Charter battle comes before Whatcom County council

Conservatives and progressives in Whatcom County apparently will face off on the November ballot in what some see as a battle for control of the county.

The County Council on Tuesday, July 7, will hold public hearings on four amendments to the county charter. Citizens and activists proposed the amendments two weeks earlier, after the Charter Review Commission stacked their own proposed amendments in order to gain more conservative, rural representation on the council.

If the council approves the citizen amendments, they will appear on the November ballot alongside amendments from the commission.

The charter is essentially the constitution for county government, and includes rules on how council members are elected. The commission is elected once a decade to propose changes to the charter that will appear on the countywide ballot for voters to approve or reject.

Conservatives are “shocked” that the charter amendment process, led by the review commission, would be “hijacked” by the majority-progressive County Council. This language appeared in an emailed call to protest from The Fourth Corner, an independent blog written by Charlie Crabtree, chairman of the Whatcom County Republican Party.

“This is last-minute liberal progressive politics at its worst,” he wrote.

The protest Crabtree called attention to is being organized by a new political action committee, DOVE Whatcom. It is holding a rally and sign-making party at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in front of the County Courthouse at 311 Grand Ave., before the 7 p.m. meeting at the same location. DOVE stands for “District Only Voting is for Everyone.”

Karl Uppiano, DOVE Whatcom’s manager, said the rally is less about persuading the council not to approve the citizen amendments and more about raising public awareness ahead of the November elections.

For council to place the four amendments on the ballot, each has to pass with at least five votes in favor.

“I’m not convinced we’ll change the council’s mind, but at least it will get people invested in it and paying attention,” Uppiano said.

What is the dispute about?

The centerpiece of the conservative Charter Review Commission’s proposed amendments would have council members elected only by voters in their district rather than countywide. Conservatives have said that would increase rural representation because two of the three districts have a strong rural vote.

That was illustrated in November, when the 15 commissioners were elected on district-only ballots. Nine out of 10 commissioners from the northwest and northeast county are politically active conservatives. The south-county district, which includes south Bellingham, elected five progressives.

The four progressive counterproposals, handed over to the council on June 23, include redistricting the county to have five districts, including two comprising Bellingham; making charter review commission elections countywide; lowering the signature requirement for citizen initiatives; and affirming the council’s constitutional authority to amend the charter.

Not only do conservatives on the Charter Review Commission want district-only voting, they also have proposed two amendments that would limit the council’s ability to change the charter to make elections countywide again. Council put a successful measure on the 2008 ballot to resume countywide voting, after the 2005 commission initiated district-only voting.

Progressives were ready to engage in the battle of words with conservatives.

“They’re presenting this as somehow upending the process,” Matt Petryni said in a Thursday, July 2, interview. Petryni is clean energy program manager at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, which is promoting the five-district amendment. “I don’t see how giving the voters more options is somehow tyranny.”

RE Sources intends to present signed petitions to the council at the Tuesday hearings to show how well-supported a five-district plan is, Petryni said. A similar proposal already was rejected by the conservative commission.

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.