Local Election

Coal fight spills into Whatcom’s ‘constitution’

Members of the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission are sworn in during their first meeting, on Jan. 12, 2015, in Bellingham.
Members of the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission are sworn in during their first meeting, on Jan. 12, 2015, in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald

Coal interests and environmentalists have pitched a war of words and money over propositions on the Nov. 3 Whatcom County ballot. None of the moves have proved to be illegal.

Pacific International Terminals, the name SSA Marine is operating under as it seeks to build a coal terminal at Cherry Point, gave $37,545 to the Whatcom County Republican Party this year, according to filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission. Only $2,000 of that was donated to a fund that can be spent directly on candidates and ballot measures.

Republicans, who received about $70,000 this year from dozens of donors to spend directly on campaigns, turned around and gave $3,300 to a group called DOVE Whatcom, which supports three ballot measures that would change the way voters elect County Council members.

DOVE Whatcom supports Propositions 1, 2 and 3. If Prop. 1 passes in November, Whatcom voters would no longer vote for every council member; but would now vote for those who live in the same district. Conservatives perceive that as a way to get more rural representation on the council.

Propositions 2 and 3, for the most part, were intended to reduce the possibility that the council would overturn Prop. 1.

Bellingham’s RE Sources for Sustainable Communities created a separate ballot committee — similar to a political action committee — on Sept. 10 to support Prop. 9 on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The county Charter Review Commission is elected once every 10 years to review the charter — essentially the county constitution.

Prop. 9 would reconfigure the county from three political districts to five. Progressives like Prop. 9 because Bellingham would get two districts, and the rural areas and small cities would get three. Two members would be elected countywide. As it now stands, one member is elected countywide and each of the three districts include a piece of Bellingham, diluting the liberal vote in a district-only voting system.

PDC filings show the RE Sources committee had received $62,262 in donations as of Wednesday, Oct. 14, including $48,653 in “in-kind” contributions from RE Sources itself, which provided everything from rent and staffing to “opinion research,” which can include polling voters.

RE Sources is not required to disclose its donors.

Another progressive ballot committee, Fair & Equal Whatcom, which also supports Prop. 9, received $10,000 this year — more than half its total donations — from Washington Conservation Voters.

Political power grab

As political activists on both sides see it, the three propositions promoted by the conservative group DOVE Whatcom — Nos. 1, 2 and 3 on the ballot — along with Proposition 9, could determine who has political control of the county. Both sides are imploring an electorate, which has largely paid little or no attention to all the ballot measures, to get educated and cast an informed vote.

Eight of the 10 propositions, or charter amendments, came from the county Charter Review Commission, elected once every 10 years to review the charter — essentially the county constitution, outlining how government runs and officeholders are elected. The commission was established by the county freeholders, who changed county government from a three-person commission to a seven-member council in the 1970s.

Conservative Charter Commissioner Ken Bell said he had hoped the us-vs.-them politics common in the United States could have been avoided on the commission. What he found instead was politics as usual.

“This process became political in a hurry,” Bell said Aug. 26 at a Bellingham City Club lunch. “The problem with trying to put a commission together to review the charter was, the parties got involved. ... It wasn’t ordinary citizens, as our freeholders had imagined, that came together and discussed ideas. ... It became a battle from day one.”

During the fight over the charter amendments, numerous allegations about strategy and secret meetings were lobbed back and forth. The Bellingham Herald reviewed several hundred emails from public records requests that detailed discussions of how to get proposals on the ballot and sell them to voters. Many of those emails also talked about ways to thwart the other party’s plans.

More coal money

Earlier this year, when the commission was meeting, RE Sources pointed to PDC filings from 2014 showing that coal money was funneled to council candidates.

“Coal companies are now funding an effort to fundamentally alter how Whatcom County conducts its elections to make it easier for their pro-coal candidates to win,” read an “action alert” RE Sources emailed supporters on April 9.

Progressives and environmental groups rallied support by drawing attention to the nearly $2,400 SSA Marine spent on an independent campaign that backed 12 conservative charter commission candidates.

RE Sources sent at least 10 action alerts from April to July, drawing the connection between coal money and conservatives on the Charter Review Commission. Most of the money spent in 2014 paid for “slate cards,” or mailers and other types of advertising with lists of endorsed candidates.

RE Sources’ call to action got the attention of conservative Commissioner Chet Dow.

“It has not escaped subscribers to the environmental religion that — at some point — it is likely that County Council will cast votes concerning whether or not to issue the needed permits for the shipping terminal,” Dow wrote in an email on April 18. “Between now and November ‘our people’ have to educate and persuade their friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc. about what is at stake. It will be a long time (not in our lifetimes), if ever, before another private enterprise comes along willing to risk nearly a billion dollars of private money in Whatcom County.”

In the roughly 200 emails Dow released in response to a public-records request, he says hardly anything else about the coal terminal. The statements he makes about district-only voting argue for more rural representation, better governance and “getting the county back on track.”

In reality, the $200 per commissioner from GPT interests is probably not the real motivation of our county friends.

Barbara Ryan, charter commissioner

Dow couldn’t be reached for comment in the days before this story was published, but he spoke in an August interview about the conclusions some progressives had drawn from his email about the coal terminal, which is referred to as Gateway Pacific Terminal or GPT.

“I’m aware that there’s a couple of individuals who are probably assigned a task to create something out of nothing,” Dow said.

Progressive Charter Review Commissioner Barbara Ryan, a former Bellingham council member, provided her insight into what she saw as the conservatives’ true motives:

“In reality, the $200 per commissioner from GPT interests is probably not the real motivation of our county friends. It has probably always been property rights, the ability of anybody who owns property to do what they want with it, without ‘government interference,’” Ryan wrote April 25 in an email.

SSA Marine sent an alert to an email list July 2 under the name “Concerned Whatcom Citizens” asking people to attend upcoming County Council hearings and speak against what became Prop. 9. A similar five-district proposal had already been rejected by the Charter Review Commission.

“Extreme environmental activists are asking the County Council to subvert the work of the commission that you just elected,” SSA Marine’s call to action said.

Officials at SSA Marine didn’t comment in October, but terminal spokesman Craig Cole spoke on the company’s interest in the charter review in April.

“As a large landowner and taxpayer in Whatcom County, (SSA Marine) would have a range of interests, especially since some groups have been advocating against almost any kind of industrial growth at Cherry Point,” Cole wrote in an April 24 email to The Bellingham Herald. “SSA has an interest, like other industries, in keeping options open.”

This story was corrected on Thursday, Oct. 15, to remove an inaccurate statement about restrictions on political campaigning that apply to nonprofits.

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

Related stories from Bellingham Herald