Charter commissioner angry over meeting date change

Richard May, right, is sworn into office with the rest of the Whatcom
County Charter Review Commission on Jan. 12, 2015, in Bellingham.
Richard May, right, is sworn into office with the rest of the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission on Jan. 12, 2015, in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald

A member of the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission is crying foul after the commission’s chairman moved the group’s final meeting up one week, to Monday, July 6.

Some commissioners had said at their previous meeting, on June 22, they would not be able to make a July 6 meeting. The commission’s last meeting, in which it will put the final touches on proposed amendments to the county charter, was at that time scheduled for July 13.

Chairman Ben Elenbaas said in a text message on Thursday, July 2, he wanted the commission to finish its work before the County Council considers its own charter amendments in public hearings on Tuesday, July 7.

The charter is essentially the constitution for county government. Amendments originating from either the commission or the council would appear on the November ballot for voters to make the final decision.

The once-a-decade charter review process has devolved into an ideological fight between county conservatives and progressives over how council members would be elected.

Conservatives from the rural county want to be better represented on the council and have proposed district-only voting to replace the current system of countywide voting. Council members would only be elected by voters who live in their district. Two out of the three county districts lean conservative.

After six months of work by the commission, citizens and advocacy groups on June 23 introduced four counterproposals to the County Council, intended in part to secure better representation for Bellingham residents on the council.

“The council should be glad to know we are finalizing prior to their meeting,” Elenbaas said in the text message. “If they are bent on responding to our amendments, at least they will have the final versions.”

The commission meeting is now set for 6 p.m. on Monday, July 6, in the Garden Room of the Civic Center, 322 N. Commercial St.

The decision to move the meeting, not publicly announced until Friday, July 3, when county offices were closed, disappointed Commissioner Richard May, a progressive who posted an open letter to the commission on a Bellingham Herald reporter’s Facebook page.

Besides being unable to attend the July 6 meeting, May was concerned that a county attorney also would not be there. At the June 22 meeting, attorney Dan Gibson told commissioners he thought two of their proposed amendments, that would limit the council’s ability to amend the charter itself — particularly when it comes to election procedure — were inconsistent with the state constitution.

“I think it will appear unethical and sneaky, to intentionally hold a sudden meeting off the agreed-upon schedule, with no legal counsel present, to ram through potentially illegal and out of order amendments that we have been duly notified about by county attorney,” May wrote in the open letter.

Elenbaas said Thursday he did not think there would be a problem if Gibson didn’t attend the July 6 meeting.

Bellingham environmental group RE Sources for Sustainable Communities has cast the conservatives’ push for district-only voting as an effort to put council members in office who would support a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point. This claim was based on the Gateway Pacific Terminal proponent, SSA Marine, giving indirectly to independent campaigns that supported conservative charter review commissioners.

Coal interests have just resurfaced in the charter review arena.

Gateway Pacific Terminal sent an alert to an email list Thursday, July 2, under the name “Concerned Whatcom Citizens” asking people to attend the Tuesday, July 7 County Council hearings and speak against the new charter amendments proposed by RE Sources and other progressives.

“Extreme environmental activists are asking the County Council to subvert the work of the commission that you just elected, perhaps in order to protect the political future of two of its favorite County Council members: Ken Mann and Carl Weimer,” GPT’s call to action said. Weimer and Mann, who both have a pro-environmental record on the council, would have lost their 2013 re-election bids had voting been district-only at the time.

GPT spokesman Craig Cole couldn’t be reached for comment on Saturday, July 4. He commented on district-only voting on behalf of himself, not GPT, in an email to The Bellingham Herald on April 24:

“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,” Cole wrote. “Here, the interest seems to come from those who feel that the broader county interests are not well-reflected under the current system. For example, two of the County Council candidates that won the last countywide election actually lost the vote in the districts that they are representing. This makes people feel disenfranchised.”

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.