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Districting Committee: GOP accuses Democrats of gerrymandering

By On

Republicans on the Whatcom County Districting Committee accused the Democrats of “political packing” when they drew up the five districts that will determine representation on the County Council starting in 2018.

But by introducing politics into a negotiation in which the topic is expressly forbidden, the Republicans may have tipped their hand.

Republican Mark Nelson said at the committee’s Monday, March 7 meeting that the decision by progressives about a year ago to include Lynden, Everson, Nooksack and Sumas in the same district was a conscious effort to gerrymander a large majority of the county Republicans into one of the five districts. This presumably would restrict the opportunities for conservative candidates to win seats in the other four districts.

The map that eventually came before voters in November and that is similar to what the Democrats are proposing in the Districting Committee originally came from Todd Donovan, a member of the 2015 Charter Review Commission’s progressive minority and currently a County Council member.

“(Putting) 75 percent of Republicans in one of the districts … is effectively what the Donovan map would do, and it does so deliberately,” Nelson said.

As in previous meetings, Nelson threatened legal action against the county if it approves the map now promoted by the Democrats.

“It’s going to cost our county money and our citizens money, and that’s not necessary,” Nelson said.

The other Republican on the committee, Brett Bonner, backed up Nelson.

“This (process) is inevitably going to go down in flames, and it ought not. We should be able to reach an accord,” Bonner said.

Republicans made several concessions with the latest version of their district map, presented on March 7. They aligned their map more closely to the one favored by Democrats, putting Lynden in the center of a farmland district and combining Ferndale and Blaine in a coastal district. They also agreed with Democrats not to stretch the Bellingham districts so far along Lake Whatcom, and Bellingham mostly fit into two districts as the Democrats have always wanted.

The last battle in the war between the parties will be on the county’s eastern front. Nelson said he would not budge from his position, which is to move Sumas, Nooksack and Everson across the district line into the foothills district with Glacier, Acme, Lake Samish and most of Lake Whatcom.

Lynden as a city would stand alone in the farmland district, which on the Republican map would extend west almost to Blaine; east to the Sumas, Everson and Nooksack city limits; and south to Cordata in Bellingham.

Putting the conservative strongholds Lynden, Sumas, Everson and Nooksack together “is very close to political packing by the definition of the state,” Nelson said.

State law doesn’t have a definition of “political packing,” but it commonly understood to mean making a minority ethnic group or race, or the minority political party, the majority in one district to weaken their influence in the other districts.

Nelson engaged in a taboo topic by bringing up politics in a districting committee meeting. Committee members aren’t allowed to make decisions on district boundaries based on race or political party. While Nelson has accused the Democrats of doing just that, he provided no direct evidence—he only stated the claim.

At the same time, Nelson exposed the Republicans to an accusation of trying to boost the conservative vote count in the foothills district by moving the three small cities into it.

The Democrats gave no indication they would agree to move the three cities.

After the meeting, Democratic committee member Mike Estes said in an interview that the Lynden district and the foothills district should be drawn along the boundary between farmland and forest land, and as such it should remain east of the small cities.

Lisa McShane, the other Democrat (and the wife of my employer, Dan McShane—full disclosure), insists on sticking to the language in the charter, which establishes approximate district boundaries that combine Lynden, Nooksack, Everson and Sumas.

Republicans openly disapproved of the likely outcome if the two parties can’t agree in committee: The districts would be drawn by the County Council, which is majority progressive.

The Republicans have made it clear that in that case they would challenge the map in court, which to this point has been unfriendly turf for conservatives unhappy with the progressive five-district concept.

* * *

Here’s what’s coming up in the Districting Committee:

One more meeting in March, at noon on March 14 at the County Council conference room, Suite 105 of the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham. Then the committee takes a break until April.

Districting master Tjalling Ypma, a math professor at Western Washington University, must present the final map to the committee for possible amendments and/or their approval by May 1. The committee will hold a public hearing on the final map proposal between then and mid-May, when the committee’s decision is due.

The committee will discuss on March 14 whether to hold an earlier hearing in April, to let the public weigh in on the Democrat and Republican map alternatives.

About Ralph Schwartz

Posting Citizen Journalist • Member since May 23, 2014

After 13 years in mainstream journalism, Ralph Schwartz left The Bellingham Herald in November 2015. He's now a freelance editor and writer looking for a regular paycheck.

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Mar 08, 2016

“Republicans openly disapproved of the likely outcome if the two parties can’t agree in committee: The districts would be drawn by the County Council, which is majority progressive.”  Progressive?  I think not. One might say less to the right than the rest.

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Jack Petree

Mar 08, 2016

Again, I would encourage Ralph to read the Whatcom County charter, the document controlling the redistricting process

One thing Ralph will notice is that the County Council has no part in the redistricting process once a District Master is appointed. 

Also, Ralph is incorrect in commenting that a map came before voters last year.  No one in any official capacity drew any maps that were introduced by ordinance or otherwise to be used to inform voters.  A partisan political group drew a map as part of its partisan political campaign.  That map is irrelevant to the redistricting process.

Basically, the charter requires the Districting Committee to adopt the District Master’s plan if the committee cannot agree on amendments.  If they do not adopt, they are derelict in the duty they chose to accept when they signed on… If they don’t “adopt” I believe the legal procedure would be to consider no amendments an adoption ipso facto and the District Master’s version would move forward to the Auditor and would become “law” on filing.  If that is not the case the Council still has no standing to do anything… the whole matter would go to court.

You might be interested in a letter I sent the District Master and the Districting Committee:

MEMO:  3/5/16

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

Re:  Process As The Committee Does It’s Work

Mr. Ypma,

On seeing and hearing (draft minutes and audio) some of the comments made regarding the work of the Districting Committee it became obvious to me there is confusion about your job as Districting Master and about the Committee’s job as political appointees.

When you took on the job of Districting Master you put your professional reputation on the line.  That’s why the Whatcom County Charter gives you all of the responsibility as you draw districts based on your ethical use of your professional abilities and, to assure you can do your job properly, the Charter give you all of the power you need to do your job properly.  Here’s what the Charter provides for:

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

·    Your plan must comport with the requirements of State law;

·    If you wish, you can meet with the Districting Committee, but you don’t have to;

·    If you wish, you can take advice from the Districting Committee, but you don’t have to;

·    However you choose to work, you must present your districting plan to the Districting Committee by May 1:

·    If you do not submit that plan by May 1, you are derelict in the duty you took up and agreed to shoulder when you agreed to be the Master.

·    On submission of a districting plan fulfilling the requirements of, first, State law and, second, the Whatcom County Charter, your job is done.

As to the Districting Committee:

·    Your only formal task prior to May 1st of this year was to either appoint a Districting Master or, decline to appoint and allow the County Council to do the job.  Once the Master is appointed the Council has no further input into any aspect of the districting plan;

·    While not specifically laid out as a duty it is implied the Committee will be available to assist the Districting Master should the Districting Master choose to seek your advice;

·    May 1st, the Districting Master must present you with a districting plan;

·    By May 16th you must adopt the plan or be derelict in the duty you agreed to take up on accepting appointment to your position;

·    As of May 1st you have 15 days to consider the Districting Master’s plan and, if you wish, adopt amendments to the plan.  If you do not choose to make amendments or, cannot agree on amendments, you must fulfill your duty and adopt the plan as presented by the Districting Master;

·    On adoption, you must file the districting plan with the County Auditor.  The plan becomes effective on filing.

This is probably the most politically charged of all the districting processes done under the Whatcom County Charter to date.  I suggest to both the Districting Master and to the Committee that you re-read State Law regarding the parameters of the districting process and of Charter provisions governing your work.

I would think it wise for the Districting Master to choose to seek advice from the Districting Committee but always remember, it is the sole duty of the Districting Master to draw the plan; both the Master’s professional reputation and his personal reputation as a fair and impartial arbiter rests on the result.  The Districting Master should resist untoward pressure to politicize the process.  State law and the charter provide the template for the districting plan the Master is tasked with creating.

The Districting Committee is, of course, a more political body but each of you should also remember that state law trumps politics.  A civil discourse should be engaged in; the better the advice you provide the Districting Master the more likely he is to take your advice in shaping the final product, a product he is solely responsible for delivering to you on behalf of all the people of Whatcom County.

You should also remember 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.

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).

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Lisa McShane

Mar 09, 2016

While Jack is correct that a map isn’t part of the charter, the transition language was in the voter’s guide and is now part of the charter until the transition is complete at the end of 2019. That language describes a map:

The approximate geographic areas covered by each district are anticipated to be:
District 1: Central and South Bellingham
District 2: North Bellingham
District 3: Deming, Kendall, Acme, Sudden Valley, Lake Whatcom, Lake Samish and Chuckanut
District 4: Lynden, Sumas, Everson and surrounding farmland
District 5: Lummi Reservation, Lummi Island, Ferndale, Birch Bay, Blaine and Point Roberts.

As the Deputy Prosecuting Attorney explained on 2/22 to the Districting Committee, we are to follow this unless it conflicts with state law. Specifically she said, “this (transition language) should be a starting point; if it doesn’t comply with state law then you start changing it.”

Fortunately, you can follow the transition language and create 5 equal districts according to state law.

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Walter Haugen

Mar 09, 2016

Now, I have never had anyone call me a beacon of compromise, but it seems that putting Sumas in the “foothills” district with Acme and Deming, while leaving Everson and Nooksack in the Lynden district would work. It would also be in the spirit of the Republican mantra who demand “equal time” in the climate denial debate when climate scientists outnumber the “skeptics” by 97:3. You know, climate scientists? Those scientists who have actually spent decades of their lives and tens of thousands of dollars of their own money educating themselves about climate and then more decades doing research? Since the Republican party line is to say there is a controversy in the “climate controversy” when they are so outnumbered and that it requires some sort of compromise, it seems fair to ask the Republicans to accept a compromise in this instance when they clearly lost in the election (i.e. 5 districts instead of 3). So if the Dems let the Repubs put Sumas where they want and the Repubs let the Dems put Everson/Nooksack where they want, it’s all good. Can we go home now?

Failing that, let’s just steamroll the Democratic platform right over the recalcitrant Republicans.

Don’t forget fellas - if you wouldn’t have politicized the Charter Review Commission, the 5-district proposal would never have come up. Don’t make it any worse for yourselves.

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David McCluskey

Mar 10, 2016

The Ballot I voted on did not have any transition language on it.  People did not vote on the transition language.

Here is a copy of the Ballot.

http://www.whatcomcounty.us/DocumentCenter/View/12532

Even if it did, it starts off with… APPROXIMATE

I don’t know of any maps that are defined in an approximate matter, so there is no defined map.

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Jack Petree

Mar 11, 2016

A couple of issues for Lisa and others to chew on

First, which so called “transition language” is to be used.  The ordinance passed by the Council differs from the explanatory “appendix” attached to the ordinance.  In the Council version the locations of the districts by city and/or other names is not within the transition language.  The explanatory appendix does include some of those names.  Poor Nooksack, the Council included it but the writer of the appendix did not.  Poor Columbia Valley… it is larger than at least two or three of our cities but it is not included in either.  The reference you point to in the charter is silent on the subject of what to do when an internally inconsistent piece of language is the only source available for discussion.

So what “this” are you following; the transition language or the other transition language or State Law?

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