originally published March 2017—
First turnover of County Council under new system holds profound implications with 4 seats open
By Business Pulse magazine staff
One of the most important elements of any democracy is how representatives are elected. It is no less important here in Whatcom County. In 2015 County voters approved significant changes to how the Whatcom County Council is elected – perhaps the most important change in 40 years:
Voters approved expanding their electoral districts from three to five, and approved district-only voting.
In November 2017, the first election will take place under the new system with four County Council seats open. According to Dick Donahue, WBA member and chairman of the nonprofit Common Threads Northwest, “Business leaders and citizens should understand the significance, background, politics, and impact of the changes. They need to make informed decisions in the 2017 election.”
Donahue and others voice concerns that many voters are unaware of the economic implications of recent County Council decisions. “Our jobs, schools, roads and environment all depend on local government policies,” he said. “The recent moratorium on county building and expansion at Cherry Point will have profound implications for everyone, but many don’t know much about the issues.” (See article on P. 58 about taxes and schools.)
Ideally, citizens vote for leaders that best represent their interests at the federal, state, and local levels. Given the extent of ongoing media coverage following the recent presidential election, it’s easy to forget that the U.S. has a decentralized system of government.
Donahue said, “It’s important to remember that elections not only matter. Local elections matter most.”
Most people can name the President, their governor, possibly their senators and members of the House of Representatives. Many may even know who their state legislators are. But according to the Census Bureau, only about 65 percent of the U.S. voting-age population (and 71 percent of the voting-age citizenry) registered in 2012. The numbers are even lower when it comes to local elections.
During an off-cycle election year local voter turnout usually runs less than half of registered voters. In the 2015 Whatcom County general election, about 61,000 people voted of 129,000 registered (47 percent). In the 2016 Federal election, about 114,000 out of 139,000 registered voted participated (82 percent).
Locally-elected officials have great impact on daily living. Local representatives make economic growth plans. They oversee resources, fund schools, roads, and parks, and protect the environment. They make public safety and law enforcement decisions. They set property and sales taxes.
Becky Raney, co-owner of Print & Copy Factory and WBA board member, said, “These issues matter to our future, but running a small business is time intensive. Trying to follow the regulations and attend all the council meetings becomes impossible. I want to participate, but there are just not enough hours in the day to stay fully engaged. That is why the WBA has become so important to us at Print & Copy Factory – employees included.”
In retrospect, despite the low turnout, Whatcom County’s 2015 election will have a profound impact on the county’s political and economic future. Here’s a look into the background, the politics, and the impact of the new districts and district-only voting.
Whatcom County voters adopted a county charter in 1978. The charter basically serves as Whatcom County’s constitution. The charter outlined three voting districts. Each district had two council seats, and voters chose one at-large position for a total of seven council members. Voters chose among candidates from any district in a countywide vote.
As the population grew, the population density gradually increased in Bellingham. Whatcom County had 105,000 residents in 1979 when the charter was approved. There is an estimated 212,000 in 2016, a 100 percent increase. Bellingham’s population in 1979 was near 45,000. Today it is more than 85,000.
The balance of political power shifted significantly to the more dense urban population over time. There also was a shift in political affiliation. The historically conservative rural and agricultural communities became less influential. In Presidential election cycles since 1984, Republican candidates prevailed in only one presidential election in Whatcom County.
Every 10 years the County is required by law to convene a 15-member Charter Review Commission, elected by public vote. The commission’s purpose is to enhance efficiencies, consider charter suitability, review structures, recommend changes, and allow public input into the process. The process is meant to keep fair governance and balanced representation.
In early 2015 the Commission proposed eight amendments to the charter for the November ballot. Among them was Proposition 1, district-only voting. The sitting County Council added Proposition 9 to the ballot, a proposal to expand the number of electoral districts to five.
In November 2015 Whatcom County voters upended the way they select County Council members. Passing Proposition 1, voters approved district-only voting. Passing Proposition 9, they changed the number of county council districts from three to five (see attached charts), with one representative in each, plus two at-large council members based on county-wide voting.
Under the new five district system, voters will have the opportunity to vote directly for three of the seven County Council positions: voters will vote for one district candidate who lives and represents the voters in one of five districts, and two at-large candidates for the entire County regardless of where they live.
Proposition 1 – vote totals (source: Whatcom County Auditor)
|Whatcom County Proposition No. 1 Method of Electing Council Members|
|Total Votes||58,429||100 percent|
Proposition 9 – vote totals (source: Whatcom County Auditor.)
|Whatcom County Proposition No. 9 Number of Council Districts and At-Large Council Positions|
|Total Votes||57,556||100 percent|
The approval of Prop 9 required a Districting Committee to set new electoral boundaries. Republican and Democratic Party leaders selected two representatives each for the panel. Brett Bonner and Mark Nelson represented conservatives. Lisa McShane and Mike Estes represented progressives.
According to Bonner, “Proposition 9 was designed by the Democrats to lock in their power on the County Council. Mark and I worked to ensure that the people of Whatcom County would be represented fairly and that people who live outside the City of Bellingham would have a voice on issues such as jobs at Cherry Point and property and water rights.”
The four members selected Dale Kinsley, former Superintendent of the Bellingham School District, as a non-voting chairman to moderate the discussion and Tjalling Ypma, Western Washington University Mathematics Department Chair, as Districting Master. Ypma previously served as Districting Master in 2011.
The duty of the Districting Committee was to redraw county district boundary lines equally, balancing population with demographics from previous election results. The committee set the five new districts for Whatcom County elections on April 20, 2016, with just over 40,000 voters in each of the new districts (see map).
County Council members, by legal definition, are nonpartisan. Chet Dow, a WBA member who served as secretary on the 2015 Charter Review Commission, pointed out: “There are always political interests and influences. The politics surrounding Prop 1 and 9 were complex, and very interesting.”
In 2013 issues in local elections were dominated by a permit request to expand coal exports. SSA Marine and its partners planned to build a new pier and terminal in the Cherry Point industrial district. Progressive leaders mobilized their base. They successfully highlighted their viewpoints of fossil fuels and coal’s impact on climate change.
Candidates identified as progressives and campaigning collectively swept the 2013 county council elections. Conservatives argue that opponents won due to a very large influx of out-of-state money from environmental activists. Progressives counter that they had stronger environmental issues.
Regardless of why, Cherry Point industry and expansion in its heavy-industrial zone became lumped together as one anti-coal environmental issue. The large progressive voter block in Bellingham, based on statistics displayed here, shaped the County Council’s direction.
That voter identity appeared to shift two years later with the passing of Propositions 1 and 9 in an unusual twist, also revealed in voter turnout statistics. Progressives campaigned hard against district-only voting (Prop 1); conservatives favored it. Progressives favored Prop 9; conservatives fought it.
The 2015 Progressive Voters Guide gave this argument against Prop 1:
“…Proposition 1 would establish district-only voting, meaning councilmembers will no longer be accountable to the entire county. It’s highly concerning that supporters of district-only elections have explicitly said that approving Amendment 1 is necessary to approve permits for the coal export terminal in Whatcom County. Voters should stop big coal’s attempt to rig the system and reject Proposition 1.”
The argument in favor of Proposition 1 from the 2015 Republican Voters Guide:
“This amendment brings representation closer to the people. It will force the county government to be more responsive to the local community rather than outside interests.”
The positions for Prop 9 were reversed. From the GOP Guide:
“…voters choose who will represent them every two years. Under five districts this will happen only once every four years. Five districts is less representation and more political gerrymandering. This amendment may change how the Port of Bellingham and Charter review commissioners are elected.”
The Progressive Guide:
“…Proposition 9 would create five districts and two at-large positions to better serve all the diverse needs of the county. Whatcom County voters would choose one district councilmember and two at-large members, ensuring a balance of district attentiveness and county-wide consideration. Voters should approve Proposition 9’s sensible updates to the charter.”
According to some conservatives, the Prop 9 five-district plan favored progressives. In an April 21, 2016 Bellingham Herald Article, Brett Bonner is quoted as saying that the process that put the measure on the November ballot “reeked of partisanship.” Some Whatcom County citizens were so concerned that they attempted to take the measure to court prior to the elections. A Skagit County Judge dismissed the lawsuit.
Donahue, who was involved in bringing the suit, believes there was a political goal behind Prop 9. “The voter demographics favor Bellingham. Less development in the county and denser urban growth increases the number of urban voters who trend progressive,” he said. “It’s likely that progressives fought Prop 1, district-only voting, and introduced Prop 9 to counter rural voter trends outside of Bellingham.”
Two council members from the new Bellingham districts, and two elected at-large from the same Bellingham voter base, theoretically, could maintain a majority on the seven-member council.
Both propositions passed, indicating that County voters aren’t always tied to political party recommendations. The results might show a split personality in voters, or, that the average voter wants fair representation.
Sixteen months after Props 1 and 9 passed, nothing has changed – yet. But the County Council has four seats open in the November 2017 election under the revised system. The seated seven-member council was elected under the old system.
Six of the Council members were elected from the previous three districts (two from each), with one at-large member. All were elected in countywide voting heavily influenced by Bellingham demographics, not by constricted district-only voting in the five new districts.
According to Dow, “Propositions 1 and 9 will change the playing field for candidates in Whatcom County.” In the November 2017 general election, voters will decide on seats in South and North Bellingham (Districts 1 and 2), one in the Foothills (District 3), and one at-large. The other three seats – Farmlands (District 4), Coastal (District 5) and one at-large – will be up for election in 2019. Going forward, the five district candidates must reside in the district they represent.
Under the previous system, the County Council represented the interests of the single largest voter base – Bellingham. Council members have made decisions on building moratoriums, property and water rights, taxes, and future planning that some perceive as counterproductive to farm, coastal, and foothill interests, according to Dow.
Under the new system, Dow says “Decisions to urbanize growth, and efforts to close the largest and highest paying job providers at Cherry Point may come back to haunt sitting council members.” There will certainly be new political agendas and campaign platforms for the five new districts.
The changes from Propositions 1 and 9 will have a profound impact on local elections and the economic future of the county. Increasing regulations on agriculture, the moratorium on building permits, and the economic impact of Cherry Point industries equate to as much as 50 percent of the County’s economic activity, according to commissioned surveys and studies.
Dick Donahue, a financial advisor in private practice, believes that the future of the County tax base is at risk. “Sitting council members hopefully understand that a major economic crisis will face all of us if these issues are not resolved soon,” he said. “Voters can hope the Council responds effectively, or all of us can get informed and take action to influence the Council’s decisions.”
All of this underscores the high value of voters’ understanding of the importance of local elections. District-only voting and the five new districts created a system that will encourage representatives to respond to their constituencies’ interests, or to get voted out.
The two at-large candidates still remain beholden to a larger population base. But voters can choose council members who commit to their role – to protect jobs, schools, roads, and our environment – in balanced ways, perhaps truer to their legally-defined nonpartisanship stature.
Voters can seize the opportunity to ensure that Whatcom County’s economy will grow effectively, competitively, and in a way that improves our community. And, as with the new 2015 Propositions taking effect this year, citizens can ignore partisan power plays and vote to protect their interests.
As Becky Raney put it: “Local elections matter to my business, my customers, and my future.”