Dems, GOP primed for legal fight over districts

Not even a letter from a coal terminal spokesman can save them now.

Not even a letter from a coal terminal spokesman can save them now.


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.

About Ralph Schwartz

Posting Citizen Journalist • Member since May 23, 2014

After writing for NWCitizen for five years, Ralph Schwartz helped launch a new Whatcom County newspaper, Cascadia Daily News, joining the staff in December 2021 as government reporter. Before the Daily [...]

Comments by Readers

Jack Petree

Mar 15, 2016

Ralph, I’m hurt.  You never mention my letters. 

I don’t blame you, mine give you less opportunity to sharpen your knives. 

Here’s what I submitted yesterday.

MEMO:  3/14/16

TO:  Mr. Tjalling Ypma and the 2016 Whatcom County Districting Committee

Re:  Districting Master And Chairman’s Critical Part In Your Deliberations

Mr. Ypma, Mr. Kinsley, and voting members of the committee,

I keep hearing the irresponsible comment that the Districting Committee and, perhaps, Mr. Ypma, are unlikely to do their duty as accepted by each when appointments to the various positions put forward in the Whatcom County districting process were accepted by each.  The comment is usually part of a discussion including the idea that your jobs will ultimately have to be accomplished by the County Council as a result of your inability to accomplish your appointed task.

I would remind you that:

·    It is the sole responsibility of the Districting Master to “draw a districting plan for the county” by May 1 of this year;

·    Aside from appointing a Chairman the Districting Committee’s only required task is to adopt, “with or without” amendments, the districting plan for the county brought to the committee by May 1.  The Charter does not allow an alternative.  Adoption is mandatory.  You accepted that obligation when you accepted appointment.

·    The fact that the Chair of the Districting Committee was not allowed a vote does not absolve the Chair of his most important remaining responsibility; assuring the plan brought forward by the Districting Master is adopted and brought forward to the Auditor.

·    If a voting deadlock occurs the Chairman must assume the Districting Master’s plan is the plan to be adopted and must see to it’s submission to the Auditor.

·    While the Committee can, and did, choose to leave the chair without a vote in its day to day deliberations, the Committee cannot strip the Chairman of a Charter required obligation; assuring the Master’s plan, absent agreement by the Committee, is adopted and sent forward thus, the Chairman does have a vote in the event of a Committee deadlock.

You should each remember again, you accepted a duty to adopt on time.  Civil discourse enhances the possibility that you will be able to agree on amendments to the Master’s plan should you feel they are necessary.  If you cannot agree, or, if you feel no amendments are necessary, you are compelled to adopt regardless.  The Charter offers no other option and the Charter gives the Council no power to take the process over.

As to the Committee members, it might do each of you some good to reflect upon the fact that while you were selected for your party related opinions, you do not serve the parties, you serve the people of Whatcom County.

Regards and thank you for your service to the people of Whatcom County,

Jack Petree    
2955 Sunset Drive   Bellingham   98225         (Please see attachment)
The law (portion pertinent to districting boundaries):

RCW 29A.76.010
Counties, municipal corporations, and special purpose districts.
(1) It is the responsibility of each county, municipal corporation, and special purpose district with a governing body comprised of internal director, council, or commissioner districts not based on statutorily required land ownership criteria to periodically redistrict its governmental unit, based on population information from the most recent federal decennial census.
(2) Within forty-five days after receipt of federal decennial census information applicable to a specific local area, the commission established in RCW 44.05.030 shall forward the census information to each municipal corporation, county, and district charged with redistricting under this section.
(3) No later than eight months after its receipt of federal decennial census data, the governing body of the municipal corporation, county, or district shall prepare a plan for redistricting its internal or director districts.
(4) The plan shall be consistent with the following criteria:
(a) Each internal director, council, or commissioner district shall be as nearly equal in population as possible to each and every other such district comprising the municipal corporation, county, or special purpose district.
(b) Each district shall be as compact as possible.
(c) Each district shall consist of geographically contiguous area.
(d) Population data may not be used for purposes of favoring or disfavoring any racial group or political party.
(e) To the extent feasible and if not inconsistent with the basic enabling legislation for the municipal corporation, county, or district, the district boundaries shall coincide with existing recognized natural boundaries and shall, to the extent possible, preserve existing communities of related and mutual interest.
(5) During the adoption of its plan, the municipal corporation, county, or district shall ensure that full and reasonable public notice of its actions is provided. The municipal corporation, county, or district shall hold at least one public hearing on the redistricting plan at least one week before adoption of the plan.
(6)(a) Any registered voter residing in an area affected by the redistricting plan may request review of the adopted local plan by the superior court of the county in which he or she resides, within fifteen days of the plan’s adoption. Any request for review must specify the reason or reasons alleged why the local plan is not consistent with the applicable redistricting criteria. The municipal corporation, county, or district may be joined as respondent. The superior court shall thereupon review the challenged plan for compliance with the applicable redistricting criteria set out in subsection (4) of this section.
(b) If the superior court finds the plan to be consistent with the requirements of this section, the plan shall take effect immediately.
(c) If the superior court determines the plan does not meet the requirements of this section, in whole or in part, it shall remand the plan for further or corrective action within a specified and reasonable time period.
(d) If the superior court finds that any request for review is frivolous or has been filed solely for purposes of harassment or delay, it may impose appropriate sanctions on the party requesting review, including payment of attorneys’ fees and costs to the respondent municipal corporation, county, or district.
[2011 c 349 § 26; 2003 c 111 § 1901. Prior: 1984 c 13 § 4; 1983 c 16 § 15; 1982 c 2 § 27. Formerly RCW 29.70.100.]

From the Charter.  Please remember that in law, “shall” means must, you gotta do it, you’ve no choice in the matter, and so on.

Section 4.40 District Boundaries.

The boundaries of each district shall correspond as nearly as practical with the boundaries of election precincts and shall be drawn to produce districts with compact and contiguous territory, composed of geographic units which are approximately equal in population. (Amended by referendum 2015).

Section 4.41 Districting Committee.

During the month of January, 1981, and by January 31 of each tenth year thereafter, a five-member Districting Committee shall be appointed. The County Council shall appoint four persons to the committee, two from each major political party, the four to appoint the fifth who shall be the Chairman. The Districting Committee shall within thirty (30) days of its appointment meet and appoint a Districting Master who shall be qualified by education, training and experience to draw a districting plan. If the Districting Committee is unable to agree upon the appointment of a Districting Master within thirty (30) days, the County Council shall appoint a Districting Master by March 31 of that year. (Amended by referendum 2015).

Section 4.42 Districting Plan.

The Districting Master shall draw a districting plan for the county which shall be submitted by May 1 of the same year to the Districting Committee for adoption with or without amendment. The Districting Committee shall adopt the districting plan within fifteen (15) days. Upon adoption, the districting plan shall be filed with the County Auditor by the Districting Committee. The plan shall become effective upon filing. (Amended by referendum 2015).



Abe Jacobson

Mar 16, 2016

Thank you for a clear and informative description.

You obviously have skill at this. Have you ever thought of a career in journalism?

For myself as a voter, in order to understand a ballot measure, I rely on the wording of the ballot measure, plus its supportive detail in the voters’ pamphlet. The latter can be perused either by the paper copy, or online at the Auditor’s website. These two sources of information are the totality of what the vote is about. They are official information on the ballot measure, not mere opinions.

Therefore, it would be grotesquely anti-democratic for the districting commission to ignore the details given in the voters’ pamphlet. Those details are definitive in describing what the voting public was voting on. Those details SPECIFY the districts’ cities. This is not properly left to merchandising by four unelected people; it was already decided by the vote in favor of Amendment 9. Therefore I strongly suggest that the commission follow Attorney Frakes’ guidance that the ballot language and the voters’ pamphlet are determinative. This is not negotiable.

Abe Jacobson

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