Half a dozen Districting Committee meetings in the books, and what does Whatcom County have to show for them?
One mystery and one thing we know all too well.
First the familiar: The Republican/Democrat dynamic in the county is rancorous, with most of the venom in this case coming from the Republicans.
The GOP has been on a legal offensive since one week after the Districting Committee began. The same conservative group that sued the county last year over five districts in told county attorney Karen Frakes, who advises the committee, to pay no mind to the description of the five districts presented to voters in the fall, and to give the committee her blessing to approach the districts as a clean slate.
Frakes, who successfully defended the county council against litigation last summer from the conservative Common Threads Northwest, asserted the county’s position that the rough outline of the five districts provided to voters is exactly what the committee must base its map on because it’s what voters considered when they voted.
This is in line with the Democrats’ position. The Dems asserted this position on legal letterhead last week, releasing a statement by the Seattle law firm Smith & Lowney that said the map as described in the voters pamphlet and as now appears in the county charter is a “mandate” that must be followed, or else any of the more than 30,000 county voters who approved five districts could sue the county.
(Full disclosure: I am employed by Dan McShane, husband of Lisa McShane, one of the Democratic Districting Committee members.)
In short, the outline given to voters and supported by Democrats calls for two Bellingham districts; a coastal district with Ferndale and Blaine; a farmland district with Lynden, Everson, Nooksack and Sumas; and a foothills district.
Neither side shows any signs of backing down. The GOP accused the Democrats of designing the districts in a way that packs most of the Republicans in the Lynden district -- a charge they haven’t been able to prove. The Republicans are arguing for moving Everson, Nooksack and Sumas into the foothills district immediately to the east, to spread the Republican votes around. Democrats are holding their ground, saying the map must hew to the description given to voters, which puts Everson and Sumas with Lynden.
If ever the county needed a hero to resolve this legal impasse, now would be the time. Send up the bat signal.
Enter … Craig Cole?
A letter from the spokesman for a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point arrived via U.S. Postal Service into the hands of committee members just minutes before Monday’s noon meeting.
What is this exquisitely timed wisdom, and can it lead the two parties out of the darkness?
To the contrary, it follows the Republican party line to a "T." Chalk one member of the public up for the GOP side.
Cole starts the letter by suggesting he is not presenting himself as spokesman for Gateway Pacific Terminal, even though the association is inescapable. And I suppose it’s a happy coincidence that GPT’s position on districting aligns with Cole’s personal opinion. The proposed coal port supported the election of conservative, pro-coal charter review commissioners in 2014, then it lobbied against the five-district plan after it appeared on the county council’s agenda in mid-2015.
Even so, Cole offered “personal observations” that were “mine only.”
Cole says in his letter that his personal opinion is valuable because of his role “serving as a member and chair of the County Council in the early 1980s,” and because he has “followed county governmental matters.”
But after laying out these credentials, Cole changes the tone of his letter. He goes from council elder statesman to lawyer, albeit one with unconvincing legal arguments for why the map outlined in the voters pamphlet should not be approved by the committee. (How do I know his arguments are unconvincing? They haven’t worked in a courtroom or in front of real lawyers yet.)
Now, quickly, for The Mystery mentioned at the beginning of this article. District mapping master Tjalling Ypma, chair of the Western Washington University math department, discussed two maps on Monday, labeled “E” and “F,” but in fact had the nearly completed draft of the ultimate map (call it “G”) hidden in his bag. He took some cursory notes on what the two political parties had to say about “E” and “F,” which may lead to some tweaks of the mystery map “G.”
Does it look like the Democrats’ map, with Lynden, Everson, Nooksack and Sumas together? Does it meet Republican demands to split the small cities from Lynden? Is it some clever third way that will get at least one committee member to cross party lines and yield a majority decision?
The world won’t get to see the master’s final map until April 6. The committee will hold a public hearing on the final map on April 13, then is scheduled to vote on it April 20.
In the meantime, we can all play lawyer and argue one side or the other. But chances are the two parties will fail to reach agreement on April 20, and we’ll get to see real lawyers in action, in some out-of-county courtroom. Lawsuits split along ideological lines have become the norm in Whatcom County politics.