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.