Nonprofits remain under scrutiny by Whatcom charter review commission

Whatcom County government’s spending on nonprofits could still be regulated under a proposal by the county Charter Review Commission, but language that generated animosity — not to mention unconstitutionality — has been removed.

On Monday, May 18, the commission will debate whether to place on the November ballot new requirements for nonprofits — and for-profit businesses, for that matter — that receive county money to disclose financial information to the county and the public.

Charter Commissioner Wes Kentch introduced the proposal Monday, May 11, withdrawing an earlier version that included legally questionable requirements for nonprofits to disclose the names of all donors and to refrain from participating in legal action against the county.

Kentch said he decided to change his proposal after county attorney Dan Gibson, who advises the commission, told him the earlier version was not legally sound.

“Many of the constitutional issues that had previously caused me concern have been addressed” in the latest version, Gibson told Kentch and the rest of the commission at the May 11 meeting.

One flaw that stood out for Laurence Brown, a lawyer and president of Sudden Valley Community Association, was the stipulation that an organization would disqualify itself for county funds if it participated in a lawsuit that tried to change the county code. That amounted to giving up freedom of speech and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, Brown told the commission on April 27.

“It’s one of the most blatantly discriminatory and anti-constitutional pieces of proposal I have ever seen,” Brown said.

The latest version, which required for-profit corporations, not just nonprofits, to fit under its rules, appeared less offensive at first glance. Grant recipients would be required to report to the county how it spent the money, along with an accounting of the organization’s revenues, expenses, and assets.

Joan Drinkwin, interim executive director of Northwest Straits Foundation, a marine conservation group, attended the May 11 meeting to criticize the grant rules until she saw the latest version.

“I’m really glad that it’s been changed, because the original amendment was flawed in many ways,” Drinkwin told the commission. “These requirements that are in this revision are really pretty standard operating procedures for any reports for grants that our organization ever receives. They’re not objectionable at all.”

Some commission members raised concerns about the latest version in debate May 11. Commissioner Ken Bell indicated for-profits would not be receptive to the new rules.

“If I’m a private company, and I’m bidding on something where a grant is being received, you’re not getting my (profit and loss statement) and my balance sheet,” Bell said.

Commissioner Barbara Ryan opposed the rules, saying they weren’t needed.

Grants are “extremely well accounted for” by the governments that give them, said Ryan, a former Bellingham City Council member. “In essence I think we’re solving a problem that doesn’t exist.”

With the commission unable to get its questions on the proposal answered immediately, they voted to continue their discussion at the May 18 meeting, to be held at 6:30 p.m. in Geneva at the Firs Conference Center, 4605 Cable St.

“I’m generally in favor of what’s here, but I would like to have a better face on it,” Commissioner Joe Elenbaas said.

“All I know is that it’s a cow,” Elenbaas said. “I don’t know whether or not it’s an Angus or a Hereford.”

The commission typically meets the fourth Monday of the month, but opted for May 18 instead because the fourth Monday is the Memorial Day holiday.

Kentch’s proposals sprung from an amendment introduced in February by Commissioner Yvonne Goldsmith that would have banned county funding of nonprofits altogether. That early version was roundly criticized by representatives of nonprofits and other members of the public and was rejected by the commission in a 2-12 vote.

The Charter Review Commission meets once a decade to recommend amendments to the county charter, essentially the constitution for Whatcom County government. Proposals passed by the commission after it concludes its meetings in July go on the countywide ballot in November.