Charter war escalates between progressives, conservatives

Progressives have struck the latest blow in a fight with conservatives over who controls Whatcom County government.

Advocacy groups and progressive citizens gave the County Council on Tuesday, June 23, proposed amendments to the county charter that would unravel what the conservative Charter Review Commission has proposed.

The 15-member commission has been working since January to come up with amendments to the charter, which essentially is the constitution for Whatcom County government. Among the eight amendments commissioners have voted to put on the Nov. 3 ballot, a handful are intended to increase and protect representation by rural conservatives on the County Council.

One amendment passed by the commission in a party-line vote would replace countywide voting for all County Council members with district-only voting. One of the seven council members still would be on the ballot in all three county districts, but the other six would appear only on ballots in their own districts.

The districts each have their own political identity: a liberal south Bellingham-south county district; a conservative northeast district with Lynden, Everson, Nooksack and Sumas; and a district including Ferndale and Blaine that can lean conservative. Bellingham, where most of the county’s liberal votes are concentrated, is divided into all three districts.

District-only voting wouldn’t guarantee a conservative majority on the council. But conservatives see it as a way to boost their presence on the council, which has been predominantly progressive since the 2013 elections.

RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, which has been an outspoken critic of the conservative commission, asked council to add another amendment to the November ballot that would realign the county into five districts: two in Bellingham, and three for the small cities and rural areas.

Supporters of the five-district system, which was debated and rejected by the commission, say it’s more fair because it keeps Bellingham and its political interests intact, rather than diluting city votes within rural districts.

“You can cut up this county in a way so that like-minded people are electing like-minded people,” commissioner Richard May said at the April 27 commission meeting, when the five-district proposal was voted down.

Conservatives at that meeting argued against five districts, saying it posed a threat to their chances of gaining a majority on the council. The five-district proposal calls for two countywide or at-large positions, in addition to the two Bellingham seats.

“In my view, if we go to two at-large positions, essentially Bellingham is going to end up controlling the council,” commissioner Cliff Langley said on April 27.

RE Sources is gathering petition signatures in support of the five-district proposal. The group launched a separate website, fairandequalwhatcom.com, to promote the amendment.

The organization will present the petitions to the County Council at a public hearing on the five-district proposal, scheduled for July 7. The council must decide by Aug. 4 whether the proposal will appear on the November ballot. At least five council members must vote to place a charter amendment on the ballot.

The move by progressives to undo some of the commission’s work appears to Chairman Ben Elenbaas as a power play by what he considers the already too powerful RE Sources.

“The divisiveness here is the advocacy groups that create hate and discontent,” Elenbaas told KGMI AM on Wednesday, June 24. Elenbaas was referring to RE Sources. “And they’re being very successful with it. They’re bullies. If they don’t get what they want, they go to lawsuit.”

Elenbaas has said since April that the five-district proposal would confuse voters. They could see 12 amendments on the ballot, many of which overlap or contradict each other.

“They’ll do whatever they can to confuse the issue, and if that doesn’t work, and (district-only voting with three districts) passes, they’re going to do what they’ve done in the past — lawsuits,” Elenbaas told KGMI.

In an interview, Elenbaas said residents should be concerned about the influence RE Sources and similar groups have in the county. They have gained seats on several county advisory groups and even the council itself, Elenbaas said. Council member Carl Weimer is a former RE Sources executive director.

“The citizens of Whatcom should be irate about it,” Elenbaas said. “It fires up our rural residents a little more than someone who lives in the city. The rural residents, a lot of these policies that come out affect their way of life, their livelihood and the next generation.”

Kate Blystone, program director at RE Sources, said district-only voting was passed by the commission too quickly, before much of the public had commented on it. Some commission amendments may be unconstitutional, she added.

Two amendments intended to protect district-only voting have been questioned by the commission’s own attorney. Dan Gibson told commissioners on Monday, June 22, that the amendments, which would prevent the council from amending the charter in certain cases, appear to conflict with the state constitution where it grants authority to councils to make charter amendments.

Blystone, whose group was a target of the commission’s unsuccessful bid to halt county funding to nonprofits, said commissioners have let down county residents.

“The voters entrusted them with the task of reviewing our charter,” Blystone said in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “Instead they abused the process, and the results include a number of mean-spirited and likely unconstitutional proposals.”

Three charter amendments proposed by others on Tuesday, June 23, also will get a public hearing before the council on July 7. Those would:

▪ Affirm the constitutional authority of the council to amend the charter (introduced by Dan McShane).

▪ Elect charter review commissioners countywide rather than by district only (Mike Estes).

▪ Lower the threshold for signatures needed for citizen-led charter amendments from 20 percent of the number of voters in the last governor’s race to 8 percent (Janet Marino, Whatcom Peace and Justice Center). The commission advanced an amendment lowering the threshold to 15 percent.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog and follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.