Politics Blog

Ballot fatigue? Whatcom voters could see 10 charter changes

The Whatcom County Council has one more charter amendment to consider. It was introduced at the Tuesday, July 7 meeting and will go to a public hearing on July 21.

It says the Charter Review Commission would need 10 votes out of 15 to pass a charter amendment on to the voters. The once-a-decade commission, which just concluded its work on Monday, July 6, passed eight amendments to the ballot under the requirement that it get a simple-majority vote (eight out of 15 at least).

Before the amendment was even introduced, much less brought before the council for a public hearing, three council members spoke out on Tuesday in favor of the supermajority requirement for commissioners: Pete Kremen, Satpal Sidhu and Rud Browne.

Council introduced a second amendment on Tuesday that was to go to a hearing in two weeks, but it was pulled off the agenda. It would have required council members to be elected by a majority of registered voters in the county.

The amendment was pulled on the advice of county attorneys, said council Clerk Dana Brown-Davis. This is because the proposal wasn’t a charter amendment but rather a statement to keep the charter as it is.

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Some amendments to the county charter that will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot change one number: the number of signatures required on petitions for citizen initiatives, referendums or charter amendments; the number of words allowed on an initiative ballot title; the number of political parties able to participate in redrawing the county districts after every census.

The county charter is like a constitution, setting the rules for how the county is governed and how its leaders are elected.

Other charter amendments drew hundreds of people to a courthouse rally and a four-hour-long council meeting on a warm summer night because political activists on the left and right say a lot is at stake.

For the 90 percent or so of us in the middle who aren’t political reporters, it’s hard to sift through the nine amendments that voters will get to decide in November and know why they matter.

The term-limits amendment hasn’t gotten a lot of attention yet, but at least it’s something the apolitical can relate to. The seven-member County Council and the executive — essentially the elected boss of the county’s 800 employees — would be limited to at most three consecutive four-year terms if this amendment were to pass.

Three terms sounds like a lot. The U.S. president can only serve two four-year terms. Ask any Democrat if two terms seemed like a long time in the George W. Bush years, or if the same length of time seemed interminable to Republicans during Barack Obama’s tenure.

But the three-term limit would have an impact in Whatcom County. Kremen served four terms as county executive until Jack Louws was elected in 2011. Council member Sam Crawford recently resigned his position on the council before his fourth term ended. Carl Weimer is halfway through his third term on the council, and while terms wouldn’t start to count toward a council member’s limit until after this year’s election, someone in Weimer’s position in the future would be approaching lame-duck status.

Let’s not forget Barbara Brenner, who has been on the council “forever,” as Kremen said on Tuesday, July 7 — six terms to be exact, and counting (she’s uncontested in this fall’s election).

The original proposal that came before the Charter Review Commission earlier this year was for all county elected officials to face term limits, including the prosecutor, the sheriff, the treasurer, the auditor and the assessor. Commissioners decided the public is better served by people in these niche positions accruing expertise over their years spent in office, rather than kicking them out once they’ve proven themselves capable of doing a good job.

The amendments that have gotten more press and public attention center on the county districts.

Let’s boil it down.

The way we elect County Council members might change, and there are four possible outcomes. These are based on two amendments that will appear on the November ballot: District-only voting and five districts:

▪ Nothing changes. If voters reject district-only voting and five districts, then council members will continue to be elected on a countywide ballot. They will still come from the three districts as they are drawn now — two each from the three districts, plus one at-large member who can live anywhere in the county.

▪ District only/three districts. If voters approve district-only voting and reject five districts, the map will look as it does now, but voters will get ballots only if they live in the same district as the candidates (except for the at-large race, which remains countywide). Conservative activists believe this outcome is best for them, as I’ve reported multiple times during my coverage of the Charter Review Commission. Then again, that’s debatable. Conservative Kathy Kershner would not have won in 2009 in a district-only scenario, while conservative Ben Elenbaas would have defeated Ken Mann in 2013 with district-only voting.

For every 2013, when a strong Bellingham turnout coupled with anti-coal sentiment favored progressives, there’s a 2009, when the tea party uprising and strong rural turnout swung the council to the conservative side. Both elections were countywide. What drove the outcome were turnout and the prevailing issues of that year.

▪ District only/five districts. If voters approve both amendments under discussion here, then voters in the five new districts would only get to elect the one council member from their district plus two at-large members.

▪ Countywide/five districts. If voters approve the five-district proposal put forward by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and reject district-only voting, it will be perceived as a victory for progressives. Mann, who is moderately progressive and was endorsed by county Democrats in 2013, has already said this is his preferred outcome.

“I think the best combination is five districts, and you get the representation from the north county and the east county; and it would be countywide (voting),” Mann said Tuesday, July 7. “That way, everybody realizes we’re all in this together as far as budgeting goes and transportation goes. We don’t want to pit one district against another, which is why I like countywide voting.”

Rural conservatives argue that with countywide voting, their representatives in the outlying districts would still be decided to a significant extent by Bellingham voters. Those who want to keep countywide voting — and they tend to be more progressive — argue on nonpolitical grounds that voters should get to elect all of the seven council members who make decisions for all of the county.

The biggest difference between three and five districts, other than the number, is that Bellingham would no longer be sliced up such that a little of the city is in every district as it is now. Progressives see the current setup as a divide-and-conquer approach, de facto gerrymandering, that dilutes the Bellingham vote and favors conservatives (this is not to say the districts were drawn to be gerrymandered; rather, Bellingham more likely was put into all three districts as an easy way to ensure the populations of the three districts would be roughly equal).

Some conservatives don’t like five districts because it leaves two council seats at-large and provides liberal Bellingham (which would have two districts to itself) with too much opportunity to stack the council with a majority.

Again, history doesn’t bear this out. At-large council members have not been consistently progressive.

RE Sources, which introduced the five-district proposal and will lead a campaign in support of it in the coming months, insists it is not pushing the proposal because it is (if it even is) politically advantageous to progressives.

Over two weeks of signature gathering in support of five districts, RE Sources Executive Director Crina Hoyer said, “we heard the same thing from conservatives and progressives, rural and urban voters: They like that rural areas would get their own districts; that urban centers would get their own districts; and that everyone would be better represented under this proposal. 5 Fair and Equal Districts will be more fair to everyone in Whatcom County, whether voters opt for district-only elections in November, or to remain with countywide voting.”

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