In its final meeting, the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission passed eight amendments to the County Council, for that body to place the changes to the county charter on the November ballot.
One commissioner absent from that meeting noted an irony: The commission, so keen on government representation by district, took its most important votes without the participation of one of the three county districts.
Two of the eight amendments were changed before final approval at the Monday, July 6 meeting. One would have prohibited the council from changing the charter in a way that undid a previous charter amendment that had won at least two-thirds approval from voters. The other would have prohibited the council from changing particular sections of the charter, pertaining to how council members are elected.
County attorney Dan Gibson, who advised the commission, said that in his opinion these two amendments conflicted with the state constitution because that document grants councils explicit authority to change the charter. Anything that limited that authority would be unconstitutional, Gibson advised.
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With only nine of 15 members present and willing to vote, the commission voted unanimously to change the amendments so that the council could in fact change the charter under those two circumstances, but only by a 7-0 vote. Ordinarily, the council is required to have at least five “yes” votes out of seven to forward a charter amendment to the ballot.
Gibson, speaking to the commission via speakerphone from Montana, said he was satisfied this change was in line with the state constitution.
Unanimity had been hard to come by with this Charter Review Commission. Much of its members’ debate over their six-month tenure was divided along political lines; and most of the time, the nine-person conservative majority got its way. For instance, the commission moved “district-only voting” to the ballot back in February — the first amendment the commission passed. (They approved it so early, in fact, that a large majority of the public comment that came in during meetings about district-only voting happened after the commission had approved it.)
Under district-only voting, council members would not be elected countywide, as they are now, but rather only by voters who live in their district. Arguments for district-only voting have been along these lines: It would result in more rural representation on the council; it would cost less to run a campaign because candidates are covering less ground; and the role of big-money players who have had so much influence in recent Whatcom elections (think SSA Marine and Tom Steyer) would diminish.
Those who favor countywide voting say it gives voters a greater role, voting for all seven council members rather than just three; it makes council members accountable to all county residents; and the current three-district system is unfair because it carves up Bellingham three ways, putting pieces of the city in all three districts.
To fix the problem with three districts, commissioner Todd Donovan proposed a five-district scheme in which two districts would comprise Bellingham, which happens to make up two-fifths of the county population. (Districts need to be roughly equal in population.) That proposal was rejected by the commission at an April meeting, largely along party lines.
The five-district amendment will be considered for the November ballot tonight by the County Council.
County District 1, which includes south Bellingham, the South Fork Valley, Lake Samish and Chuckanut Drive, was effectively not represented at Monday’s charter review meeting. Three of five commissioners from Whatcom’s most liberal district were no-shows: Barbara Ryan, Thomas Stuen and Alie Walker. Eli Mackiewicz showed up, participated in roll call, then left after seeing the commission would have a quorum without him.
“I came with the intention to abstain from voting,” Mackiewicz said in an interview on Tuesday, July 7. “When I realized (there was a quorum), I realized a that point me sitting there and abstaining from everything wasn’t productive at all, and I’d probably do better by subtraction than by addition.”
Commissioner Donovan was there, but he abstained from all votes.
“I was really there more as an observer,” Donovan said when interviewed on Tuesday. “There weren’t really any votes I could make that would make a difference.”
Mackiewicz and Donovan both said they didn’t think the meeting should have been held on July 6. It was rescheduled from July 13 late last week by commission Chairman Ben Elenbaas.
Stuen said he didn’t attend the meeting because he, too, didn’t approve of the late date change.
“I felt this was scheduled irregularly, and it seemed to me that ... whatever might happen would not be proper in any event, and I did not want to lend legitimacy to it,” Stuen said Tuesday in an interview.
In the bitter end, a commission that had come together in January to work as a unit on the county charter ended up fighting. The result was a decisive victory for districts 2 and 3 over District 1.
“The meeting was called hastily for I think political purposes,” Stuen said. “I think the whole process this year demonstrates the flaws in our districting system.”
Elenbaas gave his rationale for the schedule change at the beginning of Monday’s meeting. It had to do with tonight’s County Council meeting, which includes council’s consideration of four other charter amendments, some of which are intended to deflect or override the conservative commission’s amendments.
“I thought it would be proper (to change the date) since the council is proposing their charter amendments in direct response to whatever charter amendments that this body brings forward,” Elenbaas said Monday night. “I thought it might behoove them to respond to the final version of our process.”
Commissioner Walker wasn’t buying it. In an email she sent Tuesday to the Politics Blog in response to a request for an interview, Walker had this to say:
I did not agree with the reasons for changing it from the July 13 meeting we all agreed to, and I am disappointed in the spirit in which the meeting was called.
“The meeting change felt engineered to impede public comment or participation, even if just to observe.
“Ultimately, I felt my voice would not be heard, and my vote would not effect this process whether I attended or not.
“It is ironic that this commission is attempting to change our charter for ‘better representation’ in the county. The voices of the people who elected me are not represented by the proposed amendments put forth by the commission.”
Despite their protests and concerns about the commission’s flaws, Donovan and Stuen’s reflections on the process weren’t all negative.
“Ben (Elenbaas) has gone out of his way to give the minority a role, and we’ve influenced some things,” Donovan said on Tuesday. “That as my main frustration for having the meeting (Monday night). Given the controversy it caused … it took a bit away from what has been a really good process since January.”
“It was an interesting process, and democracy has to have these opportunities,” Stuen said. “We had lots of people speaking up (during the public comment periods). Whether rational decisions were made in the end was doubtful.”