Ballot measure to expand Port of Bellingham commission faces legal doubts

A proposed ballot measure to add two at-large positions on the Port of Bellingham commission will be redrawn after commissioners heard it could potentially violate state election rules.

Commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of the measure in May, a response to a citizen petition drive already underway to expand the governing board from three members to five.

But during a June 5 meeting, commission president Scott Walker said the port had been told by the Whatcom County Auditor’s office there may be legal problems with the measure’s language.

The concern hinges on whether the measure asks two different questions—one concerning the commission’s expansion and the other asking if new positions should be elected at-large rather than out of legislative districts—or if both aspects can be taken together as one.

Washington state’s single-subject rule for initiatives requires ballot initiatives only address one question. If voters passed the expansion measure in its current form and a state court later found it contained two questions instead of one, the measure could be struck down.

Whatcom County Deputy Prosecutor Royce Buckingham, who spoke on behalf of the county auditor, said when it came to divining how a court would rule on such an issue, the answer was unclear.

Buckingham told commissioners he could not offer them legal advice on the matter. The final call would have to be theirs.

“If it goes to a court,” Buckingham said, “I’ve got to tell you I can’t decide if a court will say it is or it isn’t.”

No mention of the commission’s discussion on the ballot measure was on the meeting’s public agenda, a fact that incensed supporters of the expansion.

John Servais, an expansion proponent and publisher of the blog Northwest Citizen, said he had to confirm the commission would take up the issue again by calling commissioner Michael McAuley.

Keeping the topic off the agenda was typical of what Servais called the “standard practice” of the commission in recent years.

“Commissioners, you have broken your faith with the citizens of Whatcom County,” he said. “This is shameful.”

Former state senator Harriet Spanel, another expansion proponent, said she hoped the three commissioners would plan better in the future and release revised meeting agendas if important issues were scheduled for discussion at the last minute.

She told the elected officials they could’ve avoided angering constituents if they ensured port business was handled in as open a forum as possible.

“You have a responsibility to be open and honest, and I hope you will do so next time,” Spanel said.

Expansion supporter Tip Johnson was less forgiving with his comments.

Johnson launched accusations of political meddling at port attorney Fred Chmelik, saying the lawyer had misrepresented state law to commissioners when they voted in May to support the expansion measure.

He also said Chmelik had been seen at the county auditor’s office earlier that week, suggesting the attorney was trying to throw legal wrenches in the ballot measure’s path.

Chmelik did not respond to the accusations during the meeting.

Rob Fix, the port’s interim executive, defended the attorney, saying he had instructed Chmelik to investigate possible legal issues with the ballot measure at the auditor’s office.

Since they heard back from the auditor late Monday, just before the June 5 meeting, Fix said there was not enough time to place the matter on the meeting’s agenda.

“There was never any intent to get this dismissed from the agenda,” Fix said. “There’s no conspiracy here. It’s really that simple.”

Johnson said the commission was “resorting to lies and running around in the dark.”

“I think you’re proving our point that two more commissioners are needed, and soon,” he said.

He was also adamant the ballot measure did not contain two separate questions.

Exchanges between supporters of the expansion and commission president Walker grew increasingly heated as the discussion wore on, with Walker at one point threatening to put the meeting in recess if outbursts from the audience didn’t stop.

Commissioner McAuley said the commission was firmly behind getting the expansion measure on the November ballot, but he warned if the measure wouldn’t hold up in court they were just wasting their time.

“If this is going to fly, let’s try to make it fly,” McAuley said.

Walker also said the commission is committed to putting the expansion question before voters in the fall. The president cast the lone “nay” vote when the commission adopted the measure in May.

Changing the electoral landscape

In earlier meetings, commissioners grappled with the question of whether the new positions should be elected at-large or if new legislative districts should be drawn up for the port to ensure representation from a broad geographic area.

Commissioner Jim Jorgensen, who lives in Blaine, has raised concerns over the lack of representation for people living outside of Bellingham if the new commissioners are elected at-large.

Though voters in Whatcom County cast votes for all positions on the commission regardless of which district they live in, commissioners must reside in the district they represent. An at-large commissioner would be unbound by that restriction.

Ken Oplinger, a Blaine City Council member and the president of the Bellingham/Whatcom County Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the commission he supported the expansion but had concerns over how it would be implemented.

Oplinger said two at-large positions could mean less representation for non-Bellingham residents in the county.

The commission agreed to introduce a redrawn ballot measure, possibly by splitting the measure up into multiple pieces, during their next meeting on June 19.

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