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Charter Review and District Only Voting

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“Treasuring the many wonders of our unique environment and realizing that the power and duty to govern and protect this region is inherent in its people, we, the citizens of Whatcom County, in order to have a government which advances justice, inspires confidence, and fosters responsibility, do adopt as the foundation of our government, this Charter.” -Whatcom County Charter, Preamble

This year, Whatcom County voters have a unique opportunity. They will be able to rewrite the constitution of our county government. This process is called a County Charter Review.

Most counties in Washington state do not have a charter. They use the standard setup outlined by the State Constitution and the legislature, where three county commissioners are elected by the voters, and they appoint a county manager to serve as the executive branch. This setup works just fine in say, Adams County (pop. 19,200), where the most debated subject is resurfacing the main road that runs through the county to handle more truck traffic.

But this setup runs into trouble when it is applied to say, Thurston County (pop. 260,100). Three full-time commissioners simply cannot handle all the duties of a county government when it gets to be that size, so Whatcom County (pop. 205,800) found a different solution.

In 1978, the voters approved a “Home Rule Charter” which means that the citizens of Whatcom were seizing the power to reorganize their government, as provided for in the state constitution, making us the third such county to do so in the history of Washington.

Our County Charter serves as our county constitution. You can read it in its entirety here. It outlines who is elected (county executive, sheriff, treasurer, auditor, prosecutor, assessor and council) and who is appointed (county clerk, medical examiner, board of health, etc). It defines the powers of each office, lays out the procedure for elections and defines compensation and concepts like conflict of interest.

According to our charter, every ten years the citizens will form a commission to, “review the Charter to determine its adequacy and suitability to the needs of the county and may propose amendments.” They will serve without salary and usually attend a series of meetings that span six months. The commissioners are elected by council district, with the top five vote getters in each district being seated for a total of fifteen commissioners. All the amendments proposed by the commission must be put to a vote in November 2015.

The Charter Review Commission has the power to drastically change the way we operate as a county. Just to pick one drastic example, they could strip the County Council of its ability to approve land use permits, a major blow for Gateway Pacific Terminal opponents. Alternately, they could turn the county executive into an appointed position and give that power to the County Council, raising the stakes for council races to ridiculous levels.

However, the most likely battleground this year is over district-only voting. Charlie Crabtree, chair of the Whatcom Republicans and confused newspaper reader, has made it crystal clear that his priority for the Charter Review is district-only voting. As he wrote in his emails to disheartened Republicans after they lost control of the Council last year,

“In 2005, voters in Whatcom County voted to elect their councilmembers by the district where they reside instead of an “At-Large” County-wide Election. The first election to be “district only” was 2007. Five weeks after the 2007 election, led by Barbara Brenner, the council passed an ordinance to reverse the people’s decision. This ordinance was passed without hearing. It was placed on the ballot and an uneducated public put “at large” voting back in place. The November 5th election shows the “Brenner effect” of Ken Mann and Carl Weimer not getting a majority vote in the district they will end up representing.”

Right now, council candidates must live in their district, pass a primary in their district and then be elected county-wide. In 2013, a majority of the Democratic votes came from the 1st District, which includes south Bellingham because that’s where the Democratic ground game focused their efforts. This increased turnout helped reelect Weimer and Mann.

Crabtree has been beating this drum for many years. He wrote the PRO position in the 2005 voters pamphlet for district only voting, however this may not be a winning strategy for the Republicans.

Here is the breakdown by district of the Democratic votes for the last four years. As you can see, the Democratic total of votes continues to grow in all three districts. This is especially telling since the last redistricting (2012) added more conservative precincts to the 2nd District, and moved more liberal precincts into the 1st. Even with that boost, the Republicans are losing ground county-wide.

If we move to district-only voting, it would go into effect in 2017. If these trends are to continue, that would put the 3rd district at 48.3% Democratic and the 2nd at 44%. With Carl Weimer most likely retiring from council in 2017, it would mean a competitive race in the 3rd, and Ken Mann staring down a difficult situation in the 2nd. Except by this point, Mann will have served for 8 years, and every year he does better than the year previous. The incumbent factor is hard to shake (see Brenner, Barbara).

No matter how the issue of district-only voting is resolved, the Charter Review Commission is a vital pivot point for elections in Whatcom. If you are interested in serving, reach out to whichever party you identify with and let them know.

For more “Keep it Simple, Sweeney” explanations of local political issues, check out some of these articles: Bellingham Waterfront 101, what is the Growth Management Act, and why can’t we pass gun legislation?

About Riley Sweeney

Citizen Journalist • Member since Aug 10, 2009

Riley Sweeney, raised in the Pacific Northwest, moved to Bellingham during the Bush years, worked on a cross-section of political campaigns during the Obama years, and then fled to the [...]