Battle over signatures: Hearing set in legal challenge in Bellingham mayor’s race

A hearing is scheduled June 9 in the court case filed by a Bellingham man who hopes to join the slate of candidates opposing Mayor Seth Fleetwood in the Aug. 1 primary.

In addition, staff at the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office on Friday were to give a second review to 268 of the challenged signatures on Joel Johnson’s nominating petitions to be included on the primary election ballot, according to a notice posted on the Auditor’s Office website.

Johnson has filed a Superior Court injunction preventing Auditor Diana Bradrick from finalizing the names of the candidates for Bellingham mayor until all of his signatures are validated.

He is alleging irregularities in the process of counting and verifying the voter registration status of 2,506 signatures on his nominating petitions.

In an email, Johnson told The Bellingham Herald that he’s tried to meet with Bradrick to discuss the issue.

“The actions posted on the auditor’s site do not represent the process that I have proposed in the preliminary injunction and ultimately I plan on following whatever orders the court establishes in the pursuit of justice. Although I may exercise my right to observe these activities, it does not in any way endorse the auditor’s continuing verification under the previous conditions,” Johnson told The Herald.

“I am asking members of our community to show up (at the June 9 hearing) and stand in solidarity as I speak truth to power and fight for a fair petition verification process. Not only for myself, but for all petitions and initiatives to come,’ Johnson said.

Bradrick wasn’t immediately available for comment. Earlier this week, she told The Herald that she was advised not to discuss the issue because of the injunction.

That injunction, however, could delay the layout and printing of Whatcom County’s primary ballot, which must be mailed to overseas voters on June 16 and to Whatcom County residents on July 12 in Washington state’s “top two” primary, where the two candidates with the most votes advance to the Nov. 7 general election.

All voting in Washington state is by mail.

A hearing was set for 1:30 p.m. June 9 in front of Superior Court Judge Robert Olson.

Five candidates are listed so far for Bellingham mayor, but — because of Johnson’s legal challenge — the race is not finalized:

Mayor Seth Fleetwood, who was elected in 2019.

Kim Lund, former director of the Bellingham Schools Foundation and a member of the Whatcom County Planning Commission.

Kristina Michele Martens, the at-large member of the City Council and a key figure in the process to establish the Whatcom County Racial Equity Commission.

Mike McAuley, who served as a Port of Bellingham commissioner from 2010 to 2017 and serves on the Bellingham Planning Commission.

Chris McCoy, CEO of Kombucha Town, which makes fermented tea.

A one-week election filing period closed May 19.

Johnson, a community and labor organizer who founded ReUse Works, which operated the former Appliance Depot, took the unusual step of submitting petition signatures instead of paying a filing fee to run for office. He needs 2,211 valid signatures of registered Bellingham voters in lieu of a $2,211 filing fee.

After reviewing the signatures on May 20, the auditor found Johnson had 1,750 valid signatures -- not enough to meet the legal threshold.

A total of 485 signatures were challenged and another 268 signatures were awaiting a second consideration on Friday.