Port officials agree to push ballot measure that may expand commission to five members

The Port of Bellingham may be put under control of five elected officials instead of three after this year’s general election.

Port commissioners voted 2-1 May 14 to ask Whatcom County Auditor Debbie Adelstein to place a resolution on the 2012 ballot adding two new “at-large” positions to the governing body.

The vote was in response to a petition drive already underway to put a similar measure on the primary ballot in August.

Organizers of the drive wanted voters to decide in August whether to expand the commission, then elect the two at-large commissioners during the general election in November.

Instead, according to the resolution, county residents will vote on the expansion in November, moving the actual election of new commissioners to a later date.

If voters approve the measure, the new at-large candidates could run for for office regardless of where they live in Whatcom County.

The port’s three current commissioners, all of which represent one of three commission districts, must live within the district they run for.

By asking commissioners to place the expansion on the ballot through a resolution, petition organizers hoped to avoid the rush to gather enough valid signatures to get the measure in the primary.

“We would like to know if we need to mount this campaign,” Tip Johnson, one of the organizers, said before commissioners voted.

The commission has found itself in a mire of controversy after accepting the resignation of the port’s former executive director, Charlie Sheldon, in March.

Critics of the move say Sheldon was forced out due to personal spats with port staff, as well as with commission president Scott Walker.

In his comments to the audience, Walker said he was aware the impetus for the expansion was fueled in part by scrutiny of the handling of Sheldon’s resignation.

Walker said he wasn’t opposed to placing the measure on the ballot, but thought it should be done through a petition drive rather than a resolution from the commissioners.

He also said he was unconvinced having five commissioners on the board instead of three would lead to smoother governing process.

“There’s just no proof either way that you’re going to make better decisions,” Walker said.

But proponents of the expansion said with Whatcom County’s growing population and the increase in the number of projects under port control, moving to a five-member commission would allow residents more say in the process.

“Five people won’t guarantee better decisions, but it will guarantee better representation,” Bellingham resident Doug Starcher said.

Commissioner Michael McAuley, who made the motion to place the measure on the general election ballot, agreed with the idea of allowing voters to decide on expanding the commission but didn’t think it was wise to place it on the ballot during the August primary.

“I would be more comfortable from a governance standpoint of having it in the general election instead of in the primary election,” McAuley said. “It’ll have much more time before the voters and more voters would show up.”

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