At least nine amendments to the county charter, or constitution, are headed to the November ballot, including a plan initiated with the Whatcom County Council to redistrict the county and possibly change the face of the council.
Council voted 6 to 1 on Tuesday, July 7, to ask voters if they want to change the current three-district map to five districts. The current map has the county sliced up like a pie, with each of the three wedges containing a piece of Bellingham. While boundaries for a five-district system have yet to be drawn, the proposal has Bellingham getting two districts to itself, with the rest of the county divided into three more districts.
In addition to the five-district plan, voters will consider an amendment in November that would replace countywide voting for council members with district-only voting. Under district-only voting, candidates need only appeal to voters in their third of the county — or fifth, if the five-district proposal is adopted.
With either district-only or countywide voting, council members need to live in the district they represent. In the present three-district system, two council members come from each district and one is “at large” and can live anywhere in the county.
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In the five-district proposal, one council member would come from each district and two would be at large.
It is commonly accepted by rural residents and conservatives that district-only voting with three districts would suit them best. While the current District 1 — the south county, South Fork Valley and south Bellingham — is heavily liberal, the other two districts in the northeast and northwest county lean conservative. So district-only voting could secure a 4-3 majority for rural conservatives, although that is far from certain.
The same logic governs some conservative arguments against five districts, even though three of five would represent the more conservative small cities and rural areas. The two Bellingham districts and the two at-large seats likely would give progressives a 4-3 majority, conservatives say, because the countywide races for the at-large seats would be decided by Bellingham voters.
“The amendment absolutely guarantees control of the entire county by the city of Bellingham,” said Jim Dickinson of Lummi Island during the two-hour, 10-minute County Council hearing Tuesday on the five-district amendment.
“The city of Bellingham has so much of a larger population point that there is no way that the three rural districts will get anything out of this at all,” Dickinson said.
Council member Carl Weimer, who voted with the majority to give voters the chance to decide on five districts, said concerns about Bellingham deciding the at-large races were unfounded.
He recalled that two of the past four at-large council members, Marlene Dawson and Bill Knutzen, were conservatives.
“If you look at the at-large seat that everybody is so worried about that Bellingham controls, I guess the Bellingham voters are really stupid because they haven’t done a very good job of controlling it,” Weimer said.
Council member Pete Kremen also noted that Knutzen won an at-large seat, and that Kathy Kershner, a conservative, won from liberal District 1 under countywide voting. He used those examples to explain why he would be the lone council vote against putting the five-district measure on the ballot. Council needs at least five votes to put any charter amendment on the ballot.
“Keep it the way it is. It works, and don’t tinker and be cavalier,” Kremen said.
Council member Rud Browne said before the vote that his support for the five-district proposal would be based on the popular interest in the idea. Tim Douglas, who introduced the five-district proposal on behalf of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities at the June 23 council meeting, on Tuesday handed in more than 2,100 signatures RE Sources had gathered on petitions favoring five districts.
A recurring comment from the public and council members who supported five districts was “let the voters decide.”
“This is just another example of trusting the voters, putting out a good measure I think that’s not competing with district-only voting,” council member Barry Buchanan said.
While voters are trusted to make decisions in our democracy, Buchanan said, they will need to do some work to understand what will be at least nine charter amendments on the November ballot.
“The voters are going to really have to dig in and educate themselves,” he said.
The Charter Review Commission, which is elected and convenes once a decade, voted to place eight amendments on the November ballot at its final meeting on Monday, July 6.
Controversy clouded the commission’s last meeting, which was rescheduled late last week from Monday, July 13. The sudden change sparked protests among those considered to be in the commission’s progressive minority. While some had schedule conflicts on July 6, others boycotted the meeting or attended but refused to vote.
Conservative commission Chairman Ben Elenbaas said he asked for the meeting to be moved so the County Council would know what charter amendments the commission was proposing before the council considered its own. Council had four charter amendments before it on Tuesday but passed only one, the five-district proposal.
RE Sources, the environmental advocacy group that sponsored the five-district proposal, said it wasn’t motivated by any political advantage.
“Democracy works best with a level playing field, and fair, responsive representation,” RE Sources Executive Director Crina Hoyer said in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “We are supportive of each and every voters’ right to good representation, no matter what their political stripe or where they live in Whatcom County.”
Charter amendments this November
Five districts: County districts would be redrawn to have five instead of three (from County Council).
District-only voting: Countywide voting for council candidates would be replaced with having members elected only within their districts.
Changing charter amendments: If two-thirds of voters approve a charter amendment, the council would need to vote 7-0 to ask voters to change that amendment.
Changing elections: If council wanted to change rules for how council members are elected, they would need a 7-0 vote to put such an amendment on the ballot.
Ballot titles: The number of words allowed in ballot titles would increase from 20 to 40 for initiatives and referendums.
Signature requirements: Initiatives and referendums would be easier to place on the ballot with a lower signature requirement.
More signature requirements: Charter amendments initiated by citizens would be easier to get on the ballot because this signature requirement would be reduced.
Term limits: County Council members and the executive could serve no more than three consecutive terms.
Redistricting: People from as many as four political parties would serve on the county Districting Committee after every census.