June 17, 2021
Efficiency, diversity, integrity: how many port commissioners to best serve Whatcom County?
Alex Meacham

The Acid Ball at Waypoint Park dwarfs the waxing moon on a summer evening. The waterfront park occupies land formerly used as an industrial site during much of the last 100 years and is one of many properties owned or managed by the Port of Bellingham. The port acquired the property in 2005, and dedicated a public easement for the park to the City of Bellingham in 2017.

photo: Amy Nelson © 2021
June 17, 2021
Efficiency, diversity, integrity: how many port commissioners to best serve Whatcom County?
Alex Meacham

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In Whatcom County, five candidates are vying for two of three Port of Bellingham Board of Commissioner positions and 13 candidates for four of seven county council positions in the primary election. Both governing bodies represent the same number of voters in the same geographic area, and some local voters are once again raising the question of whether the area would be better served with more port commissioners.

Among questions being discussed: Does a smaller number of elected representatives increase or decrease efficiency? Does a larger number increase diversity and equity in representation?

This year’s primary election for Whatcom County Council and Bellingham City Council has brought out a diverse slate of candidates who may change the racial and gender composition of these governing bodies.

The port primary election represents less diversity, with four men and one woman, all white, on the ballot. Within researchable history and memory of port representatives, port commissioners all have been white men with the exception of one woman, Ginny Benton

For the public’s stake

One argument for increasing the number of port commissioners to five is that it would allow two commissioners to meet or communicate via phone or email to discuss port business without the meeting required to be public — an expediency, with no opportunity for official actions.

The Open Public Meetings Act requires that any time a majority of government officials gather together, the public must be notified ahead of time.

With the current three-person board, if two port commissioners attend a meeting or even a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the same time, that constitutes a majority. Advance public notice must be given because port business might be discussed. 

According to incumbent Port commission president Ken Bell, who is running for reelection in District 2, a three-commissioner board might be less efficient but increases visibility of the port’s activities. “To lose integrity over expediency is not the way I think local government should run,” Bell said.

Diverse voices

Commission vice president Michael Shepard, up for reelection in District 1, contends that increasing the number of commissioners would allow for broader representation of experiences and skills on the commission — a viewpoint also expressed in a number of public comments during port meetings in recent years. “With greater representation, we get to bring in more diverse voices from the important economic sectors in our community and other aspects of representation,” Shepard said.

Guy Occhiogrosso, president/CEO of the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce, said that he thinks moving to five commissioners is generally a good idea, but that the current port commission is doing a good enough job that it isn’t necessary right now. He said that if the port transitioned to a five-person commission, it would be important that their districts match the county’s districts, and that only people who live in that district vote for those positions. 

“In theory, if everybody countywide can vote for all the positions, then you can start to diminish certain voices,” Occhiogrosso said. “I do think it’s important that we have, you know, what I would consider rural representation in our bodies that are serving rural areas, because it is a different mentality.”

Of Whatcom County’s seven councilmembers, five must live in the districts they represent and can only be voted on by people in their district, and two hold at-large positions, meaning anyone in the county can vote on their positions. (Ed.: Corrected June 18, 2021; county council members are elected by voters only from within the council district from which the candidate was nominated, in both the primary and general elections.)

Austin Chapin, who is running against Bell, proposes moving to four districts and commissioners, with one at-large commissioner whom everyone in the county could vote for. That number could lead to tie votes. 

Kelly Krieger, who also is challenging Bell, favors increasing the number of districts and commissioners to five. Krieger said that if elected, she would wait for citizens to put the issue on the ballot by petition, rather than bringing it up as a commissioner.

How many is the right number?

The port and county each had three districts until 2016, when Whatcom County voted to increase to five districts and two at-large positions. The port remaining with three districts creates potential voter confusion, according to commissioners Bell and Shepard and candidate Krieger. Confusion could also arise if county district boundaries are adjusted based on 2020 census counts. 

Washington state law advises that a county’s port commission should increase from three members to five when a county reaches 500,000 people. As of 2019 census data, Whatcom County has a population of about 230,000.

But population isn’t the only consideration for establishing port districts or the number of commissioners on those boards. Port districts may manage a wide range of properties, including airports, marinas, parks, marine or land preserves and retail space, and may play a lead role in economic development.

Spokane, Snohomish, Pierce and King counties have populations of more than 500,000 but only King and Pierce have five-member commissions. Snohomish has three commissioners, and Spokane County has no port commission. 

Skagit County has a population of 130,000 and two port commissions: Skagit and Anacortes, with three and five commissioners, respectively.

In San Juan County — with a population of approximately 18,000 — the Port of Friday Harbor and the Port of Lopez have three commissioners and the Port of Orcas has five.

Past proposals — rejections

Putting a measure before voters to increase the number of districts and port commissioners requires a vote by a majority of commissioners or a petition signed by 8% of Whatcom County voters in the last gubernatorial election. 

Port of Bellingham and Whatcom County Public Utility District No. 1 commissioner districts adhere to the same boundaries (above), while the Whatcom County Council is now arranged into five districts.

At a June 19, 2012, port commission meeting, a ballot measure to increase to five port districts was unanimously approved by former commissioners Scott Walker, Jim Jorgensen and Michael McAuley. Another measure to designate the two additional positions as at-large was voted down by commissioners Walker and Jorgensen.

The measure to increase districts narrowly lost, 49.19% to 50.81%, in the general election. 

The effort to increase was supported by Harriet Spanel, a former 40th District state senator, and Ken Hertz, former Bellingham mayor. They wrote that “with five commissioners there can be a wider representation of our county citizens for ideas and community values.”

The effort was opposed by Daren Williams and Leroy Rhode, longshoremen who wrote the statement against the measure in the voters’ guide, on behalf of The Committee Against Proposition #1. According to their statement, expanding the port of Bellingham commission would mean an increase in salary, “shutting the public out of much of the discussion,” increased difficulty in scheduling time to meet with a commissioner and a possible increase in “discretionary authority of the Port’s Executive Director” because action would take longer with a five-person commission. 

In a rebuttal, Hertz and Spanel said that “the cost [of two additional commissioners] will be one-fourth of 1% of the port’s annual operation and capital budget.” There was no rebuttal of the “For” statement by the measure’s opponents in the voters’ guide. 

Hertz advocated again, at a Nov. 5, 2019, port commission meeting for expanding the commission. He said that the port has become more complex than three commissioners could handle and that it needed greater representation due to the vastness of the county. He also said that, “unless the commission unanimously supports five commissioners, it’s going to be a very, very difficult sell.”

A ballot measure to increase the number of districts was discussed at a July 14, 2020, port commission meeting, but no action was taken.

Today’s thinking

Bell says he sees the benefits and drawbacks of expanding the commission as equal. “There’s probably been no issue brought before the port … that I’ve spent more time on,” Bell said. “When it came time to decide whether or not that was a good idea, it just didn’t seem worth the risk.”

He sees the port’s inability to have meetings outside of the public eye as a benefit, rather than a drawback. He worries that if non-public discussions happen, “decisions can be made completely before the public even knows that there was an issue,” Bell said. 

For candidate Krieger, “I think that the way you manage that is … if two or three commissioners are going to go have a meeting, it is a committee and it’s recorded. There’s no reason those records can’t be public.”

According to Shepard, “The port has such a broad mission that it is useful to have solid representation,” and that, for the Port of Bellingham, there’s great opportunity to have different skillsets than most ports have. 

“We’ve never had somebody on the port commission who is, say, a farmer… we have not had other minorities necessarily represented on the port commission, and with greater representation, we get to bring in more diverse voices from the important economic sectors in our community and other aspects of representation,” Shepard said.

For Bell, however, “if the idea is to base your vote on gender, age or some other identity and not to look at the record of the port, I have no words. The effectiveness of this port has been off the charts.”

At the July 14 meeting last year, commissioner Bobby Briscoe said “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.”

The Port of Bellingham Commission meets twice monthly. Most commission votes in recent years have been unanimous. 

Is it politics?

Bell believes that the issue of port districts has been coming up in Bellingham recently because the port is becoming more politicized. “I think the fact that it’s one of the last bastions of independence in the county makes it an irritant to the political parties,” Bell said. 

Port commissioner positions are nonpartisan. “One of the reasons I’m running without a party is I think both parties want to control all bodies,” Bell said.

Bell participated in the Whatcom County Republican Party’s 2021 Lincoln Day Dinner in April, telling attendees that the Port is “one of the few places where we can actually have an impact, primarily because there’s just three of us, and it only takes two votes to make something happen, so we’ve got an advantage there.”

Briscoe was censured in 2019 by the Whatcom Democratic Party but not decertified as a Democratic candidate. 

Shepard is certified as a 2021 candidate by the Whatcom Democratic Party.

Driving the local economy

The Port of Bellingham administers Bellingham International Airport, marinas, marine terminals and real estate holdings. Its mission is to “promote sustainable economic development, optimize transportation gateways, and manage publicly owned land and facilities to benefit Whatcom County.” It is the lead agency in Whatcom County for economic development.

The port anticipates a cash flow of $55.4 million in 2021, with revenues from rent, taxes, grants, reimbursements and other sources, and expenditures of $53.9 million for operating expenses, environmental cleanup efforts, principal and interest on outstanding debts, and capital investments, among other uses, according to the 2020 budget.

Some of the most significant capital projects in the 2020 budget include structural upgrades, repairs and dredging at the Bellingham Shipping Terminal, renovations to the airport, renovations at Squalicum harbor, real estate permitting improvements and renovations, and public recreation space improvements around Whatcom County. 

(Ed.: Commissioner Bobby Briscoe and District 1 candidate John Huntley were contacted for this article but did not respond. Salish Current attempted to reach Darren Williams, but contact information could not be found.)

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