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

Appearing on the council agenda Tuesday, Nov. 21, is a proposed 2018 ballot measure to return Whatcom to countywide voting for council. Discussion is planned for Dec. 5.

Appearing on the council agenda Tuesday, Nov. 21, is a proposed 2018 ballot measure to return Whatcom to countywide voting for council. Discussion is planned for Dec. 5.

• Topics: Whatcom County, Elections,

Update by publisher: Wed, Nov 22. At last night’s county council meeting, the two proposed ordinances were not brought forward. They were not voted on. Apparently they were discussed in the afternoon session and there was not unanimous support - which was required for placing the ordinances on the ballot, as Ralph explains below.

- - -

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

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

David Camp

Nov 21, 2017

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


Doug Karlberg

Nov 23, 2017

This move by County Council seems to be all about one party trying to game the system to stay in power, and little about the citizens needs. I wish the Council would focus their efforts on the citizens.

There is a lot of high falutin talk about political theory, but in the end this is about them, and power. This proposed action is self-centered in nature.

Since the American experiment began over 200 years ago, there has been a balance throughout our nation in legislative power. Most states and our federal government have a balance of district representation, AND regional representation. Hence BOTH, a Senate and a House of Representitives. Historically this has proven to be a stable form of representation which not only provides power to the majority, but tempers the majority’s ability to run roughshod over the minority. 

The system we have now, is a good balance. Quit fiddlin with system, for the sake of your power.

The Council should take all of its’ excess energy and focus on making our lives better, and quit trying to rig the system to get more power. 

District voting has a long history, and every state in the union has adopted district ony voting. This has been debated for two centuries, and district voting has prevailed for good sound logical reasons. Ignoring this logic only increases the rancor between the political parties.

Maybe it is time for term limits, as our system does not have enough competition. Virtually every single elected position is filled by the party’s hand chosen candidates.

I would like to see more competition for making our lives better, way ahead of party loyalty.


To comment, Log In or Register