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Don’t speak at tonight’s Districting Committee hearing

Let me start by saying I'm a big fan of public participation in politics. It's at the foundation of how government is supposed to work. And it does work that way, at the local level at least. I saw elected leaders change their minds based on what a citizen said many times as a newspaper reporter covering small-town and rural-county councils. It's a beautiful thing to witness.

Tonight's hearing of the Whatcom County Districting Committee is not one of those opportunities for public participation. Not really. It will be a charade.

People who support Fair and Equal Whatcom—the group behind the successful proposal on last November's ballot to change the number of county districts from three to five—have put out the call to get like-minded people to show up at tonight's hearing (at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., if you must know). They will ask members of the Districting Committee to back the “voter intent” to have the five-district map appear as it was described to voters last fall. On the other hand, conservative groups who successfully changed our county council voting system from countywide to district-only in the last election are lining up their people to argue that the progressives followed an illegal process getting five districts on the ballot in the first place, and in the second place “voter intent” isn't as set in stone as Democrats would have you believe.

Now if you were going to the hearing just to observe, you don't need to anymore. I just summarized the whole thing for you. I would only add, the Districting Committee members sat there and made a pretense of listening, and walked out of council chambers with the same opinion they walked in with.

As I mentioned in my report in Northwest Citizen on last week's meeting, it is highly unlikely—nigh impossible—for a citizen to walk up to the microphone tonight and say anything persuasive enough to change the minds of any of the four voting members of the committee—Demcorats Mike Estes and Lisa McShane, and Republicans Mark Nelson and Brett Bonner. (Full disclosure: My boss at my job is Dan McShane, Lisa McShane's husband.)

Tonight's hearing is required by state law, but no one is required to participate. Let's stand down from the arms race or the spitting contest—“Let's see which side has the longest line of supporters waiting to speak”—and save everyone time and money (those staff people working the meeting are getting paid, after all) and just stay home.

Public process is really about the best thing about our deeply flawed system. But in Whatcom County, the system is so dysfunctional that even this best practice has been reduced to ruins.

Don't speak at tonight's hearing. It's a sham.

About Ralph Schwartz

Writer • Member since May 23, 2014

After 13 years in mainstream journalism, Ralph Schwartz left The Bellingham Herald in November 2015 to get more involved in the community. He's now a freelance editor and writer, and works in [...]

Comments by Readers

Mike Estes

Apr 13, 2016

Yes, the hearing is required by law to occur at this time.

It’s unfortunate that the only public hearing is coming at the “95% complete” part of the process. Public input earlier in the map revision process could have influenced the Districting Master as well as committee members.

At our first meeting, Lisa and I advocated for 5 meetings at different locations in the county to gather input. Our counterparts on the committee had no interest in that.

I have a genuine interest in hearing new perspectives tonight.

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Brett Bonner

Apr 13, 2016

I’ve let a lot of misinformation slide but I have to respond to Mike’s inaccurate comment.  I have repeatedly suggested that we have one official public hearing BEFORE the Master submits a final plan so he can hear input and ideas. Only then would he submit a final plan.  What Mike and Lisa (the Democrats) suggested is that we hold five of our REGULAR meetings around the county—where no public comment or input is taken.  We all agreed since we wouldn’t be able to hear from the public anyway it was more conducive to our work schedules and for the County Council staff to have all our regular meetings at the courthouse.

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Abe Jacobson

Apr 14, 2016

Ralph,
Even if a public hearing does not change minds, it has the virtue of giving members of the public the chance to hear each other in a polite and civil setting. That is educational.

best wishes,
Abe Jacobson

PS the above is a non-normative statement.

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