Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Whatcomcentric, Political, and Wonky Charter Stuff

I previously posted about the obscure Charter Commission (charter-review-whatcomcentric). This post is a modified version updating where things are at.

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.

The Charter Commission has finished its work of submitting proposed amendments to the voters of Whatcom County. The commission's main focus was political versus good governance and amendments were put forward that are an attempt to shift elections not for better representation.

The County Council has also put two Charter Amendments on the ballot as is their right under the State Constitution as well as under the County Charter. Needless to say this has upset the local GOP leadership that had dominated the Charter Review and is leading to some weirdness.

Charter Commission 1: District Only Voting

This is one of the partisan parts of the package of amendments. 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 the 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.

There are also some real governance issues with district only elections. Council members will concentrate only on issues that matter within their district and vote swapping along the lines of "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" should be of some concern particularly with public works projects.

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 was initially put forward to prevent the County Council from putting forward amendments that would undo any of the charter amendments that might pass. It has since been modified so that the council can, but would require a 7-0 vote by the council. The change was made to resolve an obvious State Constitutional conflict. The change required the Charter Commission to change their rules, had no public hearing and there was no discussion. I can fairly readily see some serious governance problems with this poorly thought through amendment. But I am unfair to say it was poorly thought through. It was well thought through if the goal is partisan politics. No thought given to governance.

Charter Commission 1: 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 putting forward Charter Amendments regarding the election of Council members. The original was modified with no hearing or discussion to require a 7-0 vote by the council in order to avoid an obvious State Constitution conflict.

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.

Council Proposals

The County Council considered several Charter Amendment proposals brought to them by citizens that were frustrated or concerned by the Charter Review Commission's partisanship. Full disclosure: I submitted two proposed amendments.

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. This amendment passed and will be on the November ballot. Full disclosure again: I testified in favor of this measure but it was not one I brought forward, personally I would prefer to see the County go to seven districts.

Council Super Majority Proposal

This amendment will be on the ballot and if passed will require that any charter amendment put forward by the Charter Commission and/or the Council require a super majority vote by the commission or council. This would have the effect on the commission of ending the narrow partisan approach that has plagued essentially every Charter review. It could be called the "cut the crap" amendment and perhaps would lead to discussion of governance issues versus the partisanship. The amendment proposal also calls out that the council would be required to have a super majority which is already the case, but a phrase was added that says that "no amendment shall require a higher number". This is in direct conflict with the Charter Commissions scheme of requiring a 7-0 vote by the council.  

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