At their 3 p.m. Tuesday, June 19 meeting, Port of Bellingham commissioners will consider two ballot measures for the November election that would give Whatcom County voters a chance to decide whether to add two persons to the existing three-person port commission — and how those two new commissioners would be chosen.
At their June 5 session, commissioners had been poised to approve a single ballot measure that would have asked voters to approve the addition of two new commissioners that would be elected at large, meaning that anyone who lives anywhere in the countywide port district would be eligible to run for the new seats.
But Whatcom County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Royce Buckingham told commissioners there was a chance that a court could rule such a ballot measure invalid, on grounds that it contained two distinct issues in one ballot measure: whether to expand the port commission, and how those two new commissioners should be elected.
At the same meeting, Blaine City Council member Ken Oplinger told commissioners that people who live outside Bellingham had misgivings about adding two at-large members to the port commission. Oplinger — who is also president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry — said Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen and Sumas Mayor Bob Bromley had asked him to convey those concerns to commissioners. Oplinger said officials from the smaller cities would prefer not to see a port commission with five Bellingham residents.
The June 19 port commission agenda contains two proposed measures for submission to voters. The first would expand the commission to five members. The second states that if the commission is expanded, the two new members should be chosen at large.
In a Friday, June 15 interview, Port Commissioner Michael McAuley said he expects to recommend that his fellow commissioners put the first measure on the ballot, but not the second.
McAuley said that approach will make the whole election process less confusing, while also making it likely that at least one port commissioner would be from outside Bellingham and more in touch with concerns of voters in rural areas and smaller cities.
If voters simply approve commission expansion without specifying how the expanded commission would be structured, state law stipulates that the new commission would have five commissioners residing in five distinct districts. A primary election round, if necessary, would include only the voters in the district, but the two port commission candidates emerging from a district-only primary would then face all county voters in the general election.
That’s how the Whatcom County Council works now, but the seven-member council has just three districts. Two council members residing in each of the three districts are elected to four-year terms, while the seventh member serves at large.
As of now, all three port commission districts are elected in districts identical to the three county council districts, running in a district-only primary race when necessary and running countywide in the general election.
But that approach won’t work for a five-member panel, so all-new port district boundaries would have to be drawn for a five-member port commission.
McAuley said he’s confident that this could be done quickly enough to allow candidates for the two new port commission positions before voters in 2013, meaning they would take office in 2014.