Bellingham is a First Class City and has a Mayor-Council form of government, and the general grant of municipal power is provided in the City Charter (copies of the Charter are available in the Finance Department). Voters elect the nonpartisan, part-time Council of seven persons. The City of Bellingham is divided into six (6) wards as nearly equal in population and geographically compact as possible. You can determine the ward in which you live by the last digit in your precinct number, i.e., if your precinct number is 81, you are in Ward 1, or if your precinct number is 94, you are in Ward 4. You may also use the Whatcom County precinct map to find the ward you live in and the name of your City Council representative.
Six Council positions carry four-year terms, and the At-Large Council position is a two-year term. Terms of Council members are staggered so that three (3) ward Council members and the Council member-at-Large are elected at each municipal general election by majority vote from the City at large. Council members must be registered voters of the City and a resident of the City for one year next preceding his/her election. Council members cannot hold any other office or employment within the City government. The principal job of a Council member is to make policy for the governance of the City and its populace. The principal forum for local government policy-making is the City Council meeting. The Council does not administer or become involve~ in the day-to-day administration of city affairs. A policy is a course of action for a community. Policy-making often takes the form of passing ordinances or resolution at City Council meetings. After policy decisions are made by the legislative body, the Mayor has the administrative task of implementing the policies. The distinction between formulation and implementation may not always be clear, necessitating open communication between legislators and administrators.
The Council does not make policy in a vacuum. Councils rely on ideas from many sources, including the Council staff, citizens’ groups, advisory committees and various local chambers and organizations. It is the Council’s responsibility to consider the merits of each idea and then approve, modify, or reject it. In doing so, Council members analyze community needs, program alternatives and available resources. Decisions often take the form of an ordinance or resolution, although it may take the form of a rule, regulation, motion, or order. The Comprehensive Plan is a powerful policy tool; the annual budget is one of the strongest policy-making tools, and both are adopted by ordinance. The Council has all the legislative powers and authority allowed cities in the State of Washington. The Council has general ordinance-making powers and control over the City finances and properties. In order to perform these functions, the Council:
- Sets the Regular Meeting schedule for the following year by passing a Resolution approving the dates.
- Meets at least twice monthly with additional meetings scheduled as needed.
- Holds special meetings, work sessions, and public hearings as needed;
- Holds committee meetings and attends board meetings as need dictates (Council members serve on various committee and board assignments to receive more in-dept input and data from the citizens and City staff members. Based on the information received, committee/board members make recommendations to the other Council members on the best avenue to follow.)
- Legislates laws as needs dictate to allow the staff to efficiently operate the daily business of the City; (Council provides effective representation of the citizens of the City of Bellingham by carefully weighing all input and alternatives prior to passing legislation either in the form of ordinances or resolutions.)
- Adopts an annual budget to meet the needs of the citizens within the resources available; and (Council receives from the Mayor a preliminary annual budget and after public hearings and staff presentations, when necessary, Council passes a final annual budget that will most effectively meet the needs of the citizens within the parameters of the resources available.)
- Establishes all policies for the efficient operation of the City; and
- Adopts Robert’s Rules of Order, Revised, for all parliamentary rules not otherwise provided by the Charter.
City Council meetings, special meetings, work sessions and committee meetings are open to the public. The Bellingham City Council Regular Meeting begins at 7 p.m. on scheduled Mondays in the Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall, 210 Lottie Street. During a regular council meeting, you may:
- Listen and watch
- Present a new issue or raise a concern under the “Public Comment Period” section of the agenda
- Speak during a public hearing
You may find that the Council moves swiftly in taking action on some agenda items since it has previously reviewed most of the topics on the agenda for its regular session at a committee meeting held the afternoon prior to the 7 p.m. meeting.
Generally, Council does not meet on fifth Mondays of the month, and when Monday is a holiday it meets on Tuesday instead. Often times Council will recess from meetings for one or two weeks during the summer.
During regular sessions, the Bellingham City Council may take action in several ways.
The Council may adopt an ordinance (a local law of a municipal corporation, prescribing general rules of conduct). Ordinances may be used for a variety of purposes, including administrative actions such as establishing offices and setting salaries or they may be used for actions that control the conduct of the public. An ordinance is a legislative enactment, within its-sphere, as much as an act of the state legislature.
Final passage occurs no earlier than at the next regular council meeting following introduction, except as otherwise provided in the City Charter. Ordinances usually become valid within ten days of final passage, and they are published in the City’s official newspaper, the Bellingham Herald, within five days after becoming valid. Most ordinances take effect 15 days after the date of their final passage. Most ordinances become part of the City’s Municipal Code book. The Council may amend or repeal an ordinance by adopting another ordinance.
The Council may, on the other hand, pass a resolution which is typically an act that is less solemn or formal than an ordinance, and may be no more than an expression of the opinion of the official body. Legislation must be enacted via ordinances. Deciding in any particular case what constitutes legislation may require reference to case law, but the general guiding principle is that “actions relating to subjects of a permanent and general character are usually regarded as legislative, and those providing for subjects of a temporary and special character are regarded as administrative . . .”1
Business is brought before the Council by motions, which constitute a formal procedure for taking actions. To make a motion, a member must first be recognized by the presiding officer. After the member has made a motion (and after the motion is seconded if required), the chair must then restate it or rule it out of order, then call for discussion. Most motions require a seconding motion, although there are some exceptions such as nominations, points of order, questions of privilege, and calls for the order of the day.
You can also attend Council’s committee meetings Monday afternoons or as otherwise published. On an as-needed basis, committees meet informally to do the preliminary “spade work” on problems, and the committees serve as advisory boards to the remainder of the Council. Usually, a City of Bellingham staff member, or occasionally an outside expert, presents committee members with information in response to their questions. In most cases, and as time allows, public participation is welcome. Council may establish its committees by ordinance or resolution, and depending on the role of the committee, the Open Public Meetings Act may apply to committee meetings. Council members cannot take action on city business during committee meetings. Formal votes may only be taken by the full Council during a Regular Meeting or a Special Meeting.
Council agendas are available for free at meetings.cob.org five days prior to a regular meeting. You can peruse a hard copy of the agenda packet at the Finance Desk at City Hall or the Reference Desk at the Central Library. See the agenda for exact committee times.
The agenda lists the periods for citizen comments. You can address the Council at each regular council meeting during the “Public Comment Period” near the beginning of each meeting and during any public hearing.
The agenda lists the business items that will be considered at the evening meeting and the order in which they will be discussed. The agenda also includes possible actions the Council may wish to take on each item, however, the Council is not restricted to the actions listed on the agenda. The agenda also often contains a consent agenda which is a tool used to streamline council meeting procedure by collecting routine, non-controversial items into a group whereby all are passed with a single motion and vote. Commonly, no debate is allowed on the consent agenda or on any item included in it; however, Council members may remove items from the consent agenda for separate consideration.
Public hearings are required by Washington State statutes on a number of subjects that cities regulate including zoning, annexations, appeals, improvement districts and franchises.
When necessary, the City Council may recess to an executive session. Executive Sessions are portions of regular or special meetings that may be closed to the public, designed for consideration of specific issues, where public disclosure would harm individual interests or legitimate interests of the governing body. During these closed sessions, the Council by law may only discuss certain items of business such as personnel matters, property acquisition and disposition, and advice from legal counsel on litigation concerns.
All council business — except for executive sessions — is conducted in public, and citizens are welcome to watch and listen.
The City Council welcomes participation in all public meetings. Arrangements for a sign language interpreter, hearing assistance and other assistance can be made by calling the Council Office.
When you feel strongly about a public issue or a local concern, the Council encourages you to share your information and thoughts with them. If you are unable to attend a meeting or would rather not give testimony at the meeting, you are encouraged to mail, fax, or email a letter which would be made a part of the official record.
To speak during the Public Comment Period, you do not have to sign up in advance, and you may talk on any item and/or concern not scheduled for a public hearing. See our public comment guidelines (PDF) for details about conduct and procedures.
If you want to speak on the topic at a public hearing scheduled for that evening, you must comment during the public hearing portion of the meeting, however, you need not sign up in advance.
When you talk with the Council, step up to one of the microphones and identify yourself by stating your name. You are not required to give this information but it is helpful for the Council to know who you are. Be sure your microphone is on and speak into it clearly (it is not necessary to try to adjust the microphone to your height). During the Public Comment Period, your comments are limited to three minutes. These are guidelines to help Council members hear as many different viewpoints as possible in the limited time available. If you are speaking for a group, you must tell the Council how the group developed the position that your are presenting.
If previous speakers have already made the comments you wish to make, feel free simply to identify yourself and indicate your agreement with what has already been said.
During the Public Comment Periods, citizens have called the Council’s attention to a wide variety of issues concerning the City. Citizen’s views have ranged from concerns about parking in front of their homes to improving wheelchair accessibility throughout the City.
Remote Meetings Update:
Per Washington State Proclamation 20-28, in-person attendance at meetings is prohibited at this time. Council members have been participating in meetings remotely through an online web-based meeting platform.
Council meetings are streamed live via the City’s website at meetings.cob.org and on the City’s YouTube channel. Meetings are broadcast in high definition on BTV on Comcast channel 321, and in standard definition on Comcast channel 10. Members of the public who do not have cable or Internet access may contact the City Council office to receive phone numbers in order to listen to the meeting via telephone.
Anyone wishing to comment during scheduled public hearings or during the regular public comment period of Regular City Council meetings is invited to do so. Advanced testimony by mail, email, and telephone is accepted by sending comments to the Council Office, 210 Lottie Street, firstname.lastname@example.org, or (360) 778-8200.
A public hearing offers you a formal opportunity to give your views to the Council on the subject of the hearing. To give testimony, step up to one of the microphones and identify yourself by stating your name and address for the record. You are not required to give this information but it is helpful for the Council to know who you are. When you talk to the Council during a public hearing, Council members, staff and the audience will remain silent. After the last person has spoken, the hearing will be closed. The City Council will then discuss and make a decision on the issue.
The audience may not comment during Council’s deliberations unless a Council member requests more information from a citizen.
Again, you are also encouraged to submit your written comments on the subject to the Council Secretary or City Clerk before the meeting so they can be included in the record and distributed to the Council.
The powers of initiative and referendum are means by which citizens can impact legislation directly. Initiative is the power of the public to initiate ordinances by petition. Referendum is the means by which the public can have enacted ordinances referred to them for review. These powers of the public are not universally available, and are only available in first class cities. Initiative and referendum procedures are controlled by the City Charter.
If your call to a City department does not resolve an issue to your satisfaction, then a call to your City Council representative is in order.
You may call the City Council to request a current listing of council members which includes their names, addresses, telephone numbers and terms, as well as a listing of other council assignments and meeting dates.