Why We Sued Whatcom County

In County Council, Lawsuit by Ashley Butenschoen

Here in the West, we value citizens’ right to know and question actions of our government leaders.
We passed laws to bring sunshine and transparency into the actions and decisions of our government.  With narrow exceptions, decisions must occur in open meetings. Public records are subject to examination.  These requirements serve the interests of people of every persuasion.
So we were stunned at how the Whatcom County Council could, with little public notice or input, propose a fundamental restructuring of how Council district lines are drawn. 
They introduced a measure to change the number and shape of Council districts June 23rd.  After the long Fourth holiday they met July 7th to hear a couple hours of public testimony before voting 6-1 to place a measure before voters in November.  This would change the current configuration of three Council districts and one at-large member to five districts and two at-large members.

We were shocked again when the Council informed the County Auditor on August 20th that it had filed with her the wrong draft of the ordinance and sent a new one.  Apparently, they too were not sure what they were voting on.  Haste makes waste!

The Council majority also specified the general layout of district lines, instead of leaving that the duty of the bipartisan Districting Committee under the County Charter.

The timing of this action is suspicious and speaks of raw, big-city political scheming not seen before in County government.  
The County Charter Review Commission, elected every ten years with membership chosen by voters last November, took six months to hold public hearings and to deliberate before finalizing recommendations to the voters July 6th.

The Review Commission rejected the five-district proposal by a super-majority vote of 11-4.  But one day later, the County Council enacted its five-district proposal, after only 14 days of public review, only to switch the version that it was voting on at the last minute.  Most people could not tell what the Council was actually voting on.  So much for transparency and having respect for a Charter review process that has worked well for four decades.

What the Council proposes is a step back from good government, placing in the hands of the current officeholders the ability to redraw—even gerrymander—their own districts.  
While Council-members may argue that they were just suggesting general district outlines, their cover has been blown by public records disclosures and other information:

  • The Charter amendment language the Council is putting before the voters says, “The approximate geographic areas covered by each district are anticipated to be:

District 1 – Central and South Bellingham
District 2 – North Bellingham…” etc.

But the Council’s ordinance directs that each district “shall contain” the communities  they selected for their five                   districts.  This is bait and switch politics.

  • The driving forces behind the Council’s scheme appear to be political operative Lisa McShane and ReSources, an environmental activist group that receives grants from the County, with a subgroup they created called Fair and Equal Whatcom.  Their website’s frequently asked questions, state the following:

                     “Who decides where the five districts are?  

“…While a redistricting committee will adjust the lines to make sure they’re equal, the districts themselves are                         described in the County Council ordinance…” [Emphasis added].  



          So the puppet-masters agree the  Council-members are drawing up their own safe districts. 

  • Even Council-member Ken Mann, a proponent of the Council’s scheme, was worried about interfering with an independent Districting Committee.  In an email exchange with McShane discovered through public records requests, Mann wrote:

“It’s going to be a tricky operation to get this crafted.  We are creating two new districts – do the 5 new districts                        have to be defined in the ballot proposal? That’s impossible to do now – it would have to be done by a districting                   commission of some kind, no?”

Three days later, Mann wrote to McShane:   “We don’t want to end up in court and lose over a technicality.” 

  • In teeing-up the Council’s proposal, Mann told McShane:

 “Bottom line, let’s hear from the proponent (does it HAVE TO BE ReSources?) via email not later than June 22,                      so that we can introduce it on the 23rd, vote on July 7th (and I will still be here!).

“I think we can avoid or inoculate ourselves from a lot of griping if we have somebody more benign propose it to                      us.  Perhaps a Charter Review Commissioner?  Perhaps an interested observer?”  [Former Bellingham Mayor                        Tim Douglas presented the idea to the Council.]

Mann also told McShane that “we may need…possibly my in-person persuasive powers on Barbara”, a                                  reference to Council-member Barbara Brenner, who wound up voting for the proposal.

Under state law, Mann had to make these email disclosures.  But in doing so, he said “…it won’t look great for me…”

We agree!

To add insult to open government, the Council voted at its July 7th meeting to place another Charter amendment on the agenda for a future meeting, but the next day voted behind the scenes, out of public view, to kill the measure.  This, we allege, violates state law requiring votes to be taken in public meetings.

A slippery slope toward political corruption is to feel an entitlement to hold office, then rigging the system to stay in office.  Lord Acton opined in 1887: “…absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  
We regret having to do it, but through our lawsuit, Common Threads wants to hold the County Council accountable to laws governing the setting of their district boundaries and require that they conduct the public’s business in public.  These “good government” policies are not partisan in nature; they are “owned” by the people, not by certain officeholders and a select group of insider cronies to ignore as they wish.