Conservative group sues Whatcom County over ballot measure

A conservative activist and his organization are suing Whatcom County to take a proposal off the Nov. 3 ballot that would redraw the county’s political districts.

The civil complaint, filed Wednesday, Aug. 5, in Skagit County Superior Court by financial adviser Dick Donahue and his group, Common Threads Northwest (not related to the food-education nonprofit Common Threads Farm), says a proposal to divide the county into five districts violates county rules because it specifies how those districts would be drawn.

The suit accused the County Council of holding illegal meetings when it decided to withdraw another potential ballot measure from consideration.

A hearing is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 14, said Donahue’s attorney, Tom Moser.

“We are working with the prosecutor’s office on when we might get this before a judge for final resolution,” Moser said in an email to The Bellingham Herald.

Supporters argue that having five districts — two in Bellingham and three for the small cities and rural areas — would more fairly represent like-minded communities compared to the current arrangement of three districts, all of which include a piece of Bellingham.

Progressives support the measure as an antidote to the district-only voting measure placed on the ballot by conservatives on the Charter Review Commission. With liberal Bellingham’s vote more diluted under the current district system, allowing voters to choose County Council candidates only from their own district could improve the chances of a conservative majority on the council.

The Charter Review Commission is convened every decade to propose changes to the charter, essentially the county’s constitution. The commission’s recommendations go to county voters for final approval. The County Council also is empowered to put charter amendments on the ballot, as it did July 7 with the five-district proposal.

The ordinance placing the five-district proposal on the ballot places individual communities inside specific districts. For example: “District 3 shall contain Deming, Welcome, Kendall, Maple Falls, Acme, Sudden Valley, Lake Whatcom, Lake Samish and Chuckanut.”

The charter says district boundaries are to be drawn by a special committee established for that purpose, not by the council in an ordinance.

“It’s an interesting legal argument,” said Todd Donovan, who wrote a version of the five-district proposal that was rejected earlier this year by the Charter Review Commission.

Donovan is a professor of political science at Western Washington University and is running for the nonpartisan County Council as a self-described Democrat.

“I know a lot of election law stuff, but I can’t claim to speak on that one,” he said. “How much can an ordinance guide the districting criteria?”

“Those are still kind of broad strokes,” Donovan said of the council’s description of the districts, but he added that it wasn’t necessary for the council to include that much detail.

The lawsuit also claimed the council violated state public-meetings law when it decided to withdraw a ballot proposal that would have required countywide voting for council members — in direct opposition to the Charter Review Commission’s district-only proposal.

Council Chairman Carl Weimer and county attorney Karen Frakes could not be reached for comment Friday, Aug. 7.

Council Clerk Dana Brown-Davis said in July that the countywide-voting proposal was taken off the agenda at the advice of county attorneys because countywide voting is already in place.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com.