Whatcom County Council Swaps Out Ballot Proposal: Additional Allegations of Wrongdoing Considered

In Uncategorized by Ashley Butenschoen

From Richard C. Donahue, Chair
Media Inquiries: C. Thomas Moser, Attorney for Common Threads NW (360) 428-7900(Whatcom County)-Out of the view of the public, members of Whatcom County Council keep changing their proposal on how people should be elected to that body. The Council’s actions are so confusing that it is unclear what proposal they properly voted upon, if they actually did so all.

Common Threads Northwest, a citizen watchdog group, is examining bringing additional allegations of wrongdoing against the Whatcom County Council in its handling of a proposed amendment to the Whatcom County Charter. An action has already been launched in Skagit County Superior Court alleging violations of the County Charter, state redistricting laws, and the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

On June 23rd, the County Council introduced and scheduled for public hearing a proposed ordinance to place before the voters in November a change in the County Charter in the manner in which Council members are elected. (See attached version 1.) The current method of election involves two Council members from each of three districts, plus one elected at-large. The Council’s proposal would have five districts with one member each, plus two at-large seats. The Charter Review Commission that is elected every ten years had rejected this idea by an 11-4 supermajority.

On July 7th , one day after the Charter Review Commission finished its half-year of work and delivered its ballot recommendations on July 6th, the Council held a public hearing on and voted to adopt Ordinance 2015-029 placing the five-district proposal before voters. (See attached version 2.) But it was not the same measure that was introduced on June 23rd (see attached version 1, which had no Exhibit A). It appears that little or no public notice was given that the Council was holding a public hearing on one proposal, but was actually intending to adopt a new one.

A certified copy of the Council’s ordinance and ballot measure was provided to the County Auditor and Free Ballot Choices, a group of over 50 Whatcom County voters, including several elected officials, filed a petition to subject the Council’s action to repeal by the voters, following a referendum procedure provided in the County Charter. The group has been gathering petition signatures to have the referendum placed on the November ballot. But now there is confusion as to what happens to those signatures.

Now the new surprise – County Auditor Debbie Adelstein (an innocent administrator in all of this) advised proponents of the referendum that on August 20th, a full month and a half after its July 7th action, the Council delivered to her another—third—version of its five-ballot proposal as being the one that was actually adopted. (See version 3, with a changed Exhibit A, which changes the ballot title.) So it appears that not only did the general public not know what the Council was doing; the Council itself seems to be confused.

Other than the obvious transparency and Keystone Cops issues, this raises further questions about whether the Council: – has properly introduced and processed an ordinance under the requirements of the County Charter; – has complied with the state Open Public Meetings Act; – has complied with state redistricting laws; and – has met the requirements of the County Charter for proposing to the voters an amendment to the County Charter, including whether the Council’s action complies with the Charter’s requirement that amendments be proposed at least 90 days before the general election, a period of time that has passed.