Bellingham leaders to weigh Whatcom County election changes

Supporters of district-only voting rally July 7 outside Whatcom County Courthouse in Bellingham before a County Council meeting.
Supporters of district-only voting rally July 7 outside Whatcom County Courthouse in Bellingham before a County Council meeting. The Bellingham Herald

A lot of voters don’t know they will be asked to decipher 10 amendments to the Whatcom County charter when they get their November ballots in the mail.

One Bellingham City Council member is so concerned about the lack of understanding that he has pushed for a public city hearing.

The charter amendments being considered at the hearing before the City Council on Monday, Oct. 5, could change the way people vote for County Council members. They could even change the amount of influence city dwellers have on who sits on the County Council.

The hearing will start at 7 p.m. in City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

Council member Terry Bornemann suggested a hearing on some of the charter amendments in order to get the attention of Bellingham voters. In conversations about the amendments, Bornemann discovered that some people were ignoring them because, the people thought, the amendments pertain to “just the county.”

“These initiatives are kind of aimed at Bellingham residents,” Bornemann said in an interview. “I felt it would be good to have a hearing that’s on channel 10 (BTV10), that would highlight that these are initiatives that the residents of Bellingham should pay attention to.”

The hearing will be on four of the 10 proposed amendments to the county charter, which essentially is the constitution for the county that lays out the rules for the operation of county government and the election of its officeholders.

The four amendments to be discussed Monday:

▪ Should the election of County Council members be only among voters who live in the candidates’ district? Currently, all voters in the county elect all council members.

▪ Should the three current districts, which each include a piece of Bellingham, be replaced by five districts, including two that comprise Bellingham entirely?

▪ Should the council need a 7-0 vote to overturn a charter amendment approved by two-thirds of voters?

▪ Should the council need a 7-0 vote to change the part of the charter that governs the election of council members?

The City Council might vote to take a position on some or all of the amendments, either at the end of Monday’s meeting or at its next meeting.

Pro and con positions on the amendments have fallen along political lines, with conservatives favoring district-only voting under the current three-district system, with restrictions on council’s ability to change the charter.

Progressives proposed five districts to limit the political damage their side could suffer in a switch from countywide to district-only voting, according to emails among progressive members of the Charter Review Commission, a majority-conservative group that met earlier this year to put charter amendments on the ballot.

Three political groups have organized this year to campaign for or against some of the charter amendments.

RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a Bellingham environmental group, registered a ballot committee on Sept. 10 to support the five-district amendment.

Another progressive group formed this summer was Fair & Equal Whatcom, organized in part to support the five-district proposal.

This screenshot of what five Whatcom County districts could look like was provided by Todd Donovan after a public records request. He sent the image in a Dec. 1, 2014, email to Lisa McShane. Supporters of the five-district proposal have used this map for illustrative purposes ever since. Todd Donovan Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The group, led by former Bellingham Mayor Tim Douglas, says five districts as originally drawn by Charter Review Commissioner Todd Donovan would provide better representation to both Bellingham and outer-county voters because each would get their own districts.

Dove Whatcom, a ballot committee organized by Karl Uppiano and Matthew Goggins, supports the district-only amendment. Dove, which stands for District Oriented Voting is for Everyone (the group doesn’t like the connotation of “district-only”), asked supporters to show up at 6 p.m. Monday for a rally outside City Hall before the hearing.

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