Conservatives lose two fights against Whatcom council

The yearlong battle between conservatives and progressives to rewrite what is essentially Whatcom County’s constitution has been going well for progressives this past week.

Conservatives failed on two fronts in challenges against the mostly left-leaning County Council. The nonprofit Common Threads Northwest on Thursday, Sept. 10, lost a lawsuit filed in Skagit County Superior Court that would have blocked from the November ballot a council proposal to redraw the county districts.

The conservative nonprofit, led by a group that includes financial adviser Dick Donahue, claimed the charter amendment to replace the three county districts with five districts violated county rules because it specified how those districts would be drawn.

Skagit Judge Mike Rickert dismissed the case. He cited a doctrine based on separation of powers and said he did not want to meddle in the business of a legislative council.

“I am very pleased with the decision,” county attorney Karen Frakes said on Friday, Sept. 11, in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “The County Council had the right to propose this (charter) amendment ... and the voters should have the right to vote on it.”

Common Threads Northwest attorney Tom Moser of Mount Vernon said his clients were considering an appeal, among other options.

The county charter, which created the current seven-member council and the position of county executive about 40 years ago, serves as the county’s constitution. A Charter Review Commission is elected every 10 years to propose charter amendments that appear on the ballot the following November.

The commission met for six months this year in what amounted to a series of contentious disputes between the conservative majority and a progressive minority. Conservatives succeeded in passing their agenda on to voters this November. The charter amendments most important to them would change council elections from countywide to district-only, such that voters would only select candidates who live within their districts.

The conservative majority also approved ballot measures intended to prevent the council from switching back to countywide voting. This is just what the council did in 2008, after a majority of voters approved district-only voting in 2005. Conservatives believe district-only voting would enhance rural representation on the council.

The council responded with the amendment to redraw the county districts. The five-district proposal would correct what some people, especially progressives, see as a flaw in the three-district setup. Bellingham would fit into two districts that would have a predominantly progressive voting pattern, instead of having the city split as it is now among three districts, which dilutes the Bellingham vote if elections are district-only.

Not long after the council in July approved the five-district measure and another proposition that would require a two-thirds vote of the Charter Review Commission to place amendments on the ballot, the political right fought back with the lawsuit and an ethics complaint.

The filing with the county Ethics Commission was dismissed on Tuesday, Sept. 15.

The five-member Ethics Commission was quick in its decision, saying that even if the facts in the complaint were true, they wouldn’t amount to an ethics violation. Such violations are typically monetary conflicts of interest, in which a council member or someone in his or her family would gain financially from the councilor’s vote.

David McCluskey, who submitted the complaint, had argued the council did not have legal authority to introduce charter amendments that opposed those of the Charter Review Commission. He also complained that the council worked in concert with a liberal political group to devise a strategy for the charter amendments.

The Ethics Commission said its purpose was not to resolve legal or political disputes.

McCluskey said Wednesday, Sept. 16, in an email that he hadn’t decided whether he would appeal.

“I think it’s the County Council’s responsibility to meet and discuss openly with everyone regarding county matters, not to be scheming behind the scenes at people’s houses or events,” he said.

Council members Carl Weimer and Ken Mann, both singled out for their actions or their liberal connections in the ethics complaint, had choice words for the conservative movement behind these challenges.

Regarding the ethics complaint, Mann said it was “just another shameless partisan political witch hunt fishing expedition that had no merit, no substance, and was dismissed for the joke that it is.”

Weimer also derided the groups behind the challenges.

“It really astonishes me how little these conservative folks understand about the law or understand about the issues that they seem to be concerned about, and how willing they are to waste taxpayers’ money pursuing their own beliefs,” Weimer said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.