Council sends charter amendments to ballot

By Steve Guntli

Nine new amendments, including some that could change the shape of the county’s voting districts, were added to the ballot for this November’s election.

At its regular meeting on July 7, Whatcom County Council voted 6–1 to add an amendment to this November’s ballot that would redistrict the county from three districts to five.

The five districts are still being determined, but Bellingham would have two  to itself. The current three-district system divides Bellingham between the districts. If the new system is approved, five of the council members would come from the districts and two would be at-large. The five-district proposal was sponsored by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, an environmental activist group
in Bellingham.

The council also introduced two new amendments that would potentially undermine the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission’s attempts to implement district-only voting for council members. The charter commission is an elected body that convenes once every 10 years to propose changes to the charter, which is essentially the county’s constitution.

Three hours before the July 7 council meeting, staff proposed two new amendments to introduce at the evening’s meeting. The first amendment would require a supermajority vote (10 out of 15 commission members) before a charter amendment is put on the ballot. The second amendment would require countywide voting for new council members.

The second introduction is particularly damaging to conservatives on the charter commission. The commission, ostensibly a nonpartisan organization, has been divided sharply along party lines since it convened for its latest session in January.

Conservative commission members have championed district-only voting, reasoning that it would increase a rural presence on the council. Progressive members prefer countywide voting that gives Bellingham a greater presence on the council.

The final charter commission meeting was marred by controversy after several commission members protested a sudden change to the meeting schedule. On July 2, commission chairman Ben Elenbaas moved the date of the commission’s final meeting up from July 13 to July 6. This came after the June 22 meeting, when several commission members said they would not be able to attend a July 6 meeting. As a result, most members representing the largely progressive district 1 were not present at the meeting.

Those that did attend abstained from voting in protest. Elenbaas said he moved the meeting date so the commission could finalize its amendment proposals before the July 7 county council meeting.

Conservatives and progressives alike held a rally outside the Whatcom County Courthouse on July 7 to express their views on the proposed charter amendments. Progressives showed support for the five-district plan, while conservatives promoted district-only voting.

Other amendments headed to the November ballot include term limits of no more than three consecutive terms, a reduced number of signature requirements to get referendums placed on the ballot and an increased number of words allowed in ballot titles.

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