The Whatcom County Charter Review Commission will live to fight another decade, at least.
Commissioners on Monday, June 22, voted down a proposal by one of its members, Eli Mackiewicz, to ask county voters in November to dissolve the body. The vote was 3 to 11, with Commissioner Cliff Langley absent.
(Langley’s absence meant the commission made this and other decisions Monday night without the usual 30 seconds of guidance from some inner or higher power. Langley had been calling for 30 seconds of silence at the beginning of each meeting. He had withdrawn his original idea to hold a prayer at the start of every meeting, due to a perceived conflict with the state constitution.)
Sandy Robson said she agreed the commission should be dissolved.
“I feel the commission is being used, and can continue to be used by some commissioners, as a way to usurp some of the powers of the County Council,” Robson said.
Robson didn’t elaborate, but two of the eight amendments that could appear on the November ballot include restrictions on the council’s ability to recommend its own charter amendments to the voters.
Another amendment, calling for district-only voting, is perceived among progressives as an attempt by rural conservatives to gain control of the council. Those rural conservatives frame it in terms of fair representation.
Delaine Clizbe, a conservative who lost in last year’s charter review elections, spoke in support of the commission, challenging Mackiewicz’s statement and statements by other members of the public that the commission hasn’t been “considering and weighing public input.”
“You guys have been the best that I’ve seen at listening, hearing the comments, acting like you were listening,” said Clizbe, who was comparing the commission to the county and Bellingham councils. “I am adamantly against even the possibility of this commission being done away with. I think it’s important that the citizens get to take a look every 10 years at their governing document.”
When it came time for Mackiewicz to speak on behalf of his amendment, he took a halfhearted approach.
“I can completely understand if you think I’m crazy, and you don’t think this is a good idea,” he said.
What troubled Mackiewicz was the partisanship that clouded the debate on the commission, and even the election process. All but one of the winning candidates was endorsed by either the county Democrats or Republicans. (Commissioner Yvonne Goldsmith, while not seeking a party endorsement, was a former county Republican officer.)
“I am not absolved from the issues that this commission has had. I would not be here had I not been endorsed by a political party for a nonpartisan commission,” said Mackiewicz, one of six Democrat-endorsed people on the 15-member commission. “That to me indicates a problem, whether it’s my problem or the voters’ problem.”
Despite the often party-line vote results on the commission, Mackiewicz’s amendment No. 21 fell at the hands of eight conservatives and three progressives. Mackiewicz received support from Barbara Ryan and Richard May.
A more traditional deliberative body, such as the city or county council, “would have taken the time to say, ‘What are the criteria? What are we trying to accomplish? What are the values that we think that people in our county subscribe to that should be reflected in our charter?’ None of that happened here,” said Ryan, an ex-Bellingham council member and someone who falls on the liberal side of the commission spectrum.
Commissioner Alie Walker, whose votes also have aligned more with the progressives, spoke against dissolving the commission.
“It has been an excellent vehicle for public discussion and input,” Walker said.
In the end, Mackiewicz wavered between voting “yes” and “no” to the end. He credited public input early in the meeting for helping shape the commission’s debate and its decision. Hearing commission veterans such as Joe Elenbaas tell it, public attendance and public comments to this decade’s Charter Review Commission was more than the three previous commissions combined.
“I definitely think that the public input did a lot to convince me and others, so thank you,” Mackiewicz said.
Speaking of public input, the commission is finished taking any during meetings. The body meets only one more time, at a meeting that starts early — 4 p.m. on July 13. No more amendments will be considered either; the commission’s work will consist of reviewing the current amendments one more time, and nailing down the ballot language.
This post was corrected on Tuesday, June 23, to attribute a quote to Delaine Clizbe. The quote was misattributed originally.