Struggle for control of council escalates on Whatcom Charter Commission

Despite all the talk of changing Whatcom County elections to bring fair representation to the County Council, members of the county Charter Review Commission have signaled that the debate over district-only voting is really about who will control county government.

The conservative majority on the commission on April 27 voted down a charter amendment introduced by commissioner Todd Donovan that would have redistricted the county and could have shifted the balance on the council to favor progressives. A proposal already approved by the commission in February appears to improve the odds of a conservative majority on the council.

At the commission’s next meeting, on Monday, May 11, progressive commissioner Richard May will float another redistricting proposal that would enhance the role of Bellingham voters — who on the whole are more liberal than rural and small-city voters — in deciding the makeup of the council.

Some conservatives, such as Charter Review Commission Chairman Ben Elenbaas, say Bellingham is overrepresented on the council already because all seats are elected countywide. He has said that the commission’s February vote calling for district-only voting would result in more rural representation on the council.

Any charter amendment that makes it through the commission will appear on the ballot in November, when voters will get the final say.

“I hear a lot of people in my district saying that they feel underrepresented,” said Elenbaas, a farmer from the Lynden area and the county’s most conservative district. He lost a 2013 council race to Ken Mann of Bellingham.

Elenbaas argued against the Donovan amendment, which also calls for district-only voting but likely would include two Bellingham and three rural districts. Two of the seven council seats would be “at large,” or voted on countywide.

Elenbaas said going from the current three districts to five would create an opportunity for gerrymandering, or drawing the districts in such a way that they would be safe for one political side or the other. He also said the Donovan amendment clouded the issue, which should focus on whether the council members should remain on a countywide ballot or be elected within the districts as they exist now.

“This amendment to me just confuses that question for everyone, and I feel that it’s unnecessary,” Elenbaas said.

The Charter Review Commission of 2005 put district-only voting on the ballot, and voters approved it. The County Council in 2008 asked voters to reconsider, and they elected to revert to countywide voting of council members — which remains the practice today.

The commission meets once a decade to recommend changes to the county charter, effectively a constitution that sets the rules for county governance and elections.

The council since 2008 has swung between conservative and progressive, depending on the political mood and the most pressing issues in the county.

Some conservative commissioners on April 27 spoke about the power play at work in the district-only debate. They assumed that countywide voting favored progressive candidates, which hasn’t always been the case. Conservatives took control of the council in the 2009 elections, which were countywide.

Conservative commissioner Cliff Langley did the math on the five-district system proposed by Donovan. If two districts are in Bellingham and two other seats are elected countywide, then the deck is stacked in favor of progressives.

“In my view, if we go to two at-large positions, essentially Bellingham is going to end up controlling the council,” Langley said.

Commissioner Chet Dow agreed.

“You’d have four (council members) reflecting points of view that largely reside in the city of Bellingham, with a lot of influence from Western Washington University,” Dow said.

Today the council leans progressive, with six of seven members getting the support of Democrats in the past four years.

“There isn’t a single conservative voice seated on that council right now,” Dow said. “That bothers me a little bit, being somebody from that side of the aisle.”

The five-district amendment was defeated, 4 to 11, with two of the six progressives on the commission joining the nine conservatives who voted “no.”

May’s amendment would require three districts to be redrawn such that two of them include half of Bellingham. A five-district system, similarly, would have two Bellingham districts. In both cases, assuming the at-large seats go to a progressive, council members who are left of center would hold a majority.

May said his amendment is consistent with state redistricting guidelines, which call for keeping population centers as intact as possible. The three districts as they are now each take a piece of Bellingham.

“I still support having countywide (voting for all seven seats),” May said in a message to The Bellingham Herald, “but if it were going to be district-only, you can’t carve up Bellingham in order to drown each piece in the bathtub.”

The amendment will ask conservatives on the commission to “put up or shut up,” May said: Either vote for it or “be on the record as being hypocrites.”

“The question is, ‘Do you want local voting, or is this all just to screw Bellingham?’” May wrote.

Other amendments on Monday’s agenda:

Enable minor parties

Reduce the signature requirement

Require the county auditor

Require nonprofits to apply, to disclose all donors and to refrain from taking legal action