At the 2015 general election, 10 amendments to the Whatcom County Home Rule Charter were on the ballot. Eight were placed on the ballot by the Charter Review Commission and two by the Whatcom County Council. Nine of the amendments were approved. One of the approved amendments was the method of electing council members and another was the number of council districts and at-large positions.
by Richard May
Whatcom now has a five-district system to elect the council that governs our county. We will still have seven council members, but we will no longer elect all seven by a vote of the whole county.
Each of the five new districts contains one fifth of the voters, and each district will elect one council member voted on by just that district’s residents. Two of the seven council members will elected countywide by all of us, for a total of seven : Five by district-only, two by whole county.
This could possibly change the nature of discourse on the council, because two of the districts are Bellingham city, and the other three are parts of the outer county. The district including Lynden can send a more conservative-leaning representative to council than the Bellingham districts might. With this new district layout, candidates running for one of these districts would no longer need to appeal to voters in other parts of the county.
Before 1979, Whatcom County was governed by three county commissioners. The county commission form of government has the executive and legislative branches rolled into one. At the 1978 general election, voters passed a Home Rule Charter. It created executive and legislative branches of county government, a County Executive and a seven member County Council. Both to be elected countywide, with the proviso that these rules for the council could be changed by the voters.
Three county council districts were drawn as pie wedges, their tips in high population Bellingham with the wide parts in rural county. All seven county council seats were elected at-large, meaning by the entire county. Two members must reside in each of the three districts, plus one who could live anywhere. The residential requirement was nearly pointless, since each district had a piece of urban Bellingham, where most council members lived, even the ones the rural people liked best.
In 2005, a Charter Review measure was approved, it stopped countywide voting for six of the seats, meaning that each district’s residents would elect their own two residing members without whole-county vote. At the 2007 election, a popular Nooksack tribal member won the district that contained the tribe, and the popular Republican won the district that contained Lydnen. Some folks thought that each might have been beaten by their opponents, if the whole county had been able to vote.
Then, some council members who may have foreseen needing re-election vote help from areas of the county outside the district that they resided in, put the matter back on the ballot in 2008. Citizens then concluded that they either disliked the 2007 test drive of the district-only voting method, or they were persuaded by the wording of the measure on the ballot, but they reversed the voting method back to at-large.
In 2009, the Tea Party movement burst forth with energy and motivation while lefties suffered Obama fatigue from the highly engaged 2008 presidential. So, more righties than lefties voted, and conservatives won control of council, fair and square via countywide votes. In 2013, anti-coal progressives were motivated and won back control of council. A pretty good system of checks and balances was in place that could swing either way.
But … conservatives eventually seemed to prefer a system where they didn’t really have to turn out voters or make their case but might win anyway. So, the 2015 Charter Review Committee put “district only voting” back on the ballot once again, despite the fact that the county had tried it before and voters booted it out.
However, Whatcom’s three districts were out of compliance with how stand-alone districts should be drawn and located. Bellingham was split in three, which a gerrymanderer could see as an opportunity to cut up the voting majority into smaller pieces so it can’t win.
Some organizers, however, proposed a five-district system, where Bellingham chooses its two district’s representatives, coast chooses its own, Lynden gets theirs, and the rural Mt. Baker area gets theirs, too. Citizens voted for a five-district system at the same time as district-only, and now that’s what we have: one council member per each of five small districts, plus two at-large that the whole county votes for.
The Coming Election
Fast forward to 2017, and the transition into the new system will unfold. Sitting council members will finish out the full term they committed to, and the new district seats become available to anyone who resides there. For 2017, we get North Bellingham and South Bellingham, plus the Mt.Baker district, and one at-large position. In 2019, we get the Lynden district, the coast district, and the other at-large countywide position.
Some party analysts noticed that the game of musical chairs had some no-brainer choices for who could best run where. Current council members Carl Weimer and Kenn Mann no longer wished to serve on the council. Rud Browne was the only sitting member residing in the new District 1 south Bellingham, sitting member Satpal Sidhu resides in the new District 3 Mt.Baker district. Barry Buchanan wanted to run at-large, which means he would not run for the District 2 seat where he lives (although if you check the district map, it is rather curious that just Barry’s house is cut out in an awkward notch, with the rest of his neighbors clearly in District 1).
The only sitting council members not mentioned above are serving four-year terms that expire at the end of 2019. At that point, Barbara Brenner can either run at-large or in the Lynden District 4 that she lives in, and Todd Donovan can run at-large when his term expires two years from now. This provided enough room for local activist Amy Glasser to run for District 2 without going up against any sitting council members.
But … just because something makes sense on paper doesn’t mean it will happen.
Incumbents have a huge, proven advantage, so a sitting council member running for these new positions will have a superior chance over a newcomer. But even though Satpal Sidhu announced to run in 2017 for his resident district (new District 3, Mt.Baker/foothills), and even though he filed to run … he decided not to run this year, and did not file for election. And despite Amy Glasser running a strong campaign from December 2016 through the five months until filing week with endorsements from Bellingham City Councilmen Terry Bornemann and Gene Knutson and activists and health care professionals … something unexpected happened.
Despite the progressives and Democrats of Whatcom County calling for party unity, and seeking to mend fences between establishment figures and the new energy brought on in the wake of Bernie Sanders getting 80 percent at the caucus and 60 percent at the nonbinding primary … despite Amy Glasser bringing in a large number of people who just barely trust politics … and despite her being the strongest chance of getting at least one progressive woman onto county council, something unexpected happened.
Todd Donovan, halfway through the term he committed to when he was elected 18 months ago, a term that goes until the end of 2019, decided to run for the District 2 seat that Amy is running for — another seat at the same table he already sits at. So, at this point, if the people elect Amy, Todd would still have two years left on the term we worked so hard to elect him to a year and a half ago. But, if the people elect Todd now to a duplicative seat on council (he must then vacate the old one and restart in the new one), then a part of the community that Amy Glasser has inspired and drawn into the progressive coalition could become disappointed, with the County Council remaining a boys’ club.
As for the other seats, Rud Browne is being challenged by “Clean” Phil, a novelty candidate beloved by conservatives and the NW Business Club. Phil is unlikely to win in Democrat heavy district 1. District two also has Republican Daniel Collick running, also unlikely to win. For the at-large seat, Barry Buchanan is running against Mary K. Robinson, a popular realtor and community member. That will be the race to watch, whether the issues will favor the right or the left.
In District 3, Mt.Bakerland, newcomer Rebecca Boonstra, who is supported by progressives, could be in a showdown between Tyler Byrd, who has raised more than $18,000, and Cliff Langley who has raised more than $13,000. Langley was the charter review commissioner who suggested formally putting prayer time on the agenda of meetings.
So, in this coming election and the one two years from now, we will see whether our county has finally gotten a good fit for our method of election.
Richard May is a local business owner, was elected to serve on the County Charter Review Commission in 2015, is a planning commissioner in Blaine, and sat for two terms on the Whatcom County Appeals Board, and is on the board of directors of Communities in Schools Whatcom, an affiliate of a national dropout prevention organization.