Port Commission discusses adding more commissioners

In Local Government, News by CTNW News

Commissioners of the Port of Bellingham discussed the possibility of increasing the number of Port commissioners from three to five at their public meeting on Nov. 5, 2019.

The public meeting began at 4:30 pm. The three current Port commissioners — Board President Ken Bell, Vice President Bobby Briscoe and Secretary Michael Shepard — were all present.

During the public comment period, three people stood up to make the case for why they think the Port commission should be expanded. Bellingham resident Ken Hertz said, “it’s a good idea because the Port’s become far more complex.” He said, “the idea was brought up years ago by some disgruntled fishermen, and at that time the commission was opposed. Unless the commission unanimously supports five commissioners, it’s going to be a very, very difficult sell,” he said.

Hertz offered that the Port could follow the County Council and have 5 districts — 2 from the city and 3 from the county — with one commissioner for each. Hertz said, “he has put together a petition but hasn’t had the time to gather enough signatures.” He said, “he’s worked with different port commissions and has found that when there are three commissioners, often there’s too much meddling with the staff.” Hertz added that, “the Port could use more representation because it represents the whole county.

Bellingham resident Dick Cathell told the commission that he thinks it makes sense to have five commissioners representing the five county council districts. He said that having three commissioners doesn’t create unity. “I’ve always been a believer that we should help grow our governing councils in terms of balance, whether it be gender, color,” he said. Cathell appreciates how well the current commissioners work together, but said, “the commission should have broader representation, so that you’re not accused of just having the old cronies making all the decisions in Bellingham,” he said.

Paul Schissler also urged the Port to increase the number of commissioners from three to five — hopefully soon so the voters can decide in 2020. “So we can move forward and add to the brain power we have up there already with two more people to help make decisions,” Schissler said.

Video starting at Public Comment period

The only way the Port can increase the number of commissioners is by a vote of the people, Port Executive Director Rob Fix said during a presentation on what it would take to expand the commission. To get the proposal on the ballot, the commission could pass a resolution or citizens could submit a petition. A petition would have to be signed by at least 10% of the number of citizens that voted in the last district general election.

The ballot proposition for the increase would have to be submitted to voters at the next general or special election occurring at least 60 days after a petition is submitted or resolution adopted, Fix said. If approved, the two additional port commissioners would be elected at the next district general election — not a special election — after the election where voters authorized the increase.

Adding two commissioners would require adopting five commissioner districts, Fix explained. The Port could adopt its own districts or use the county council’s existing five districts. If commissioners want the two new seats to be at large, that decision would have to come afterward.

Port of Bellingham three district map
Whatcom County Council five district map

The initial terms for the new commissioners, if it passed during an even-numbered year, would be 3 years and 1 year, with the top vote-getter taking the 3-year term and the second-highest vote-getter taking the 1-year term. In future elections, all commissioners would be elected to 4-year terms. Bell asked about having 6-year terms, saying it would lower costs. Fix said that would also require a vote of the people.

Having five commissioners would increase the Port’s average annual costs by about $95,000. Fix said that if they hold a special election for the proposal, it will be more expensive than if it’s on a general election ballot because the Port would have to take on a greater share of the election costs.

Video starting at presentation

Shepard said he supports expanding the commission to five. He said this issue continually gets brought up, and overwhelmingly people say they want to expand the commission. Shepard said he did his own informal polling of about 2,000 people, and 75 percent said they support moving to five commissioners. Having more commissioners would increase diversity, he claimed, and having the same districts as the county council would reduce confusion.

Bell said that from a governance standpoint, having five port commissioners is a wise choice, and they should let the community decide. “In my mind it’s worthy of a ballot measure,” he said, “if for nothing else just to hear what the community has to say about it.

Briscoe did not support increasing the number of commissioners. He said more government isn’t always better, and “when something isn’t broken why fix it?” Briscoe said, “the current commission is approachable and easy to work with, and he doesn’t think having five districts is going to represent more people.

Briscoe added that, “with more commissioners, more deal making would be done outside of the public eye. I honestly believe we will lose transparency as a commission if we go to five commissioners,” he said. “I think if the people are smart and they elect three good commissioners, you’re going to have a good commission.

Briscoe said the Port’s current 3-district system only comes into play during primary elections. “We’re not bound to representing our district only, and this is a non-partisan office and we’re supposed to represent everybody in the county.

If the people want more commissioners, Briscoe surmised, they should introduce the proposal with a petition.

Video starting at Commissioners comments

Video of the full November 5, 2019 Port Commission Meeting

Link to November 5, 2019 Port of Bellingham meeting agenda

Link to meeting minutes summary

written by Mike Curtiss for Common Threads NW