Politics Blog

Whatcom candidates weigh in on district-only voting

In part 2 of the five-part Politics Blog series running this week, the four candidates for Whatcom County Council in District 1 — the seat being vacated by Pete Kremen — answer a question about the most controversial proposal to come out of the Charter Review Commission this year. A majority of the commission approved asking voters in November to change the rules governing election of County Council members so that they are no longer elected countywide but rather by voters who live in the same district.

(Yesterday, I published answers by candidates Bruce Ayers, Todd Donovan, Theresa Sygitowicz and Emily Weaver about the new jail.)

There are two ways to look at this proposed amendment to the county charter, or constitution, both of which are valid. On one level, it’s a question of fairness. Is it more fair for people who live in and around Lynden to select their own representatives on the county council (each of the three districts would have two council members), or is it more fair for everyone in the county to elect all council members, since each councilor has a say in taxes and rules for everyone in the county?

On another level, district-only voting vs. countywide voting is a question of political power. Conservatives have been planning to move the district-only amendment forward ever since they were shut out in the four races for County Council in 2013. For example, council member Ken Mann would not have won a second term that year against challenger Ben Elenbaas if only votes in District 2, which includes Lynden, had been counted.

Elenbaas went on to get more votes than any other candidate for the Charter Review Commission, which was decided on district-only ballots in November. Elenbaas chaired the commission and his uncle, Joe Elenbaas, introduced the district-only amendment.

To further complicate what promises to be a long and difficult ballot for voters, the council put an amendment on the November ballot that would redistrict the county from three to five districts. This proposal also has arguments running on two levels at the same time. Which is more fair, five districts or three? Which would gain the progressives or conservatives an advantage?

Battle lines have been drawn: Those who favor district-only voting and keeping the districts as they are, at three, have lined up on the right. On the left are those who want five districts and would prefer the ballot in council elections to remain countywide. The winner will be whoever gets the most effective message across to voters. In other words, this will be a highly charged, highly partisan year of nonpartisan elections in Whatcom County.

In all, there will be nine or 10 charter amendments on the November ballot. The council is expected to vote tonight, Tuesday, July 21, to send the eight commission amendments to the ballot. Council is holding a public hearing at 7 p.m. tonight at 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham, on requiring a 10-vote supermajority on the 15-member Charter Review Commission for it to be able to recommend charter amendments.

All of that by way of introducing the four candidates’ answers to the following question:

Q:

The current makeup of the council has been described as too progressive or Bellingham-centric. (This is from more conservative residents, obviously.) Is there too little representation of small-city and rural interests on the council? If so, what would you propose to improve that? If not, what is your response to people who say the way we elect council members needs to change so that more rural candidates are elected?

A:

Bruce Ayers (profession: land surveyor)

In my analysis the issue of fair and equitable County Council representation is not a rural versus urban issue. We have a diverse county with large and small cities and a large unincorporated community. It is important that all of our citizens are represented on the County Council. Ensuring that the majority vote in each council district determines the elected representative would seem to be the best way to ensure all members of our diverse community are fairly represented on the County Council.

The current seven member council being elected at-large in the general election has in the past resulted in some council districts’ voters feeling they are not represented by the council members who did not receive a majority vote in their district but were elected by a majority of voters from other council districts. Without accountability to voters in each district, it becomes less important for our council to be responsive to all points of view. We need to keep in mind that once elected, council members have a duty to represent the best interests of all Whatcom County citizens, not just their council district. I had the same citywide duty while on the Bellingham City Council.

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Theresa Sygitowicz (farmer, small-business owner)

I am a rural citizen of Whatcom County. As a lifelong resident of Whatcom County, I remember when just the opposite was true. It basically depends on who gets out the vote. We need to encourage all of our citizens to the need to be represented fairly. The proposed changing of the districting (to five districts) needs to be thoroughly investigated. The citizens need to know the proposed boundary lines before they are asked to vote. This issue should be postponed until next year. This would allow an expanded outreach for information.

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Todd Donovan (Western Washington University professor)

I have proposed a five-district plan (as a member of the Charter Review Commission) that would make sure more of our communities are represented: a district with Blaine, Ferndale and rural areas; a district with rural areas, and Lynden and Sumas; a rural, east county district; and just two districts for Bellingham. Two at-large seats would ensure representatives with countywide perspective.

Whether we use district-only voting or countywide voting, five is better than three. No other county in Washington elects their council from three districts with two representatives crammed into each district. The odd plan proposed by the Charter Commission would do this, and all three districts would contain large parts of Bellingham. Those are not districts that represent our communities. That odd, three-district, district-only voting plan can also lead to elections where a minority of votes ends up winning majority of seats.

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Emily Weaver (business consultant)

The history of the members on the council do not prove this is a problem. Pete Kremen stated on the record that changes happen, but we have not had any limitations to representation ever that would bother him or me. The people on the council are elected by the voters to serve, and change happens all the time. Years ago people said if you couldn’t win Lynden you better not even try. That has changed too.

I think if we spent more time getting people to understand the issues and get out to vote and less time trying to “change the rules,” we would be more effective legislators and solve more problems. No one promotes a change of the rules without an agenda. Ask yourself, is Tim Douglas really looking out for the conservative or small cities? He didn’t want to give up control of the WTA board to add small cities to the board when we expanded the transit system either. This all takes time away from real problem solving and from a county our size we could look at this in another 10 years but I don’t see this as a big priority. And it always raises questions of gerrymandering that divides people further. We need to work together.

Our democracy is really important, and the freeholders tried their best to make this work and the charter review is the right place to raise the issue. If Todd Donovan had a great argument for change he should have proposed it to the general public first, for a full debate and review and then listened to the public, taken input and be prepared to answer any questions at the charter review for a full hearing and investigation. Our process calls for an orderly transition to any change of government. (cut to keep within 300-word limit)

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Ballots for the Aug. 4 primary election are already out, and this blog series — in addition to two newspaper stories scheduled to run July 26-27 — are intended to help voters make up their minds in this County Council race.

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