Posted by: sweeneyblog | April 17, 2014

Charter Review and District Only Voting

Treasuring the many wonders of our unique environment and realizing that the power and duty to govern and protect this region is inherent in its people, 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.” -Whatcom County Charter, Preamble

This year, Whatcom County voters have a unique opportunity. They will be able to rewrite the constitution of our county government. This process is called a County Charter Review.


Once upon a time in Whatcom County . . .

Once upon a time in Whatcom County . . .

Most counties in Washington state do not have a charter. They use the standard setup outlined by the State Constitution and the legislature, where three county commissioners are elected by the voters, and they appoint a county manager to serve as the executive branch. This setup works just fine in say, Adams County (pop. 19,200), where the most debated subject is resurfacing the main road that runs through the county to handle more truck traffic.

But this setup runs into trouble when it is applied to say, Thurston County (pop. 260,100). Three full-time commissioners simply cannot handle all the duties of a county government when it gets to be that size, so Whatcom County (pop. 205,800) found a different solution.

In 1978, the voters approved a “Home Rule Charter” which means the citizens of Whatcom were seizing the power to reorganize their government, as provided for in the state constitution, making us the third such county to do so in the history of Washington.

Whatcom County Charter

Our County Charter serves as our county constitution. You can read it in its entirety here.  It outlines who is elected (county executive, sheriff, treasurer, auditor, prosecutor, assessor and council) and who is appointed (county clerk, medical examiner, board of health, etc). It defines the powers of each office, lays out the procedure for elections and defines compensation and concepts like conflict of interest.

Charter Review Commission

Whatcom County

Whatcom County

According to our charter, every ten years the citizens will form a commission to, “review the Charter to determine its adequacy and suitability to the needs of the county and may propose amendments.” They will serve without salary and usually attend a series of meetings that spans six months. The commissioners are elected by council district, with the top five vote getters in each district being seated, for a total of fifteen commissioners. All the amendments proposed by the commission must be put to a vote in November 2015.

Why Should I Care?

The Charter Review Commission has the power to drastically change the way we operate as a county. Just to pick one drastic example, they could strip the County Council of its ability to approve land use permits, a major blow for Gateway Pacific Terminal opponents. Alternately, they could turn the county executive into an appointed position and give that power to the County Council, raising the stakes for council races to ridiculous levels.

District Only Voting

However, the most likely battleground this year is over district-only voting. Charlie Crabtree, chair of the Whatcom Republicans and confused newspaper reader, has made it crystal clear that his priority for the Charter Review is district-only voting. As he wrote in his emails to disheartened Republicans after they lost control of the Council last year,

In 2005 Voters in Whatcom County voted to elect their Representatives by the District where they reside instead of an “At-Large” County-wide Election. The first election to be “district only” was 2007. Five weeks after the 2007 election, led by Barbara Brenner, the council passed an ordinance to reverse the people’s decision. This ordinance was passed without hearing. It was placed on the ballot and an uneducated public put “at large” voting back in place. The November 5th election shows the “Brenner effect” of Ken Mann and Carl Weimer not getting a majority vote in the district they will end up representing.

Right now, council candidates must live in their district, pass a primary in their district and then be elected county-wide. In 2013, a majority of the democratic votes came from the 1st District, which includes south Bellingham because that’s where the Democratic ground game focused their efforts. This increased turnout helped reelect Weimer and Mann.

Crabtree has been beating this drum for many years. He wrote the PRO position in the 2005 voters pamphlet for district only voting, however this may not be a winning strategy for the Republicans. 

District only voting

Click to enlarge

Here is the breakdown by county district of the Democratic votes for the last four years.  As you can see, the Democratic total of votes continues to grow in all three districts. This is especially telling since the last redistricting (2012) added more conservative precincts to the 2nd District, and moved more liberal precincts into the 1st. Even with that boost, the Republicans are losing ground county-wide.

Republican Chair Charlie Crabtree

Republican Chair Charlie Crabtree

If we move to district only voting, it would go into effect in 2017. If these trends are to continue, that would put the 3rd district at 48.3% Democratic and the 2nd at 44%. With Carl Weimer most likely retiring from council in 2017, it would mean a competitive race in the 3rd, and Ken Mann staring down a difficult situation in the 2nd. Except by this point, Mann will have served for 8 years, and each year he does better than the year previous. The incumbent factor is hard to shake (see Brenner, Barbara).

No matter how the issue of district-only voting is resolved, the Charter Review Commission is a vital pivot point for elections in Whatcom. If you are interested in serving, reach out to whichever party you identify with and let them know.

For more “Keep it Simple, Sweeney” explanations of local political issues, check out some of these articles: Bellingham Waterfront 101, what is the Growth Management Act, and why can’t we pass gun legislation?

Posted by: sweeneyblog | April 16, 2014

Gateway Pacific Terminal – Still Trying to Persuade

For those who thought the progressive takeover of the County Council was the last we would hear about the Gateway Pacific Terminal, prepare to be shocked. Okay, no one? That’s what I thought. Still, I thought that SSA Marine would take a step back, reassess and perhaps change tactics before moving forward.

No such luck. Yesterday, I received a nice glossy mailer from SSA Marine trying to persuade me about all the benefits of the project. Here it is below:


Click to view larger

Click to view larger

Click to view larger

Click to view larger

Four things stuck out to me about this mail piece. 

  1. This piece is addressed to “RESIDENT” rather than to me personally. Whoever is coordinating this is not doing a tightly targeted mailing to key voters, but rather a blanket mailing to everyone within a geographic area.
  2. The mailer does not have one consistent message, instead it throws out a variety of different techniques. There is the bandwagon approach (look at all the people who support this), the economic appeal (look at all the money it would bring), the environmental appeal (we will leave some trees standing), etc.
  3. Finally, there are not one but two tiny, tiny little maps on the mail piece. Seriously, none of the writing on those maps is remotely legible. Did they expect us to bust out a magnifying glass for this piece or did they assume we would know where Cherry Point is, and if we already know, why did you put a map on your mailer?
  4. In the entire piece, they never say the word, “coal.” Not once.

Down in tiny print at the very bottom of the mailer, is this sentence: “Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) is proposed by SSA Marine. Now based in Seattle, SSA Marine was founded in Whatcom County as Bellingham Stevedoring Company and has been part of the community for decades.” While this is true (you can find SSA Marine’s corporate history here), why would they want to bury that argument? In our history-loving community, you would think a small company that hit it big would be something to focus on.

In short, this whole mailing feels like a written attempt at a Gish Gallop, where you present a bunch of small ideas very quickly in an attempt to razzle-dazzle someone into supporting your position. Is this part of a larger persuasion effort or simply an attempt to test the waters, post-election?

For more insight on political mailers, check out my analysis of local election flyers in 2013 and in 2011As always, you can help support citizen journalism with a donation here.


Posted by: sweeneyblog | April 14, 2014

Rodney Tom NOT Running for Reelection

Rodney Tom

Rodney Tom

Rodney Tom, the turncoat Democrat who switched sides and gave us two years of Republicans controlling the state Senate has announced he will not run for reelection. This surprise announcement has left Republicans scrambling for a candidate in the district. Joan McBride, the actual Democrat in the race has raised over $61,000 and has been campaigning for a month already.

What are the ramifications for Whatcom? It means that the entire balance of the state Senate is held by one vote – and Sen. Doug Ericksen may have a seriously competitive race as the whole state turns its eyes to the 42nd District.

Posted by: sweeneyblog | April 11, 2014

Friday Odds and Ends: Bullpucky and Bocce Ball

Hello Loyal Readers,

Thank you to everyone who participated in my reader’s survey, the results were mixed but you all seemed to agree on one thing – no pop culture articles! I’ll be putting together a modest proposal and see if there is any interest. Thank you for your patience – this blog is one part labor of love, two parts trial and error.

Speaking of errors, Rep. Jason Overstreet dropped a big pile of bullpucky in his latest constituent newsletter. In the newsletter, he said,


Jason Overstreet

In an effort to lead by example while saving taxpayer dollars, I declined to participate in the state’s legislative pension system for the second time in as many terms, and also refused the $1,800 raise in per diem issued to House members during the 2014 legislative session. Leadership in the House agreed to raise per diem up from $90 a day to $120 at the beginning of the session.

By declining participation in the state’s pension system, taxpayers have seen savings of $6,000 in each of my two terms and approximately $12,000 total since I was first elected in 2010.

Refusing the per diem is all well and good, Sen. Doug Ericksen received plenty of criticism for double-dipping from that fund last year. However, Overstreet is actually forbidden from taking the state’s legislative pension because he is already part of the public retirement system as a Seattle Firefighter.

While it is fine to let people know how much money they are saving because you are ineligible for your retirement benefits as a legislator, it is a bit disingenuous to claim that it is an effort to, “lead by example” and that you “declined to participate.”

In more positive news, the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center is holding its 12th annual bocce ball competition Saturday, April 19th at the Sportsplex. The WDRC provides fantastic services in our community, reducing the burden on local courts and helping community members resolve problems peacefully. Find out more information here.

Posted by: sweeneyblog | April 10, 2014

Local School Launches City-Wide Scavenger Hunt


The Great Mystery

The Great Mystery

Explorations Academy, an independent secondary school here in Bellingham, is holding its annual city-wide scavenger hunt called, “The Great Mystery“.

For four weeks, teams made up of determined amateur sleuths will be mailed clues that lead them on a merry chase through the city with one culminating mystery using all the clues together.

To enter, get a team together (quickly!) and run down to the Explorations academy office with $12.50 a person. I’ve joined a team with the dedicated crew at Terra Organica and will be posting a few pictures from this adventure. All and all, a wholesome way to spend a month.

Yes, I will get back to covering politics and all that in the next couple of days, I am just a fan of mysteries and puzzles and had to share this rather unique event with you, my good readers.

Posted by: sweeneyblog | April 9, 2014

Roosevelt Neighborhood Pleads for Left Turns

Alabama St.

Alabama St.

The City Council chambers were packed with Roosevelt Neighborhood supporters voicing their objections to some of the proposed Alabama Street improvements. The city, thanks to a healthy potential grant for Alabama Street improvements, has planned a whole range of changes to our beloved main drag.

The central concern, as presented by the Public Works department, is safety. Alabama is the second most dangerous street in Bellingham (the first being the Guide-Meridian). The proposed changes would go from four lanes to three lanes and a turn lane between Iron and Dean St (after Cornwall but before you hit Trader Joes) and they would extend the two-land, one lane set up at the base of Alabama hill to Superior street. For the center section, from Trader Joes through to Woburn, they proposed a raised barrier that would prevent all left turns. This barrier is called a “c-curb”.

They also planned to install more elaborate crossings, called HAWK crossings (yes, HAWK is an acronym, no it does not matter what it stands for) and improve the existing intersections to handle the extra traffic.

An example of a C-Curb

An example of a C-Curb

Roosevelt neighborhood residents seemed rather positive about all the improvements except for one. That c-curb running down the central section of Alabama was a complete non-starter. Resident after resident took the microphone and pleaded against it. They talked about how much traffic it would force onto their quiet arterials (Orleans, St. Clair, etc).

They pointed to the added time and effort it would take if they were coming from the wrong direction to drive all the way down to one end of Alabama and then all the way back just to get to their driveway. David Dopps, the president of the neighborhood association pleaded that he liked all the rest of the improvements but could not support the c-curb. Another speaker suggested that the funding possibilities were “wagging the planning department” and drive the changes rather than safety.

Several residents raised the issue that this sort of improvement bisects their neighborhood, dividing their community and giving the impression of a busy highway rather than a neighborhood road.

HAWK Crossings

HAWK Crossings

Roosevelt has been a bit of a red-headed stepchild of our network of neighborhoods. It has a large rental population so there are fewer long-term residents of the neighborhood and it has a lower average income than Sunnyland or Barkley. However, the neighborhood still showed up in force to push back against such a drastic change to their community, and it appears they made an impact.

The council made no decision that night and will consider these improvements during a work session on the 21st but I spoke with Gene Knutson and he said that the c-curb is “dead on arrival”.

Posted by: sweeneyblog | April 4, 2014

Carpenters Union Ineffectively Protests School District

On my way to lunch today, I noticed three people holding up a giant sign in front of the Bellingham School District office saying, “Shame on Bellingham School District!”

Bellingham School District

Bellingham School District

Naturally, I asked the nature of their complaint. They said they were hired by the Carpenters Union, they couldn’t talk about it but they could give me a flyer. The flyer, featuring a rat chewing on a United States flag, detailed a complaint by the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters accusing the school district of considering, not accepting but considering, a bid by Van Beek Drywall for some work on Birchwood Elementary.

After accusing the school district of “Desecration of the American Way of Life,” the flyer elaborates on their complaint. “Van Beek Drywall does not meet area labor standards on all their projects, including providing or fully paying for family health care and pension, for all of their carpenter craft employees on all their jobs.” The flyer urges people to call Assistant Superintendent of Finance Operations, Ron Cowan and, “tell him that you want him to do all he can to see that only area labor standards contractors are used for all Bellingham School District projects.”

Right off the bat, there are three problems with this protest:

  1. It is spring break, therefore the chances of people seeing the protest are pretty slim since no one is in school.
  2. Did I mention that the school employees are on break? That includes Ron Cowan, the person we are supposed to call.
  3. When I called the Carpenters Union to get more information, their phone number lead to an unidentified voicemail. I’ve left two messages, no one has gotten back to me over the last four hours. If you are planning a protest, make sure there is someone near the phone when media gets wind of the story.

To track this down, I called the local office for the Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, located in Mount Vernon. No one picked up the phone and there was no answering machine so I called the regional office down in Oregon and got their Communications Director Ben Basom. He said, “We have been out there since August, obviously not full-time.” I asked how long this would continue, Basom said, “This is part of an ongoing discussion with the community about contractors like Van Beek who wish to undercut the area labor standards.”

I also spoke with the subject of the protest, Van Beek Drywall. Doug Van Beek, owner of Van Beek Drywall, said that yes, they have been protested on and off during the last couple of months. “We are a non-union company, we pay comparable wages and provide a benefits package without them getting a dues check. That’s what they are upset about.” He noted, “I’m not anti-union, they serve a purpose but in this case, they are wrong. We are the only non-union drywall company north of Everett that even provides a benefits package, why they are targeting us, I have no clue.”

No matter the subject of the dispute, I would hope the union would be a little more effective in their communication methods. I’ll publish more details as I get them.

UPDATE: The Bellingham Education Association distanced themselves from this protest on their facebook page

“This protest does not involve Bellingham Public Schools employees or any of our labor groups. It involves a subcontractor working on the Birchwood Elementary School construction project. Bellingham Public Schools is not involved in any labor disputes, regardless of what it says on the sign.
The group holding the sign has been hired by the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters in Kent, WA. They are upset because one of the subcontractors on the Birchwood project is a non-union shop. The subcontractor is not hired by the district. The district does not have a contract with the subcontractor in question. The district only has a contract with the general contractor (Colacurcio Construction in Blaine.)
The Birchwood project is a publicly bid project. This means the district is required by state law to give the work to the lowest responsible bidder, regardless of whether they are union or not.
It is important to know that the Birchwood project is covered by state prevailing wage requirements meaning that all workers on the job, even the non-union workers will be paid at wage rates determined by the state of Washington. The subcontractor does not determine the wage rates for the workers on this project, the wage rates are determined by the state. Further, the district monitors for compliance with this requirement as does the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.”


Hello Loyal Readers,

Another beautiful Friday morning, another round of the best little tidbits in town. Before we get into all that, I want to urge everyone who reads this to participate in my survey by clicking here.With the Capital Beat all wrapped up (you can see all my coverage of the state legislature here), it is time to look to what I can do next.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you have noticed that enrollment in private insurance through the health care exchange is now closed. As a result of the Affordable Care Act, over 7.1 million people received health insurance. The original projections aimed for 7 million enrollees so it looks like the law is right on track. If you need a little levity, click here to enjoy the complete meltdown Glenn Beck had when he got the news. It is worth it.

J.J. Donovan, 1925

J.J. Donovan, 1925

Also closed recently, the Vanishing Ice exhibit at the Whatcom Museum. If you didn’t get a chance to visit, it was an artistic exploration of climate change over history and drew news coverage from the Smithsonian. As part of the exhibit, attendees were able to send their wishes to the planet. These were compiled by artist Seiko Purdue and can be seen in an adorable video here. Of course, if you are looking for a great exhibit to check out, they have “Treasures from the Trunk: The Story of J.J. Donovan” currently showing. It is a goldmine of local history. Full Disclosure: I am on the Whatcom Museum Board of Trustees.

Finally, the sheriff’s department finally settled the lawsuit launched by Paul Murphy last year, paying Murphy $300,000 for wrongful termination. My original coverage is here and a number of local news sources, including the Herald, wrote about this when it was settled earlier this week. Here’s some interesting tidbits about the story that I can add.

The central charge of the lawsuit was that Sheriff Elfo fired Deputy Paul Murphy because Murphy supported Elfo’s opponent, Detective Steve Harris for sheriff. Murphy ran a facebook page called, “Boot Bill Elfo,” now titled “Bill Elfo’s Scribe,” which aired a great deal of dirt from within the department, including sexual harassment charges that were allegedly swept under the table, and ridiculously photoshopped images. I’ve known Elfo was fan of facebook since last time I did a public records request and found a screenshot of my facebook page in his inbox.

Sheriff Bill Elfo

Sheriff Bill Elfo

Elfo contends Murphy took home a data drive (and never returned it) and inappropriately altered the settings on a county computer. After Elfo won reelection in 2011, Murphy was fired and Harris bumped down from detective to deputy. Murphy sued in response to his termination and here we are.

Obviously, the lawyers on the sheriff’s side took a look at the case and decided to settle. Both Murphy and Elfo are claiming it was too expensive to go to trial, which may be true but only one of them walked away with a check. I think both sides can breathe a sigh of relief that this messy and ugly matter is firmly tucked behind us.

Alright, I promised an update on the Goldfogel story but that will have to wait till next week. In the meantime, please take my readers survey and enjoy your weekend.

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