Port commission approves ballot resolution on expansion, but won't let voters decide at-large question

Whatcom County voters will decide in November if the three-member Port of Bellingham commission should add two new elected seats.

Port commissioners voted 3-0 during their June 19 meeting to place the resolution on the ballot.

However, a second resolution, which would’ve allowed voters to decide if the seats should be elected at large, was voted down, with commission president Scott Walker and commissioner Jim Jorgensen in opposition.

Both opposing commissioners said they thought it would be better to have the port draw new districts for the added seats if voters approve the expansion.

“I believe strongly that if we’re going to have five commissioners—and that is before the voters—we should have five districts and not two at large,” Walker said.

The expansion measure was spearheaded by a citizen-led group, which began a petition drive in April seeking to have a ballot initiative in the August primary election that asked if the commission should add two at-large seats.

After agreeing to instead place the measure on the ballot for the November general election, port commissioners dealt with conflicting arguments over the legality of the initiative’s language.

Representatives with the Whatcom County Auditor’s office, as well as port attorney Fred Chmelik, worried that the proposed measure could potentially violate Washington state’s single-subject rule for initiatives.

If a state court found the measure involved two separate topics—one asking if the commission should expand and the other asking if the new seats should be at large—it could potentially strike down the measure even if it passed by popular vote.

The commission decided to redraw the initiative, splitting it into two parts.

Members of the petition group did not want the measure divided, saying dual initiatives could confuse voters.

Tip Johnson, an expansion advocate, said he thought the original measure’s language would’ve stood up to legal challenges.

He said splitting up the measure was a clear sign the commission was trying to stop the initiative from succeeding before it reached voters.

“The hodgepodge you cooked up today is obviously designed to produce failure,” Johnson told commissioners. “As proposed, I think this is a shocking example of bad-faith government, and one that will and should be remembered.”

Not everyone supported expanding the commission.

Darren Williams, a spokesperson for the Local 7 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said his organization opposed having a five-member port commission.

Williams said such a move would not be the best direction for the port itself or for local industries that do business with the port.

“I don’t really see this as a move forward,” Williams said. “I think it will create more of a political deadlock than it will solve.”

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