those) commissioners.”

“We’re following the money, and it’s leading to the coal industry,” he said.

‘Hippies electing hippies’

Petryni said if district-only voting were to be established, he would prefer the five-district system proposed by Commissioner Todd Donovan, instead of the three districts in place now.

All three districts include a piece of Bellingham. Under Donovan’s proposal, the county could be divided more neatly into two Bellingham districts and three districts for rural and small-city residents.

Conservatives are inclined to keep the current setup, in which two districts are conservative and one is progressive. With two council members per district, the typical election outcome could result in a 4-3 conservative majority on the council (one council member would continue to be elected countywide).

Under Donovan’s proposal, which would have two Bellingham and two countywide races, progressives could have a 4-3 edge, according to many who are involved in the debate.

Chet Dow, a conservative commissioner who supports district-only voting in three districts, acknowledged the political lines drawn between his group and those who want five districts: It comes down to who would most likely hold a majority on the council.

“I think you’re spot on with regard to the math,” Dow said to a reporter who outlined how the council majority would differ under a three- and five-district system.

“They’re going to be keenly sensitive about anything that would bear on that,” Dow said of his fellow conservatives. “If people weren’t thinking that way, I would be surprised.”

Commissioner Richard May, who is progressive, said five districts would satisfy conservatives who want district-only voting, without dividing and conquering Bellingham voters, as the three-district system does.

“It’s time for them to put up or shut up,” May said of conservative commissioners. “Todd Donovan and I are trying to ... achieve the stated goals of district-only voting without being unfair to Bellingham.”

“In theory the two Bellingham districts would be hippies electing their own hippies, and the other districts would be farmers electing farmers,” May said.

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