Politics Blog

Charter review’s last gasp? Proposal would kill commission

The Whatcom County Charter Review Commission, that body that convenes once a decade to review and propose amendments to the county charter, will hold its 12th meeting on Monday, June 22.

Thinking back to that first meeting in January, and everything that came between — and bearing in mind a certain reunion concert tour happening this summer — a particular song comes to mind.

What a long, strange trip it’s been. In interviews I conducted before the first meeting, conservative commissioners donwplayed the idea that the politically polarized group, divided more or less between nine dyed-red-in-the-wool conservatives and six progressives, would line up in opposition along those very political lines. With some exceptions around some politically soft issues, such as how many signatures it would take to get a citizen initiative on the county ballot, commission votes have, for the most part, fallen along party lines after all.

The most compelling debates have been about district-only voting for County Council members — a proposal supported by conservatives since the 2014 Charter Review Commission campaign season — and funding restrictions on nonprofits.

What started as a blanket ban on funding all nonprofits, born out of the frustrations felt by ex-County Council member Sam Crawford during the 2014 budget-writing process, became a targeted attack against a handful of organizations that either had a history of legal action against the county or were perceived — wrongly, as it turned out — to support progressive candidates for county office.

Commissioners have heard 20 proposed amendments so far, and have moved eight to the November ballot. Some of the other amendments never had a chance of passing. One was withdrawn for being unconstitutional. Commissioners were about to consider opening each meeting with a prayer but then thought better of it, due to an inconvenience presented by the state constitution. As it is, Commissioner Cliff Langley has asked and been granted 30 seconds of silence to begin each meeting.

So the most recent amendment to appear on the commission’s to-do list, No. 21, might somehow be appropriate.

The Charter Review Commission might swallow its own tail.

Eli Mackiewicz has proposed what might be the most elegantly worded amendment of all: “Shall the Charter be amended to dissolve the Charter Review Commission?”

The amendment itself is an exercise in self annihilation: several paragraphs of strikethroughs to the county charter.

When Mackiewicz first presented the amendment to the other commissioners, in an email on Thursday, June 18, he accompanied it with these words:

Friends,

I will be introducing an amendment to eliminate the Charter Review Commission. If you know me at all, you know the reasoning. I've yet to see any justification for the Commission's existence and would appreciate the voter's opinion on its utility.

Attached.

I hope for a second, but would be understanding if I don't get it.

-Eli-

I asked Mackewicz via email on Friday, June 19, to elaborate more on his reasons for wanting to ask voters to dissolve the Charter Review Commission. He gave me some thoughts, saying his rationale would be more well developed by Monday’s meeting.

In part, he accused his fellow commissioners of exceeding the scope of their assignment, becoming activist charter reviewers in the sense of “activist judges.”

First, my primary motivation is to put this forward as a referendum on the existence of this Commission. We have heard many voters state that they don't feel that the process, procedure, and protocol of this Commission serves the whole of the community. I'd be willing to let the voters decide if this is a system that works for them.

Secondly, I can personally attest to the validity of these concerns. The process is broken because a non-partisan commission is subject to the hyper-partisan electoral system. The procedure is broken because, instead of simply reviewing the Charter, the focus has always been on changing it in fundamental ways. The protocol is broken because commissioners have openly dismissed viewpoints, and people, they don't agree with instead of considering and weighing public input.

The commission meets at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, June 22, in the Garden Room of the Civic Center, 322 N. Commercial St., Bellingham.

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