Whatcom County has breathtaking landscapes—from the islands in the Salish Sea, to the foothills of the North Cascades, and between them, the rich farms and waters that provide berries, milk, salmon and shellfish to the world. The breadth of our landscapes are matched by the diversity of our people—from software engineers in Bellingham, to fishermen and women in our coastal communities, to the farmers of Lynden. Unfortunately, the diversity of our people, and what matters to them most, is not reflected in our current three County Council districts.
That’s why citizens from every corner of Whatcom County are calling on the County Council to place the “5 Fair and Equal Districts” proposal on the ballot so voters can choose voting districts that give everyone in Whatcom County better representation.
We’re one of seven counties in Washington state with the home rule form of county government, and the only one that has only three voting districts. It’s a relic of an older, ineffective system of three county commissioners we left behind in the ‘70s—and for good reason. We have three very long, triangular districts, each containing part of Bellingham. That means two things: if you live in a rural area, your representative may live in the city, but if you—like 40 percent of Whatcom residents—live in Bellingham, there may be no representative from your city. This is fair to nobody; every community deserves to be represented.
The Charter Review Commission proposes we keep our antiquated County Commission districts but switch to district-only voting. This move would divide the county into regional and political factions, producing more partisanship, conflict and gridlock. In fact, Washington state law prohibits districts from dividing communities of mutual interest, and requires districts to be compact. Unfortunately, neither is true of their proposal.
Voters trusted the Charter Review Commission to carefully review our County Charter and recommend common-sense changes. Instead, they proposed changing our charter to require prayer before meetings, and cut county funding to nonprofits like the Food Bank, victims of domestic violence and mental health services in the jail.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Imagine a new map, one that has five compact districts and meets state law by keeping communities of mutual interest together. Here’s how it can look: one of the districts has rural lands and small cities that are oriented to the saltwater (Lummi, Ferndale, Blaine), one contains our richest farmlands and vibrant small towns (Lynden, Sumas, Everson), one contains the foothills and the homes around our lakes (Kendall, Acme, Lake Whatcom, and Lake Samish) and then two districts for Bellingham, North and South.
There would still be seven County Council members—one per district, and two elected at-large. If you live in a rural area your district will no longer include part of Bellingham—you’ll have your own representative. By the same token, there have been years when no County councilmember lived in Bellingham. With Bellingham 40 percent of Whatcom County, it’s important that the voices of those citizens and taxpayers are also represented in county government. If we choose 5 Fair and Equal Districts, every community will have a voice and be represented on our council.
Those who promote district-only voting for our three long, triangular districts, are now saying that this is an end-run around the Charter Review process. But the state constitution provides that only the County Council can place charter amendments on the ballot for voters to consider.
Voters should have options.