5 Whatcom voting districts approved; members urge legal challenge

The final map of Whatcom County Council voting districts, as amended by Mike Estes, was approved by the Districting Committee Wednesday, April 20.
The final map of Whatcom County Council voting districts, as amended by Mike Estes, was approved by the Districting Committee Wednesday, April 20. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The five new districts for Whatcom County elections were set without argument Wednesday night, April 20, but to say the vote was unanimous might be deceiving.

While all four members of the Districting Committee — Brett Bonner and Mark Nelson representing conservatives, Lisa McShane and Mike Estes representing progressives — approved a final map with the amendments Estes proposed, Bonner quickly followed the unanimous vote with a statement calling for voters to challenge the map.

Bonner said that county civil prosecuting attorney Karen Frakes had made it clear it was her legal opinion that if the committee couldn’t agree on a final map, the process would revert to the Whatcom County Council.

“This is the primary reason Mark and I voted for the Democrats’ proposal tonight,” Bonnner said, “to ensure the County Council has no say about deciding their own districting boundaries.”

He went on to say he thought “the citizens of Whatcom County will not be fairly represented in future elections,” and that the process that put the measure on the November ballot “reeked of partisanship.”

It is unethical for a legislative body – in this case the County Council – to decide its own election districts.

Brett Bonner

“For fair and equal voting in Whatcom County, we urge citizens to challenge Proposition 9 in court,” Bonner said, stating that a few reasons to challenge the process included that there had been little public input before the measure went before voters and “it is unethical for a legislative body — in this case the County Council — to decide its own election districts.”

Nelson and Bonner also maintained that the map “purposely packs Republicans into the Farmland district,” by including Lynden, Everson, Nooksack, and Sumas into the same district. Bonner and Nelson have argued that those small cities should be moved into the neighboring foothills area to prevent packing.

They also said that by the same logic, Bellingham’s districts had been packed with Democrats.

The five districts will replace the current three for Whatcom County Council elections, and if the Port of Bellingham were to change from three to five members, it would follow the same districts. Voters also approved district-only voting in November, so only those who live in a district will vote for their representative, and the entire county will vote for two at-large positions on the seven-member legislative body.

The council put Proposition 9 before voters with an ordinance that spelled out the approximate boundaries of the new districts. That description was printed in the voters’ pamphlet and became the “transition language” for the committee to refer to when the measure was approved.

The map approved Wednesday follows the transition language voters approved.

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

Now that the map has passed, following the language voters approved, the matter could wind up back in court.

Under state law, any registered voter who lives in Whatcom County has 15 days to request the Whatcom County Superior Court review the map.

The request has to specify the reason or reasons why the plan doesn’t follow state law on redistricting. The court could then find:

▪ The plan follows the rules and therefore would take effect immediately;

▪ The plan doesn’t follow the criteria and the committee would be asked to make changes; or

▪ If the court finds the request frivolous or was filed for solely for harassment or delay, it could impose sanctions on the person who asked for the review.

No tie-breaker

By approving the change to five districts, voters in November created the Districting Committee, which was to have two Democrats, two Republicans, and then those four members were to chose a fifth person to chair the committee.

When the two sides chose their chairman, Dale Kinsley, they also opted not to give him a vote, as they thought it might be challenging to find someone both sides could agree on.

The language setting up the committee doesn’t require the fifth member have a vote, but it was implied that person would be a tie-breaker, and Frakes advised it would be wise to give him the vote.

At Wednesday’s meeting, before any vote was taken, Nelson moved that Kinsley be allowed to vote, and all members agreed.

His vote didn’t come into play though, as the four partisan members of the committee unanimously approved a version of districting master Tjalling Ypma’s final map as amended by Estes.

Generally, the districts on the map are as follows:

▪ North Bellingham

▪ South Bellingham

▪ Coastal – Lummi Island, Lummi Reservation, Ferndale, Birch Bay, Custer, Blaine, Point Roberts

▪ Farmlands – On the south end starting near Bellingham International Airport and west of Guide Meridian, Lynden, Everson, Nooksack, Sumas

▪ Foothills – Chuckanut, Lake Samish, Lake Whatcom, Sudden Valley, and areas east of the Guide, including Van Zandt, Acme, Deming, Kendall, Maple Falls, Glacier

The committee ended its 30-minute final meeting by thanking each other for their hard work.

“I wanted to take a minute to thank both of you for sitting across the table from us,” McShane said to Nelson and Bonner. “It wasn’t always fun, but I understand we all had our constituencies to represent.”

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil