By Steve Guntli
Whatcom County voters narrowly rejected Proposition 2015-1, which would provide funding for a new county jail.
While election day results for the proposition showed the bill passing by a slight margin, later returns found the proposition “no” votes coming in higher than the “yes” votes. With most of the ballots now counted, the proposition couldn’t muster the necessary votes. The latest ballot count on November 6 showed 29,755 (51.4%) voters rejecting the measure and 28,116 (48.6%) approving it.
Proposition 2015-1 would have imposed a .2 percent sales tax increase to fund a new county jail in Ferndale.
Sheriff Bill Elfo, who has championed a new jail facility for nearly 10 years, said he would work with the city and county governments to reduce the inmate population at the current, overcrowded jail.
The latest counts also show Satpal Sidhu has edged out Kathy Kershner for Whatcom County Council District 1’s position B seat. Sidhu, who trailed Kershner by 14 votes in the first count, won with 29,160 (50.7%) votes to 28,339 (49.3%). Sidhu was appointed to the council in March to replace retiring councilmember Sam Crawford. Kershner previously served on the council from 2010 to 2014.
Voters approved nine out of 10 proposed amendments to the Whatcom County Charter. Some of the votes, however, may prove to be in conflict with others. According to the county voters guide, “yes” votes on propositions 2 or 3 were incompatible with “yes” votes on proposition 10. Proposition 10 calls for a supermajority vote by both the county council and charter review commission before proposing amendments to the county charter. Propositions 2 and 3 would require a unanimous council vote on certain charter amendments.
The incompatibility was noted in the voters guide but not on the ballot, which has led to some confusion about how to proceed.
Whatcom County Deputy Prosecutor Dan Gibson, who wrote the language for the ballot, did not include the line about the conflict because he wasn’t convinced there actually was one. The issue may have to be addressed in court by a judicial ruling on whether or not the amendments do conflict. In any event, chief deputy auditor Diana Bradrick said the county cannot proceed until the state certifies the final ballot counts.
Two other charter amendments, each championed by opposing political forces, also passed. Proposition 1, which calls for district-only voting, was approved 30,781 (53.1%) to 27,225 (46.9%), and Proposition 9, which will divide the county from three to five voting districts, passed 30,862 (54%) to 26,283 (45%). Presently, each district has two representatives, plus one at-large representative. Proposition 9 calls for one councilmember for each of the five districts and two at-large.
Proposition 1 was a charter commission proposal, and some saw it as a push by county Republicans to increase their representation on county council. Conservative groups claimed allowing the entire county to vote for new county councilmembers skewed the results in favor of progressives, the majority of Bellingham. In contrast, the county council suggested Proposition 9, which could ensure the liberal voters of Bellingham wouldn’t be outmatched by the more conservative votes in the county.
A conservative group called Common Threads filed a lawsuit against Whatcom County over Proposition 9 earlier this year, claiming the language of the proposition rendered it unconstitutional. A Skagit County judge dismissed the case.
Councilwoman Barbara Brenner, who was reelected in an uncontested bid, expressed frustration with the outcome.
“I’m very disappointed,” she said. “The system wasn’t broken. It didn’t need fixing. Not only will splitting up the districts cost more money, it will leave the county more divided. You see it in national politics, with politicians pandering to the needs of their own small districts and ignoring everyone else. You see it nationally and at the state level and now you’ll see it in the county.”
Bellingham and the county were at odds on several key issues, voting opposite one another on Propositions 1 and 9 and on the jail tax. Blaine, Birch Bay and Point Roberts’ precincts mostly voted along with the rural parts of the county, leaning more conservative.
The jail tax, which faced opposition in Bellingham as the city council opted not to buy in to the county’s tax increase, fared much better in rural areas than in Bellingham. The county voted 53.7 percent in favor of the tax, while the city rejected the measure by 60 percent.
Whatcom County Auditor Debbie Adelstein reported that voters used ballot drop boxes in record numbers this year. Of the ballots received, 66.3 percent were from drop boxes, 33.6 percent came in the mail while .1 percent were sent via email and fax.
The ballots will be tabulated one final time on Monday, November 23 before being sent to the state for certification on November 24.
Bellingham vs. county: How did they vote on key issues?
(Data presented as a percent)