‘Goodwill’ wanted but lacking on Districting Committee

Republicans focused their efforts on torpedoing the Democrats’ five-district proposal at the second committee meeting.

Republicans focused their efforts on torpedoing the Democrats’ five-district proposal at the second committee meeting.

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A conservative attack against the Whatcom County Council’s five-district proposal failed last summer in court.

No wonder, then, that the same argument failed on Monday, Feb. 22, in the county Districting Committee. After all, Republican committee member Brett Bonner was making essentially the same argument to the same county attorney who slapped it down in September in a Skagit County courtroom.

Back then, the Skagit judge cited separation of powers as a reason for not interfering with a decision by Whatcom’s legislative body. This time, as if it needed any help, the county’s position was even stronger because in November it became the will of a majority of voters.

Those voters approved an amendment to the county charter replacing the current three-district system with five, and outlining approximate boundaries for the districts in language that became part of the charter.

The approximate boundaries follow the well publicized formula developed by progressives months before the election: two districts comprising Bellingham, and one each for the north county (Lynden to Sumas), the northwest county (Ferndale, Blaine) and the east county.

In incantatory fashion, the two Democrats on the Districting Committee, Lisa McShane and Mike Estes, tried to get this fact to sink into their Republican counterparts, Bonner and Mark Nelson:

“We want to follow voter intent.”

Republicans fell back on the word “approximate” included with the description of the five districts.

“Voter intent, but it’s not set in stone,” Bonner said.

“It’s not set in hard stone, but it’s the only guide we have,” Estes retorted.

“We do have some wiggle room there,” Bonner insisted.

The legal opinion of county attorney Karen Frakes, who attended the meeting, was in line with the Democrats’ position.

“I think we can’t totally disregard the language the voters approved,” Frakes said at the meeting.

The Republicans made it clear they will try to thwart the progressive five-district option by finding a way that it is out of compliance with state law. The state requires districts to be compact, contiguous and representative of communities of interest. The two Republicans argued these terms are undefined, setting up even more of that valuable wiggle room they seek.

Neither side showed any willingness to work with the other during the committee’s second meeting. McShane proposed delivering the Democrats’ version of the map directly to the master map drawer (almost certain to be Western Washington University math department chair  Tjalling Ypma) with no debate, prompting Nelson to accuse her of “railroading.”

(Full disclosure: McShane is the wife of Dan McShane, who is my employer.)

They had better get along because a split vote on the maps, along party lines, would put the county in uncharted legal territory. Frakes wouldn’t say it, but the most likely outcome would be that the majority-progressive county council would break the impasse by selecting the district boundaries. Conservatives would inevitably challenge that decision in court.

Nelson’s overture of compromise sounded more like a challenge to Democrats.

“I don’t see any reason why we should reach an impasse if we’re of goodwill,” he said.

The committee meets next at  3 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 24 in the council office conference room in the courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., first floor. The meeting was called only to interview and most likely select ex-Bellingham Schools Superintendent Dale Kinsley to be the committee's nonvoting fifth member and chairperson. Then the five are expected to select Ypma as map master, a role he held in the 2011 redistricting.

The  next committee meeting in which map business will get done is at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 29, in the council office conference room. Both sides agreed to bring first drafts of their five-district maps. This will be the first test of bipartisan goodwill.

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

Walter Haugen

Feb 23, 2016

Thank god Gary Jensen’s name is no longer being floated as the chair. Jack Louws is trying mightily to salvage what is left of Jensen’s reputation by selecting him for the Ethics Commission. The Ethics Commission? Gary Jensen? Hah, hah, hah, hah, hah!

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Tip Johnson

Feb 23, 2016

I wonder if five is even the right number. That seems to have been pulled out of a hat without any explanation. As long as we are redistricting and going with district-only voting, we should identify communities of interest, work the numbers and come up with how ever many districts make the most sense for better representation - as compared to increased party hack control, one way or another. Why do we even need at-large positions? Those campaigns are more expensive to run, but I guess realtors and developers need seats, too?

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David McCluskey

Feb 25, 2016

I think 5 is the right number of districts, but I wonder why do we need 7 councilman? I think it should only be 5 on the council, one for each district.  Get rid of the at large and save the budget a little in the process.

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David Camp

Mar 01, 2016

Well they’re talking. Bonner’s face looks a bit red, but they’re talking.

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