Map of new Whatcom County election districts proposed

Watch Whatcom County Districting Committee Discuss Boundaries

Members of the Whatcom County Districting Committee saw the final proposed map outlining five new voting districts on Wednesday evening, April 6, 2016. The public can weigh in on the proposed boundaries next week. Read more at BellinghamHerald.com
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Members of the Whatcom County Districting Committee saw the final proposed map outlining five new voting districts on Wednesday evening, April 6, 2016. The public can weigh in on the proposed boundaries next week. Read more at BellinghamHerald.com

What could be the final map of Whatcom County’s five new voting districts has been presented, but the partisan committee members who can amend the map showed no signs they were any closer to reaching an accord.

The Whatcom County Districting Committee saw the final map, prepared by nonpartisan districting master Tjalling Ypma, during a meeting Wednesday night, April 6, a week before people will get their only chance to weigh in on the proposed boundaries.

People can weigh in on the new five-district map during a public hearing at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, in council chambers, at 311 Grand Ave.

The committee has met over the last few months to debate where the boundaries should go, guided by “transition language” voters approved in November when they approved the change from three districts to five.

How the districts are drawn will determine how easy it is for conservatives or progressives to gain control of the county’s governing body, the county council. 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.

Political divisions

Committee members Brett Bonner and Mark Nelson, representing conservatives, have argued, among other things, that Chuckanut should be lumped with South Bellingham rather than the communities in the so-called “mountain” district, and that Everson, Nooksack and Sumas should be in the mountain district, rather than with Lynden in the district nicknamed for farmlands.

They argue that lumping Everson, Nooksack and Sumas with Lynden would “pack” many conservatives who live in the county into one district, making the others easier for progressives to win, and potentially violating state law.

Committee members Lisa McShane and Mike Estes, representing progressives, have argued that the voters approved the language in the voters’ guide, which laid out the approximate boundaries of each district.

That language lumps Everson and Sumas with Lynden and surrounding farmland, making no mention of Nooksack, and places Chuckanut with Deming, Kendall, Acme, Sudden Valley, Lake Whatcom and Lake Samish.

Estes pointed out during Wednesday’s meeting that if “packing” is an issue, both the north and south Bellingham districts could be considered packed with progressives.

If I’ve achieved my goal, I made everybody on the committee equally unhappy.

Tjalling Ypma, districting master in charge of drawing new districts

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 current three districts split the county like a pie, each with a piece of Bellingham.

Mapmaker explains final version

Ypma, chairman of the math department at Western Washington University, drafted several possible outlines before settling on his final map, which he presented at Wednesday’s meeting.

“If I’ve achieved my goal, I made everybody on the committee equally unhappy,” Ypma said.

His map sticks with the voter-approved approximate boundaries, except Sumas is moved into the “mountain” district, part of north Lake Whatcom is included in the North Bellingham district, and the Cordata area of North Bellingham is with the farmlands.

“It seems more natural to have Everson and Nooksack combined in one district and Sumas in the other, so I have slightly deviated from the transition language,” Ypma told the committee members.

Using 2010 census data, if divided equally, each district would have 40,212 people in it. The map Ypma presented comes within a difference of about 90 people in one of the districts. Nooksack and Sumas have virtually the same population, with a difference of 31 people.

“Compactness and community of interest considerations are rather better served by this association than by the reverse,” Ypma wrote in his final report.

Though the transition language makes no mention of Nooksack, it was argued that Everson and Nooksack should not be split up, as they are virtually the same community, so Ypma kept Everson/Nooksack in the farmlands with Lynden, and moved Sumas to the “mountain” district.

Bonner expressed frustration with the map for not moving all three communities to the mountains, and tried to verify with Whatcom County Prosecutor Karen Frakes that the transition language allows the actual district lines to be drawn differently.

“You start with the approximate boundaries that are laid out in the transition language, and if that doesn’t comply with state law, then yes, I think it’s incumbent on you to change the portions that don’t comply,” Frakes said.

Estes said that progressives would be willing to concede Sumas to the mountain district and Cordata to the farmlands, though that is different from the transition language, saying it felt like a compromise to budge on a few of the changes the conservatives had requested.

Next steps

People can weigh in on the boundaries during a public hearing at 6 p.m., Wednesday, April 13, in council chambers, 311 Grand Ave.

The committee will consider that input and then meet April 20 to decide what amendments, if any, to make, and potentially vote to approve the final map.

It appears likely that no matter what happens, the issue could wind up in court, as lawyers representing conservatives and progressives have sent the committee letters detailing how they believe the process should go.

Nelson asked his fellow committee members to commit to reach an agreement (at least three of four members have to approve) and avoid litigation.

“I do not want the time I spent on this committee, and the others spent on this committee, being frivolously wasted so it can wind up in court,” Nelson said.

“Nobody wants to have to chose between what the voters asked for and litigation, but I will always come down on the side of what the voters asked for,” McShane responded. “I’m not going to allow threat of litigation to affect what I do.”

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil