A guide to the proposed amendments to the Whatcom County charter

By Steve Guntli

This November, a series of changes to the Whatcom County Charter will be up for debate. The charter is essentially the county’s constitution, and serves as a guide for how elections and other government processes are conducted. The charter commission is a nonpartisan elected body of 15 members that meets for six months every 10 years to decide on changes to the charter. The commission convened in January of this year.

The commission has chosen nine amendments for voters to decide upon in the general election on November 3. Here is a breakdown on the 10 charter amendments going on the ballot this year:

1. Method of electing council members: Currently, the county charter allows for countywide voting for members of Whatcom County Council. This amendment would change that to district-only voting. Proponents for this proposition think district-only voting would allow for more accurate representation on the council, while opponents think the change would divide the council too sharply along party lines and affect efficiency.

2. Limiting power of council to amend charter: Under current laws, the county council may propose changes to the charter if five out of seven councilmembers support them. If this new amendment passes, councilmembers will only be able to affect the charter by a unanimous vote. Supporters claim the proposition would make it tougher for the council to change items on the charter that voters approved. Opponents feel a unanimous vote requirement would limit the council’s ability to make necessary changes.

3. Limiting the power of council to amend charter’s election provisions: This amendment would affect the county council’s ability to modify charter sections 2.12 and 2.13, which detail the rules of election to the county council. As with proposition two, the amendment suggests a unanimous vote would be preferable to the super majority vote to approve any changes to election provisions.

4. Word limit for ballot questions: This proposition would increase the word limit for the titles of county initiatives from 20 words to 40. This would bring Whatcom County in line with state laws and provide more consistency. The charter commission approved this measure unanimously, and arguments against the proposition in the county voter’s guide were not submitted.

5. Lowering threshold for initiative and referendum signatures: If registered voters wish to introduce an initiative or referendum proposal, they must first submit a petition with a specific number of signatures. Currently, that number is 15 percent of the number of voters who participated in the last gubernatorial election.

This new proposition would lower that number to 8 percent. Proponents suggest the amendment would make it easier for people to have a voice in the government process. Opponents claim the lowered threshold would allow too many fringe issues that don’t concern a significant of voters to clog up the administration.

6. Lowering the number of signatures required for citizen initiatives to amend the charter: Similar to proposition five, this amendment would lower the number of citizen signatures needed to affect changes in the charter. The current number of signatures needed is 20 percent of voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election. According to the voter’s guide, in 2015 this equates to about 21,000 signatures, a prohibitively high number for citizens groups. The charter commission proposes lowering this number to 15 percent, which the proposition’s authors admit “is still a high threshold.” Jon Mutchler, Todd Donovan and Karl Uppiano wrote the argument in favor of the proposition. No opposing argument was submitted.

7. Term limits for county executive and council members: This amendment would impose term limits on elected county representatives for the first time. The charter commission recommends cutting off county executive and county council members at three four-year terms, with at least one term break before running again. Supporters claim this would motivate elected officials to get as much done as possible in their 12 years in office. Argument authors Dan Raas, Tom Stuen and Philip Buri categorized the issue as “a solution looking for a problem,” and claimed elections provide the necessary limits to an elected official’s career.

8. Altering composition of districting commission: Every 10 years, when the U.S. Census evaluates the county’s voter makeup, the county appoints a redistricting committee to make sure the voting districts are split evenly. The current laws call for two committee members from each of the two major political parties (Republican and Democrat), plus a fifth member agreed upon by all four other members. Feeling this layout fails to represent smaller parties (i.e.: Socialist or Libertarian), the commission proposed a change to these rules.

The new rules would allow one person from each political party with a candidate receiving at least 15 percent of the vote in the most recent gubernatorial or presidential election to join the committee. A second person will be appointed from the same party if their candidate received 33 percent of the vote. The charter commission approved the measure unanimously and submitted no opposing statement.

9. Number of council districts and at-large council positions: This amendment would increase the county’s voting districts from three into five. Each district would have one council representative, as opposed to two, and increase the number of at-large candidates to two. To account for the disparate populations between Bellingham and the rest of the county, the city would be split into two districts while the rest of the county would make up the other three. Supporters feel five districts would more equitably divide the county between the more liberal Bellingham voters and the traditionally conservative voters in the county and small cities. Opponents worry that fewer council members from each district will result in less representation for rural Whatcom County and think the amendment is structured to favor the political left.

10. Amendments by the charter review commission and the county council: This amendment relates to the processes the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission and Whatcom County Council use to suggest charter amendments.

Under current laws, the charter commission needs only a simple majority vote to approve an amendment, while the county council requires a supermajority, or 2/3, vote to pass. If passed, the proposition would require a supermajority from both groups.

Proponents say the current state allows too many amendments to pass along narrow, bipartisan lines, and specifically mentions the first three amendments on the ballot this year as examples.

Opponents feel a simple majority better represents the will of the citizens, and cites proposition nine as an amendment that failed to get simple majority approval from the charter commission but was overruled by a supermajority on the council.

To read the full text of each proposition, with detailed for and against arguments, visit co.whatcom.wa.us/1732/Current-Election and select the Online Voter’s Guide. The countywide general election will be held on Tuesday, November 3.

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