No Whatcom vote this November on increase in Port commission members

The Port of Bellingham Board of Commissioners, (from left) Bobby Briscoe, Ken Bell and Michael Shepard, are not moving to initiate a vote this year on increasing the number of commissioners from three to five. The proposal has been a recurring discussion before boards in past years as well. (Credit: Port of Bellingham)

By Mike Sato

— Port of Bellingham commissioners took no action at their July 14 meeting on allowing Whatcom County voters to decide whether to expand the commission to five members from the current three, effectively closing the issue for now.

The idea of an expanded commission was before the board last November, said Port executive director Rob Fix. The proposal could be put to voters as a result of either a resolution by the commissioners or a petition from the voters.

To be on the ballot this November, the commission would need to have enacted a resolution by Aug. 4. The commission’s next regular meeting is Aug. 11.

Among the commissioners, Michael Shepard said he was supportive of putting the measure on the ballot, Bobby Briscoe was strongly against putting it on the ballot and Ken Bell said he understood both sides of the argument but at this time could not support putting it on the November ballot.

In public comment, independent community development planner Paul Schissler said a five-member commission is an important issue deserving consideration, and encouraged providing enough time and education to allow voters to make an informed decision.

The proposal has been discussed at port commission meetings numerous times over the years, and was on the ballot most recently in 2012.

The Port of Bellingham’s three districts encompass all voters in the county. The Port is a leader in Whatcom’s economic development strategy, partnering with cities, the County and other organizations in projects throughout the county.

Increasing the number of commissioners from three to five is “a good idea,” Shepard said. “It’s something that constituents have asked for.” He said it would allow for greater diversity in gender, ethnicity and geography, and that having five board members would provide greater opportunity for cooperation and coordination. 

“At this time of the COVID pandemic,” Shepard said, we need well-functioning government, and the need for coordination and collaboration has become apparent to me.”

Briscoe said his views against an expanded commission have been expressed in the past and haven’t changed. “I don’t know how we’d represent the people any better than we’re doing now. I hear this is the best commission in Port of Bellingham history. We’re doing a good job and I don’t see the need for two more people.”

Briscoe said he’s never been contacted since his election by people wanting more commissioners. “It’s a special interest that keeps pushing for this.”

If people want this, Briscoe said, then people should collect 10% of the signatures of voters in the last election. “It should be up to the public if we want to change the government, not up to the government. I want to hear from people, everyday people, working-class people, not a special-interest group.”

Bell said that looking at a larger commission was a part of his campaign promise and he has consistently asked people about the pros and cons of five commissioners. “I’m in the middle at this juncture,” he said, “and not supportive at this time.”

“I believe we are about as balanced and fair as it gets,” he said. “We’re in a time of tumult and I can’t support putting something like this on the ballot. It should come from a petition.”

Shepard thanked fellow commissioners for their comments and closed the discussion.

Mike Sato compiles environmental news items for Salish Sea News and Weather and periodically blogs for Salish Sea Communications. He is the author of The Price of Taming a River: The Decline of Puget Sound’s Duwamish/Green Waterway. He resides in Bellingham and on Lopez Island.