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Discord over Whatcom County Council districts could lead to court

“Scenario E” is one of two options the Whatcom County Districting Committee will consider during its meeting March 14. In this scenario, Everson, Nooksack and Sumas are in the dark green foothills district, rather than the light green farmlands.
“Scenario E” is one of two options the Whatcom County Districting Committee will consider during its meeting March 14. In this scenario, Everson, Nooksack and Sumas are in the dark green foothills district, rather than the light green farmlands. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

When voters approved splitting Whatcom County into five districts for county council elections, did they also approve a strict interpretation of the districts described in the voters’ pamphlet?

The answer to that question has largely divided the partisan members of the Districting Committee tasked with approving the new boundaries by May 1.

The way the five districts are divided will determine how easy it is for conservatives or progressives to gain control of the county’s governing body. Only voters within a district will be able to vote for their county council member (previously the entire county weighed in), while two at-large positions will be voted on by the whole county.

Lisa McShane and Mike Estes, nominated by the county Democrats to represent progressives on the committee, have both emphatically argued yes — voters saw the descriptions of which cities would be in each district, and they gave the committee a mandate to follow.

“We are not elected,” McShane said. “We have no authority to overturn a voter mandate.”

But Brett Bonner and Mark Nelson, nominated by county Republicans to represent conservatives on the committee, have argued that the language says “approximate” and “anticipated” and purposely leaves wiggle room for the actual districts to be drawn differently, as long as they are in accordance with state law.

The language, which was not on the ballot itself but was listed on page 105 of the November 2015 voters’ pamphlet, said, in part:

“The Committee shall draw a Districting plan for five Council Districts. The approximate geographic areas covered by each district are anticipated to be:

District 1 - Central and South Bellingham

District 2 - North Bellingham

District 3 - Deming, Kendall, Acme, Sudden Valley, Lake Whatcom, Lake Samish and Chuckanut

District 4 - Lynden, Sumas, Everson and surrounding farmland

District 5 - Lummi Reservation, Lummi Island, Ferndale, Birch Bay, Blaine and Point Roberts.”

Generally, the districts could be referred to as South Bellingham, North Bellingham, Foothills, Farmlands and Coastal.

In the November election, 54 percent of voters approved the move from three to five districts, which included the adoption of the “transition” language.

Under state law, the districts need to be as compact as possible, geographically contiguous, cannot favor or disfavor any racial group or political party, be as close as possible in population, and preserve communities of mutual interest as much as possible.

The challenge in meeting those guidelines becomes if you move one or two precincts from one area, you may wind up needing to shuffle five somewhere else, Bonner said.

Variations

The committee, which started meeting in early February, appointed “Districting master” Tjalling Ypma to draw the actual map, which the members will either approve or amend.

Ypma, chair of the math department at Western Washington University, has taken guidance from the committee and drafted several options for what the districts might look like, with each having just over 40,000 people.

On Monday, March 14, Ypma will present a fifth and sixth version of the districts for discussion, and it is expected the committee members might schedule a public hearing that needs to take place before they could vote to finalize a map.

Since they started meeting, the members have argued whether or not to spread small cities among different districts, whether the Bellingham districts should touch Lake Whatcom, whether Chuckanut and Lake Samish are contiguous and share enough in common with Glacier and the rest of the foothills to be placed in that district, and more.

The Districting Committee will meet at noon Monday, March 14, in council chambers at the County Courthouse, 311 Grand Ave. in Bellingham.

During the committee meeting Monday, March 7, Nelson said that he felt strongly that Sumas, Everson and Nooksack should not be lumped with Lynden in the farmland, but placed in the foothills, as they have more in common as a “community of interest” with that area.

Bonner and Nelson feel the language included in the voters’ guide, which comes from the ordinance County Council passed to put the measure on the ballot, purposely packs or gerrymanders many conservatives into the farmlands district.

During Monday’s meeting, Nelson said he did not want to see the group packing “75 percent of the Republicans in one district,” and argued that one of the maps the committee had been presented where those small cities had been drawn into the foothills was a serious attempt to bring the two sides together.

But Estes and McShane argued that those small cities had much in common with Lynden, as they all are surrounded by farmland.

“I think the way people live in Whatcom County, that is something that happens naturally and that’s not something we need to correct,” Estes said in an interview. “I’m not comfortable making a change based on that political party argument without getting into a whole political analysis, which I don’t think we really should be doing.”

I’m fairly certain that whatever I put forward or the committee accepts and puts forward, somebody is more than likely to sue.

Tjalling Ypma, Districting master in charge of drawing new county district map

Ypma, in an interview, said that getting the population numbers to work is the easy part.

“I’ve tried to get a good handle on what the legal constraints and flexibility might be,” Ypma said. “The district has to be contiguous and compact and somehow reflect community interests, precinct boundaries, etc.

“Compactness is somewhat in the eye of the beholder,” he continued. “You know it when you don’t see it, when something is sprawling or has tentacles it is not compact. It’s very hard to define in a formal way.”

Ypma said he is trying to put together something that makes sense and as far as he can tell, conforms to the constraints.

“I’m sure there are potential issues with just about anything I put up. I’m fairly certain that whatever I put forward or the committee accepts and puts forward, somebody is more than likely to sue,” Ypma said. “I think that there’s been perhaps some gains in mutual understanding between the parties. Let’s hope that that manifests itself in reaching a mutually agreeable solution.”

Potential to wind up in court

Aside from disagreement on which cities and areas should be included in each district, of additional concern to Bonner was that this specific language was proposed by the County Council, the same legislative body that would be affected by the new boundaries.

“That to me is a conflict of interest,” Bonner said. “I would think it’s unheard of for a legislative body to set their own boundaries. That could lead people to say there is gerrymandering or packing, and if Republicans were in a majority now on the council, the other side would be saying the same ... thing.”

Conservatives took the matter to court in Skagit County before the measure ever made it to the ballot, but a judge dismissed the case before the election.

It appears likely that no matter what happens, the issue could wind up back in court, as lawyers on either side have sent the committee letters detailing how they believe the process should go, and the two Republican members have asked on multiple occasions what might happen if no accord is reached.

Unlike the state’s Districting process, the county charter does not spell out what happens if the Districting committee does not reach an agreement.

Whatcom County Deputy Prosecutor Karen Frakes told the group March 7 that it is the county’s responsibility to make sure the district boundaries are drawn, so if the committee can’t agree, the measure likely would go before the county’s legislative body — the council.

“If this committee can’t reach a plan I think the only logical step would be to send it to the county council to pick a plan, and then I’m sure we’ll end up in a lawsuit,” Frakes said.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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