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No sign of agreement as districting committee enters final phase

By On

If the Whatcom County Districting Committee were a boxing match, the Republicans would be getting pummelled in a corner of the ring, the punches raining down so swiftly they feel like they’re coming from the Democrats, their trainer and the referee.

In any case, Republicans acted like boxers who were both desperate and outnumbered at the Tuesday, April 6 Districting Committee meeting at the county courthouse. They lashed out at their cohorts on the Democratic half of the committee; the ostensibly impartial map maker, who revealed the final map at Tuesday’s meeting; and the county attorney advising the committee.

“If I’ve done my job, I’ve made everybody on the committee equally unhappy,” said the map maker, Districting Master and Western Washington University mathematician Tjalling Ypma, as he introduced his final map.

The map definitely had features one party or the other didn’t want. Committee Democrats Mike Estes and Lisa McShane said they were “disappointed” the master broke with the language voters approved last November by putting Sumas in the foothills district, and by slicing Cordata precincts off the north tip of Bellingham and putting them with the farmland precincts.

Disappointed, they said, but willing to accept these departures from the initial description of the districts voters approved last year.

“We can compromise on that because I think it’s important,” McShane said after the meeting.

(Full disclosure: I am employed by Dan McShane, Lisa McShane’s husband.)

The committee is working to create five political districts for the county council, replacing the current three-district system. Voters approved a switch to five districts in the November election.

Republicans Brett Bonner and Mark Nelson weren’t so willing to accept what they didn’t like about the map. They had already conceded putting Chuckanut Drive in the foothills district, rather than in south Bellingham where they would have preferred to see it. They also wanted not just Sumas but also Everson and Nooksack in the foothills district.

“I’m really kind of pissed off about this,” Bonner said to Ypma. “Why didn’t you give us the one thing we asked for?”

Ypma said he was hearing demands from both sides.

“I tried to steer a middle course,” he said.

County attorney Karen Frakes said she felt as if she were being cross-examined as Bonner fired questions at her, trying to get her to admit there was enough flexibility in the rules to allow Nooksack, Everson and Sumas to be moved from the farmland district to the foothills district. The county charter says they should be in the farmland district, but Republicans want them moved, claiming that putting the three small cities in the same district as Lynden was a Democratic ploy to pack Republicans into one district, in order to gain advantages in the other four districts. Estes dismissed the accusation, saying Democrats are even more tightly packed in the two Bellingham districts.

Frakes repeated what she said when the committee last met, on March 14.

“I think there’s leeway to do that”—that is, to move Nooksack, Everson and/or Sumas between districts. That’s just what the map maker Ypma did by moving Sumas from the voter-prescribed farmland district to the foothills district.

Nelson, who routinely has talked down to McShane during committee meetings (in a previous meeting he bemoaned his inability to “train her” into his way of thinking), finally suggested on Tuesday night that she dress up in a Santa suit at the final meeting and just give the Republicans what they want—Nooksack and Everson, wrapped in a bow and delivered to the foothills side of the district boundary.

“I think we’re on a slippery slope when we’re looking for ways to not follow the law” as written into the charter, McShane said.

Nelson also appealed to the other three voting committee members to not waste taxpayers’ money and his personal time, and come to consensus on the final map.

“I want us to do our jobs,” Nelson said.

McShane brought up Republicans’ threat of a lawsuit, which looms over the committee’s work. She said it won’t intimidate her. Nelson then conceded there were people on the Republican side who were “eager to take this to court” if Republicans don’t get what they want.

“I will not move away from voter intent on the threat of litigation,” McShane said in an interview after the meeting. “That’s not how we do community planning.”

Two more rounds remain in this latest instance of the Democrat-Republican bout in Whatcom County. Next week, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13, the committee will hold a public hearing on the final map. If it’s like most hearings with a partisan flavor, it will be a meaningless exercise involving the two sides trotting out as many people as they can to speak in support of their positions. Talk about a waste of people’s time and taxpayers’ money—especially since the odds are just about zero that anyone at the hearing will give either a legal insight or a sublime appeal for bipartisanship that would budge any of the committee members from their positions. After all, they have the partisan rank and file to represent. Backing down will only be perceived as a loss.

The committee is scheduled to meet one more time after the hearing, on April 20, to vote on the map.

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

David Camp

Apr 07, 2016

Dang but this process is ugly - naked partisanship informed by interest. It is, however,  truly more democratic than in a parliamentary democracy, which proceeds with a professional and non-partisan civil service. We shall see if the compromise necessary for a functioning democracy can be attained.

Or - democratic duties be damned and refer it to the courts? What a weak and disgraceful abdication of democracy to refuse to deal and put it in the hands of a judge. Truly representative of the authoritarian refusal to respect democracy and appeal to a higher power. Are Republicans really only capable of being Dogs in the manger? Lo how far the party of Lincoln has fallen into decadence.


John Servais

Apr 07, 2016


Ralph’s reporting is a great boon for us all in understanding this otherwise invisible process.  But the entrenchment to preferred district boundaries is equally shared by the Democrats.  I’ve attended the meetings and, while Mark is more colorful - and condescending as is his habit with all - the defenses or explanations by Lisa of the Democrats are like those of a blind adherent to a faith.  She simply repeats the same meaningless mantra meeting after meeting. 

She says the will of the people must be done and the law must be obeyed. Duh. No argument. The people supposedly want fair districts and the law - as explained by their legal advisor - allows any boundaries that serve to create fair districts.  So, it is frustrating for the GOP to try and have a conversation with a person who monotone repeats a mantra in every meeting to every question.

Mike Estes of the Democratic team and Brett Bonner of the Republican could probably resolve the boundary issues if it were just up to those two.  They actually speak respectfully and come up with new ideas.


Abe Jacobson

Apr 07, 2016

Thanks for your steady reporting.

I went to the meeting last night and was impressed at how Brett Bonner’s focus on “voter packing” is entirely one-sided. Yes, the Lynden district contains a bunch of Rs all in one district. But did Bonner show any concern for the two Bellingham districts, each deep blue in voter makeup? No, instead, Bonner represents the full flowering of white Republican victimhood, by being aware only of what is happening to his own tribe, and failing to acknowledge that the very same thing is being applied to the other tribe.

At any rate, the District committee is not the place to worry about “voter packing”. The time to do that was during prior to the November 2015 election. The election, and the robust passage of Amendment 9, settled the issue. There will be three rather “packed” districts: North Bellingham, South Bellingham, and Farmlands. That is not an evil plot, but just a corollary of the fact that there are geographical clusterings of political affinity.

And if Mr. Bonner and like victims are really concerned about voter packing, why not revert to the only system which absolutely avoids any voter packing- At Large Voting!

Abe Jacobson


Jack Petree

Apr 07, 2016

Ok, so some feel it is important to go with “the language the voters approved” last year.

So, what was that language?

The “Ordinance” is less clear than is being put forward.  Look it up.  Notice that the adopted ordinance is different than the “Appendix A” addition the County’s legal beagles put on the ballot.  As the Master mentions, Nooksack isn’t even mentioned in Appendix A while it is in the actual ordinance.  Also, the two documents differ in terms of the “transition language.”

But there is another place where the rubber meets the road.

In a legal sense voters cannot be asked to pass a charter amendment that violates other, unchanged, requirements in the charter.

The charter requires that Districts be represented by someone living in the district.

Here is the charter language:

Section 4.20 Qualifications.Share
Each County officer holding an elective office shall be, at the time of his appointment or election and at all times while holding office, a citizen of the United States and a resident and registered voter of Whatcom County and councilmembers shall be residents of the districts which they represent. Any change in the boundaries of the councilmember’s district which shall cause that member to be no longer a resident of the district which that councilmember represents shall not disqualify that councilmember from holding office during the remainder of the term for which that councilmember was elected or appointed. (Amended by referendum 1986; Ord. 2005-075 Exh. A; amended by referendum 2015).

Now, consider… there have been no changes to the boundaries of any councilmember’s districts.  The districts to which the councilmembers were elected were ELIMINATED in the fall election and NEW districts were established.

Since the voters cannot be asked to violate their own charter with a new amendment, it follows that the representatives of the NEWLY established districts, districts having no relevant relationship to the districts that were eliminated in the election, must be residents of the districts they now represent.

None of the mapping options to date include either Carl Weimer or Barbara Brenner in the districts they are supposed to represent for the next two to four years.  The final map also appears to place Barry Buchanan outside the district he represents.

If, as Lisa McShane contends, districts should be drawn based on the language the voters passed last year then the districts should have been drawn as the voters intended, in a way that includes each sitting council member in the newly established district they now represent.  Actually, it would not be too difficult to accomplish that task.

Lisa already knew of this issue, of course.  The Cascadia Weekly was cited in a letter from the “progressive party” side threatening legal action as being an authoritative source of information relied on by voters last year in their decision making.  I wrote a piece that appeared in the Weekly before the election discussing the issue of districts being served by councilmembers who actually live in the district they serve.  Lisa agreed with me commenting that her side knew how to appoint new councilmembers. 

So, as proposed, the new districts will result in, it appears, three councilmembers losing their seats with three new councilmembers being appointed by the remaining council then having to stand for election as established by the charter. 

We do indeed live in interesting times.



Doug Karlberg

Apr 09, 2016

To my eye, it is not the naked partisanship that disgusts, but the inability to compromise and resolve issues.

In full public view, it looks like a bunch of elementary school children fighting over who gets to sit next to whom in the cafeteria.

This is not leadership, and obstructionism is on full view from both parties.

If this issue has to go to court, then why did we need this bunch of people in the first place?

Quit wasting time (and public money), and compromise for God’s sake.