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District-only dead? Whatcom council to weigh return to countywide vote

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​Get ready for some high end-of-term drama on the Whatcom County Council.

Council member Rud Browne is introducing at the Tuesday, Nov. 21 council meeting two changes to the county charter related to how council members are elected—and the power council members wield over the election process.

The one likely to grab more attention is his second proposed ordinance, a measure that would go before county voters in November 2018 calling for all council members to “be elected by a majority vote of the registered voters of Whatcom County.” That means no more “district-only” voting, the system just put in place by voters in 2015. In fact, earlier this month we got through the first round of district-only voting after the majority-conservative Charter Review Commission in 2015 put district-only on the ballot that year. Now, only voters in each of five districts within the county elect five of the seven council members. The other two members are still elected “at-large,” or countywide.

Conservatives wanted district-only voting to put some of their political ilk on the council, at least from the three newly drawn rural districts. So far, the strategy is working. Rural district 3, the so-called foothills district that includes the east county, elected conservative Tyler Byrd over Democrat-endorsed Rebecca Boonstra on Nov. 7.

But if Browne and several other council members see fit, county voters will have a chance to revisit that decision in 2018, and take us back to the countywide system, which favors progressive candidates. First, though, a large majority of council members must vote over the next few weeks to put district-only voting on the ballot.

As county rules now stand, that “large majority” stands at a full seven out of seven. Another measure conservatives shepherded to voter approval in 2015 was a change to county rules that says, if the council wants to propose a change to the rules on how its members are elected, they must vote 7-0 to put such a change on the ballot.

Browne says a 7-0 vote shouldn’t be required, and if a supermajority of five or six council members out of seven want to put the countywide voting system on the ballot—that council vote could come as early as Dec. 5—he would then call for the ballot measure to go through.

This is where it gets interesting, if not confusing. Some may recall there were a total of 10 county-rule changes on the 2015 ballot. These were amendments to the county charter. Amendment 10 asserted a supermajority vote of council members on votes that would change the charter. A supermajority in the case of the seven-member council amounts to five “yes” votes. Amendment 3, on the other hand, restricted the council to a 7-0 vote on changes to the charter that affect election procedure. Both amendments, 10 and 3, passed. But the prosecutor’s office, Browne said, gave primacy to No. 3 over No. 10, so that the 7-0 vote rule holds.

“I don’t know why, and I’m looking for an explanation,” Browne said in an interview Monday evening, Nov. 20.

Browne reasons that charter amendment No. 10 got more votes and a better percentage of the votes than amendment No. 3, so 10 should hold sway.

“It’s almost certain to be in litigation,” Browne said.

This takes us to the other charter amendment Browne would like to see on the November 2018 ballot: Elimination of the 7-0 vote requirement by council if it wants to change the rules by which its members are elected. As I said, Browne believes this rule was installed incorrectly if not illegally. This charter amendment—which again would require final approval by the voters in 2018—would (one only assumes at this point) reassert the less strict supermajority requirement of at least five votes.

Those with more than a decade of institutional memory may be feeling some deja vu. The 2005 charter review commission put district-only voting on that year’s ballot, and voters approved. County council members in 2007 were elected according to the district-only format, but then the council—led by Barbara Brenner—asked voters to revert back to countywide voting. That passed in 2008, and by 2009, the county council was back to the countywide system. (County council members are only elected in odd years. You can say that again.)

Browne has been staunchly opposed to district-only voting since it was first proposed (OK, second proposed) in 2015. “I think it’s counterproductive. I think it’s corrosive to democracy,” Browne said.

Browne spells out some of his reasoning in the language of his second ordinance, linked here.

The first ordinance, which would eliminate the council’s unanimous-vote requirement on charter amendments pertaining to elections, can be read here.

The two ordinances appear under “introduction items,” which will be up for a perfunctory vote at the end of the Tuesday, Nov. 21 council meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham. The real discussion should come at the next scheduled meeting, on Dec. 5, Browne said. He wants a public hearing on the proposed ballot measures.

“I don’t want anyone complaining that we weren’t completely transparent about this,” Browne said.

Then again, there is some sense of time pressure. Browne said he would like to see the council act on this before the end of the year, before the conservative (and undoubtedly pro-district-only) Byrd and a yet-to-be-appointed replacement for Todd Donovan are seated.

“I think all the existing council is very familiar with this issue, and I’m hoping ... the majority of the council is interested,” Browne said.

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

David Camp

Nov 21, 2017

Jeez are they going to put the jail bond on the ballot again too? 

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