Politics Blog

Whatcom Charter Review Commission to revisit funding restrictions on nonprofits

A conservative member of the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission seeks to restrict the county government’s funding of nonprofits. This would be the second such proposal put forward by the commission.

A county charter amendment by commissioner Wes Kentch that is scheduled to be introduced at tonight’s commission meeting in Ferndale would require nonprofit nongovernmental organizations seeking money from the county to complete an application. The county could not commit to funding a nonprofit longer than two years, and the organization must meet certain requirements to qualify for funding.

Tonight’s meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Ferndale library, 2125 Main St.

The requirements relate to transparency (nonprofits must open their books to the county and name all donors) and legal action. If a group sued the county or supported a voter initiative that would affect the county code or county charter, “or any other legislative codes binding on Whatcom County land and water planning processes,” it would be unable to get county support for 10 years.

This prohibition against legal action for county-supported agencies brings to mind Futurewise, which has sued the county for violating state rules limiting rural growth, and RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, which has sued BNSF Railway over coal dust and SSA Marine for unpermitted land clearing at the site of a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point. (SSA Marine admitted it made a mistake and paid $1.65 million to settle the lawsuit rather than go to trial.) Both of the RE Sources lawsuits were filed in federal court, citing the federal Clean Water Act, and it is unclear whether these specific lawsuits would put the Bellingham-based environmental group under the charter amendment’s funding ban.

Whatever the case, Matt Petryni, clean energy program manager for RE Sources, said his group’s latest action alert, calling on supporters to attend tonight’s meeting to speak against the proposal on nonprofit funding, was not sent out of self interest. The group gets a small amount of money from the county to fund a recycling education program in the schools. The program saves the county money by reducing waste, Petryni said in a phone interview on Monday, April 27.

He said the Kentch amendment was a “watered-down version” of an amendment originally introduced on Feb. 9 by commissioner Yvonne Goldsmith on behalf of ex-county council member Sam Crawford. That amendment would have banned outright county funding of nonprofits. Although commissioners indicated the proposal would have never passed, they waited a month before discussing it and voting on it. In the meantime, officials from nonprofits and their supporters filled the Lummi Nation hall on Feb. 23 to speak against the proposal. it ultimately fell in a 2-12 vote of the 15-member commission. Kentch and Cliff Langley voted for it.

Petryni said the various restrictions on nonprofits under the Kentch amendment, notably the requirement that all donors be named, would prevent “98 percent” of organizations from getting county funding (I took this number to be Petryni’s opinion and did not try to verify its accuracy). Groups routinely get anonymous donations, especially larger donations, from wealthy benefactors who don’t want their names made public, in order to avoid unwanted solicitations from other charities.

While there might be yet another large crowd at tonight’s commission meeting (commissioner and Ferndale City Council member Jon Mutchler said he was concerned the Ferndale library space would not hold all comers), and they may say their piece about the new amendment on nonprofit funding, the proposal won’t get debated until the next meeting at the earliest, on May 11.

The Charter Review Commission meets once every 10 years to recommend changes to the county charter, essentially the constitution for county government. The charter includes rules for how authority is divided between the council and the executive, and how elections are held.

Mutchler said he hadn’t yet read the Kentch amendment, but from what he knew about it he was inclined to oppose it.

“I am uncertain whether this is something that a commission should do,” Mutchler said on Monday, April 27, in a phone interview. “I tend to lean toward, this is something the council should do — like we did in Ferndale.”

In 2012, Ferndale passed a resolution requiring nonprofits to submit applications for city funding, and those applications had to be resubmitted annually. Nonprofits seeking Ferndale money are also required to submit financial statements.

Ferndale’s move came at a time when the City Council was trying to close a budget gap. Since then, the council has not followed the resolution to the letter; one requirement is that the council vote on each application separately.

“Sometimes the city has said we’re just going to adopt this group of applications all at once,” Mutchler said.