The Road to Good Governance Begins with You – Local Politics 101

In Local Government, News, Wake Up Whatcom by commonnw

This information article was put together in collaboration with; Jack Petree and David Onkels

Your EconomyYour EnvironmentYour HealthYour Safety

Your Quality of Life – As Determined by Your Local Government


  • Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA) drives most decision making in Whatcom County impacting the economy, the environment, health and safety issues, and overall quality of life;
  • The GMA gives County broad powers in determining how to meet the goals of the Act;
  • For all practical purposes the GMA severely restricts the ability of citizens to oppose actions taken by the County;
  • Citizens, however, can best, and often only, exert control of their own futures through the power of the vote;
  • Informed decision making at election time requires citizens have a grasp of how their county government works;
  • A brief explanation of how government in Whatcom County and its Cities work is provided below.


The Washington State Legislature passed the Growth Management Act. This new law called the Growth Management Act and frequently referred to as the GMA, was passed in 1990, and amended many times since passage.  The law dramatically expanded local government’s responsibility for, and control over, local economies and local environments as well as over matters affecting the health, safety, and overall quality of life experienced by all citizens.

Key to the successful implementation of the GMA is planning; the lead agency as identified within RCW 36.70A.040, of the GMA, is the County. To assure local governments could live up to their new responsibilities, the GMA greatly expanded the powers of local governments; County and City Councils, Commissions, and other governing bodies, were granted a great deal of control over the day-to-day lives of citizens even as the Act, intentionally or unintentionally, reduced the ability of those same citizens to meaningfully influence the actions of their own representatives.

Under the GMA, citizens have little recourse, other than the power of the vote, when it comes to controlling a runaway council, board, or commission.  All that means today, a well-informed electorate is perhaps more important to the preservation of freedom than it has ever been before throughout the nearly 130 years of Washington’s history as a state.

Voters that understand how government works make informed decisions at the ballot box. Voters that understand how their local government works, increase the likelihood that their community leaders will protect and strengthen their future.

The Growth Management Act is the Lynchpin for County Planning

The GMA puts the onus for establishing the ground rules governing nearly every aspect of daily life outside the home squarely on Whatcom County’s governing bodies.

In 1997 Whatcom County passed its first GMA compliant comprehensive Plan.  The plan has been comprehensively updated three times since.  Currently the GMA requires that these entities update their planning every eight years. These updates are called Comprehensive Plan Updates, aka Comp Plan Update.

Periodic Updates

Each Washington city and county must periodically review and, if needed, revise its comprehensive plan and development regulations every eight years to ensure that they comply with the GMA, as per the schedule provided in RCW 36.70A.130.

Cities and counties planning under RCW 36.70A.040 (fully planning cities and counties) must complete such a periodic update for their entire comprehensive plan and development regulations.

All other jurisdictions in the County including each city, must develop Comprehensive Plans consistent with and in coordination with the County’s Comprehensive Plan; the County’s plan is the template for all other planning documents.  Even the state is required to comply with Whatcom County’s plan.

If the County is remiss in its obligation to plan well on behalf of the County’s citizens economic, social, and environmental chaos is the likely result.  Only change effected at the ballot box can resolve the disorder caused by poor planning approaches.


The Whatcom County Charter, adopted by the citizens of Whatcom County in 1979, functions as Whatcom County’s Constitution.  As explained in the preamble, “…we, the citizens of Whatcom County, in order to have a government which advances justice, inspires confidence, and fosters responsibility, do adopt as the foundation of our government, this Charter.”

 The elected freeholders then prepared and proposed a charter providing for separation of legislative and administrative powers, and establishing initiative and referendum rights in the people. At a special election held on November 7, 1978, the voters of the county adopted the proposed charter as the new Whatcom County Home Rule Charter. It became effective on May 1, 1979.

The Charter establishes two branches of government; a legislative branch and an executive branch.  The two branches are charged with working in concert to achieve the various goals of government; “The executive and legislative branches shall engage in long-term strategic planning to establish organizational structure, priorities, and performance measurements.”


Unlike either the Federal government or Washington State’s government, nearly all meaningful governmental legislative power in Whatcom County is placed, by provisions of the County Charter, into the hands of the Whatcom County Council.

As described by the Charter: “The County Council shall exercise its legislative power by adoption and enactment of ordinances or resolutions. It shall have the power:

  • To levy taxes, appropriate revenue and adopt budgets for the County.
  • To establish the compensation to be paid to all County officers and employees and to provide for the reimbursement of expenses, except as provided in Section 6.100.
  • Except as otherwise provided for herein, to establish, abolish, combine and divide by ordinance, non-elective administrative offices and executive departments and to establish their powers and responsibilities.
  • To adopt by ordinance comprehensive plans, including improvement plans for the present and future development of the county.”

Lest the range of overarching power wielded by the County Council not be broad enough the Charter continues; “The enumeration of particular legislative powers shall not be construed as limiting the legislative powers of the County Council.”


Whatcom County has what is commonly called a “weak” Executive branch.  The duties of the County Assessor, Auditor, Treasurer, and the Sheriff are narrowly confined to running their respective departments.  The Executive manages the various departments (Planning and Development Services, Public Works, Parks and Recreation) and others but only within the confines of the budget approved by the County Council.  The County Council can also, if it wishes, eliminate a department with the exception of a few established by the Charter (Clerk of the Superior Court, Medical Examiner).  The Executive has veto power but can be overridden by the County Council.


Port Districts like the Port of Bellingham are established by law:

“Port districts are hereby authorized to be established in the various counties of the state for the purposes of acquisition, construction, maintenance, operation, development and regulation within the district of harbor improvements, rail or motor vehicle transfer and terminal facilities, water transfer and terminal facilities, air transfer and terminal facilities, or any combination of such transfer and terminal facilities, and other commercial transportation, transfer, handling, storage and terminal facilities, and industrial improvements.”

Port Districts are managed by a board of Port Commissioners with powers similar to those held by the County Council.

Port Districts have a considerable amount of autonomy; autonomy partially assured by the District’s ability to levy taxes, build infrastructure, and otherwise operate independently of the Counties and Cities they are part of.  Consultation and cooperation with the Counties and Cities Port Districts are established to serve is generally expected and, necessary, albeit sometimes bordering on the contentious.


Whatcom County contains seven incorporated cities; Blaine, Ferndale, Lynden, Bellingham, Sumas, Everson, and Nooksack.

The cities are autonomous entities but only to a certain extent.  The GMA requires that each city, in coordination with the county, create a Comprehensive plan that is consistent with and implements the County’s own Comprehensive Plan.

If the County Council is remiss in fulfilling its obligations to assure consistency, then economic, social, and environmental chaos may follow, as each city goes its own way, independent of each other.

Each city is managed by a City Council with powers similar to those held by the Whatcom County Council.


In a County like Whatcom County, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of special districts ranging from Cemetery districts, Public Utility Districts, to Fire Control Districts and others, have been established.  Each of these Districts must create their own Comprehensive Plan, detailing how their district will operate.  Comprehensive Plans must coordinate and blend to the overlapping areas, in order to work within the larger County Comprehensive Plan.


Tribal governments are established under the auspices of the Federal Government.  Interaction between tribal governments and local governments can sometimes be smooth and cooperative and, at other times, fraught with contention.  For the most part Whatcom County has not included areas under tribal control in the County’s overall plans for future growth and development. This is intentional, as the tribes have their own system of governance and planning, but can create conflict along the overlapping land borders, due to cross-purposed land uses and zoning such as: fishing, dairy, livestock, and crop farming practices.