Saturday, November 7, 2015

Post Election Notes: The Green Line in Whatcom County, Coal and a Jail

Local elections are over with most of the ballots counted.

In Whatcom County coal was the big looser.

With the passage of Charter Amendment #9 which moved the County from a three district system to a five district system. How this undermines coal interests is that it prevents a minority take over scheme pushed by the local GOP. Coal interests put about $100,000 into the County Charter amendment races and they needed to win #1, #2 and #3 and defeat #9 and #10. While they did win # 1, #2 and #3, those wins are empty without also defeating #9 and #10.

Details of the amendments are presented below:

Coal also lost in that the two council members elected are not likely to be coal supporters.

But the biggest coal loss may have been in a race that has no consequence on the coal terminal permit. Gary Jensen, the current mayor of Ferndale lost his bid to be elected to the Port Commission. Jensen was the perfect Port candidate: experienced, business aligned, and labor aligned. However, he was an early and well recognized coal terminal supporter (the proposed terminal site is on private land and not a port project). That early backing from 5 years ago was toxic for him.

A tax proposal to fund a new jail also lost. This project brought forward by the County Executive and Sheriff did not have the needed buy in to get the support necessary. It is too bad as there is a need for a new jail. But the new jail solution was so bad folks that would typically be counted on to support the project did not materialize and some even opposed it (disclosure: I was one of the authors of the voter pamphlet con statement).

There will be some significant fall out from this jail vote fail. One the County put out a mailer on the jail that very likely crossed the line of legality and will be a very interesting case to watch before the Public Disclosure Commission. That mailer also enraged the County Council and this will put some significant tension between the Council and Administration. The Sheriff is pushing some unilateral decisions regarding what to do now about the jail that may be counter to the direction the County Council would want to go. Law and Justice is complex and is going to be complicated for a while in Whatcom County.        

Here is a run down of the 1, 2, 3 , 9, and 10 amendments all of which passed.

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 may only concentrate 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 and 3: Limits Council Charter Amendment Proposals

These amendment were put forward to prevent the County Council from putting forward amendments that would undo any of the charter amendments that might pass by 2/3 of the voters (#2) or involving election of council (#3) . It would require a 7-0 vote by the council to put an amendment of the Charter to the voters under those circumstances.

Council: 9 Five 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. (Full disclosure: I testified in favor of placing this measure on the ballot - although personally I would prefer to see the County go to seven districts.)

Council: 10 Super Majority Proposal

This amendment will require a super majority vote by the commission or council to put an amendment on the ballot. (Full disclosure: I emailed this amendment to the Council for consideration) This will 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 amendments #2 and #3 requiring a 7-0 vote by the council. Resolution of this conflict will either require another amendment or court determination.  

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