Port comissioner increase question to be on ballot

Published on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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This November, Whatcom County voters will decide on expanding the Port of Bellingham commission to five members.

Port commissioners voted unanimously at their June 19 meeting to let voters decide the issue after strong public support for the idea materialized during several past meetings. The ballot measure, if approved, would create two new commissioner districts rather than two at-large positions, which would represent the entire county.

If voters approve the measure, the port would have to redraw its three commissioner districts to make five with roughly equal populations. Port officials would have until June 1, 2013, to reconfigure the districts so candidates for the two new commissioner positions would have time to file for the 2013 elections.

Commissioners originally proposed a ballot measure that would have asked voters to decide on two issues: Whether the commission should grow to five, and whether the new commissioner positions should have their own districts or represent the whole county in an at-large capacity. However, the port’s legal council advised splitting that measure up since it seemed to ask two questions, which a ballot measure cannot do by state law, port commissioner Michael McAuley said.

“I’m not sure it was the place to challenge the law,” McAuley said.

Members of the public pushing for the commission expansion wanted the two at-large member questions be included in this year’s ballot, but commissioners voted 2-1 to reject adding such a measure this year. McAuley introduced that measure and was the lone voice of support for it.

Port commissioner Jim Jorgensen, who represents the Blaine and Birch Bay area, said he supports the five-member district route because it will ensure the best representation for county residents. He voted against the at-large ballot measure because it could allow as many as four commissioners to live in Bellingham, effectively leaving one commissioner to represent the rest of the county.

Though the public will eventually decide on expanding the port commission, commissioners themselves say they would not expand the body if it were up to them. McAuley said his concerns include the additional costs of running a port with five commissioners and the possibility of political bickering preventing the commission from doing its job.

Port staff have estimated two new commissioners would cost taxpayers about $150,000 more per year, McAuley said. Most of these costs, about $55,000 per commissioner, would be the result of paying for charges when port commissioners run for re-election. The port takes in about $6.9 million in property taxes from county residents per year.

Jorgensen agreed that introducing two new commissioners could also make the  meetings unnecessarily political. McAuley said differing opinions are generally good to have but could draw out the decision-making process. He said the port hardly ever deals with politically controversial issues, such as those Whatcom County Council members handle.

“Do we need five? I don’t think we need five,” McAuley said. “I think if we just pay attention to what the port is doing, overwhelmingly the port will get it right.”

If the Port of Bellingham Commission expands, it would be the sixth out of the state’s 75 port districts to have five commissioners. The ports of Seattle and Tacoma grew to five commissioners because of their populations, while the smaller ports of Anacortes, Edmonds and Orcas expanded to five through ballot measures.

When it comes to port residents being unhappy with their commissioners, McAuley said the solution should be to vote out existing commissioners, not add more. He said finding qualified candidates could be difficult once they have a better understanding of what port commissions do.

“It’s fairly challenging to find good people who want to do the job,” McAuley said. “It’s not glamorous.”

Despite his concerns, McAuley said he’s glad the decision will ultimately be up to the voters. He’st confident the commission will find a way to make five members work, if the voters say they want that.

 “I’m not that worried about it,” McAuley said. “We’ll take it as it comes.”