Sunday, July 5, 2015

Charter Review: Whatcomcentric (but with broader State implications) and Wonky

Whatcom County's Charter Review Commission is winding down their review of the Whatcom County Charter (Charter Commission) with a bit of a rush due to the fact that the County Council appears to be poised to put forward some of their own amendments to the County Charter.

Whatcom County is a home rule county under the State Constitution. This allows the County to have some flexibility as to how the county government is structured through a home rule charter. Otherwise Washington State Counties are governed with a set number of elected officials with the 3 County Commissioners charged with running both the County legislative branch and administration. King, Pierce, Snohomish, Clallam, San Juan and most recently Clark are also home rule counties with charters. All the home rule counties are set up a bit differently mrsc.org/Governance/Forms-of-Government-and-Organization.

Whatcom's Charter calls for a periodic review of the Charter by a Charter Review Commission. The Commission is elected every 10 years with 5 members elected from each district. The Commission can then propose amendments to the County Charter that must be approved by the voters. There is a question regarding if this approach is consistent with the State Constitution on a couple of grounds - more on that later.

This year's review has been a bit bumpy because the Charter Commission majority is very out of step with the current Council. This is in part due to the Commission being elected by district only voting while the council reflects the majority of County voters having been elected by county-wide voting. The split is result of the way the districts were drawn up with District 1 being overwhelming Democrat leaning and the other 2 leaning Republican.

That background provided, what follows is a brief take on the Charter Commissions proposed amendments and the four proposed amendments up for hearing by the Council.

Charter Agenda with list of amendments

Charter Commission 1: District Only Voting

This is the partisan part of the package. The Charter Commission majority are Republicans and they can do math. By going to district only voting, they can pull off minority rule for the elections of county council. District 1 under district only voting will be two Democrats as that district is overwhelming Democrat. District 2 will be 2 Republicans as it leans much towards Republicans although not so much as District 1 leans Democrat. District 3 leans Republican by a little and will likely be 2 Republicans as well at least in the near term. The results of district only voting can be seen in the Charter Commission election itself. District 1 all Democrats, District 2 all Republicans and District 3 four Republicans and one Democrat. A majority of Commission members have been fairly clear that main purpose behind this scheme is overcoming the majority voting that has led to the Council currently being 6 Democrats (one was appointed) and one independent. The last council election saw Democrats sweep Republican candidates.

One of the problems with this proposal beyond the minority rule motivation is the County has only three districts and the way the current districts are drawn is a bit off for meeting State law on district boundaries. This was never much of a problem since council (and by the way Port and Public Utility District) were elected county-wide. But with Bellingham carved up by three districts the district lines should be redrawn to meet state rules - a difficult task with only three districts. None of that matters though if your goal is to accomplish minority rule.

Charter Commission 2: Change of ballot measure word limit from 20 to 40

This is a modest change to rules governing ballot measure descriptions for county initiatives and received broad commission support.

Charter Commission 3: Limits Council Charter Amendment Proposals

This amendment is an effort to try to prevent the County Council from putting forward amendments that would undo any of the charter amendments that might pass. A bit of history: the last charter review put forward an amendment for district only voting for council. That amendment passed. The County Council put forward an amendment in 2007 calling for county-wide election of council and that amendment passed. Hence, the Commission wants to prevent a replay of history. District-only voting sounds good to voters, but so does county-wide voting.

Full disclosure, I was on the County Council that voted to put county-wide voting on the ballot. My reasoning was that vote trades and swaps were likely to become a problem for governance, most county residences want all the council members to be concerned about their issues, and very few people have any idea what district they live in and who is their district representative.

A further problem with this proposal is that it is likely not consistent with the State Constitution as the Constitution is pretty clear that the authority of putting charter amendments to the voters lies with the county legislative body. (This constitutional provision calls into question the authority of the Charter Review Commission.)

Charter Commission 5: Reduce citizen Charter initiative signatures

This proposal is to reduce the number of signatures citizens need to gather to bring forward initiatives more in line with state initiative rules.

Charter Commission 6 and 18: Term Limits for Council and Executive

This would limit council and executive to three 4-year terms. Currently there are no limits.

Charter Commission 10: Limits Council Proposed Charter Amendments regarding council selection

This amendment has a similar goal as Number 4. It prevents Council from exerting its State Constitution granted authority to propose charter amendments and thus allows for maintaining the minority rule the Charter Commission hopes to accomplish with Amendment 1.

Charter Commission 13: Four parties in District Review Commission

The District Review Commission draws the election district boundaries in Whatcom County. This amendment would modify the makeup of the commission based the results of the last election.

Charter Commission 19: Proportional Voting for Council

This proposal failed to pass the Charter Review Commission by a 7-6-1 vote. If the absent member or the abstaining member had voted for it, the proposal would be moving forward. This would be a very different way of electing Council and is very different than the district-only voting scheme of Amendment 1. One of the concerns being raised about county-wide voting is that county-wide voting might limit diversity of view points. This approach would be an attempt to address that issue. The fact that it gained 7 positive votes shows that at least one Republican on the Commission (Ken Bell) saw past the raw minority rule scheme and thought that this approach would address the diversity of viewpoints.


Council Proposals

The County Council appears to be receptive to the idea of putting forward their own charter amendments and have thus far introduced four amendments for public hearing on July 7. This use of their State Constitutional authority has very much agitated the Republicans on the Charter Review Commission.

The Council proposals that the Council is considering are described below. I have heard rumors that there may be others brought forward.

Council: 5 District Proposal

This proposal would shift the County from the current 3 districts to 5 districts and thus would address the problematic issue of the current district boundaries and with more and smaller districts might also assure broader diversity on the Council.

Council: Per State Constitution Proposes Charter Amendments

This amendment simply points out that the State Constitution gives authority to submit amendments to the Charter to the council. There is no language in the State Constitution on home rule that even mentions Charter Review Commissions. The current process of having a Charter Review Commission put forward amendments is problematic constitutionally. In the past either no one noticed or the Commission did their job in a manner that there was no controversy so this issue never came up.

Council: Charter Review Commission Should be Elected County-wide

This amendment better matches how the election of a Commission would be more consistent with the Constitutional language regarding election of County Freeholders - the group that crafts the original charter in any county must be elected by county-wide voting. This amendment would also apply to the review Commission.

Council: Lowering Number of Signatures for Citizen Charter Proposals

This is a similar proposal to the Charter Commission Amendment 5.


1 comment:

Geoffrey Middaugh said...

This is so much clearer than what was in the Herald this morning. Minority rule is problematic, unless of course you are the minority manipulated to become the theoretical majority.