Higgins aims to retain mayor’s seat

Ken Kakuk will challenge incumbent

Camas Mayor candidates

Scott Higgins

Community involvement: City Council member from January 2002 to June 2011, when he was appointed mayor; helped organize Camas Centennial Celebration in 2008; involved in Camas Sister City program and helped establish English language summer camp in Poland; co-founded Camas Youth Advisory Council; member of the Camas Lions.

Education: Associate of arts degree from Florida College in Temple Terrace.

Job: For the past year he has been a preacher at Hockinson Church of Christ, and previously was a preacher at a Portland church for three years. Has also worked in sales, in family business Higgins Custom Homes, and as a stay-at-home dad.

Website: www.higginsformay...

Phone: 600-2302

Email: higgins360@comcas...

Ken Kakuk

Community involvement: Volunteer for school district projects including constructing the weight room at Skyridge Middle School. He has also taken part in lake cleanup projects, worked on design of Grass Valley Park, and did volunteer work for the organization previously known as the Camas Downtown Association.

Education: Associate’s degree from Mt. Hood Community College, with a certificate in architectural engineering, and a bachelor’s degree from Portland State University in geography.

Job: Owned a construction company; worked for the city of Camas for 15 years, most recently as GIS coordinator.

Email: kakukformayor@gma...

Phone: 606-4186

Facebook: www.facebook.com/... for Mayor Camas

A former City of Camas employee is looking to unseat the current mayor in the Nov. 8 General Election.

Scott Higgins was a city councilman from January 2002 until June 2011, when he was appointed to the mayor’s seat after Paul Dennis resigned to become the director of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association.

Higgins, who grew up in Fern Prairie and attended Camas schools, said the past four months have involved “a steep learning curve.”

“It is a different perspective on the administration side than you ever would get on the council side,” Higgins said. “I didn’t realize that as much going in. It would be very difficult to just come in fresh and without any of that experience. Even with that experience that I have, it is just a different side of the world that I have been able to see.”

On the ballot, voters will have a choice between Higgins and Ken Kakuk, a relative newcomer to the city’s political scene, but not to Camas.

Kakuk was born in the small sawmill town of Weaverville, Calif., and grew up in Portland. He moved to Camas in the 1980s, then to Redding, Calif., before moving back to Camas in 1992.

Kakuk, 51, worked for the City of Camas for more than 15 years until June 20 when, according to documents obtained by the Post-Record through the Open Public Records Act, he was fired for “insubordination as a result of the progressive disciplinary process.”

According to city documents, on May 2, 2011, Kakuk was put on paid suspension “due to an investigation into allegations of possible inappropriate workplace behavior.” The allegations included using statements/words of a threatening nature, outbursts of a physical nature directed at objects, incidents of possible intimidation, general non-verbal behavioral issues, and statements from employees that they do not feel safe in their workspace or in the building because of your behaviors and presence.”

According to the city, an investigation revealed that “several employees reported conduct that they had observed that would reasonably be interpreted as discourteous, rude and in some cases threatening.”

On May 23, in lieu of termination Kakuk was asked to sign a disciplinary “last chance agreement.” Stipulations of the agreement included suspension without pay for one day, a requirement to follow the city’s behavior standards, and a requirement to utilize the city’s employee assistance program “to seek assistance with interpersonal communication skills and improving his self-awareness of how his behaviors may be perceived by and affect others in the workplace.”

After refusing to sign the agreement, city records reveal Kakuk was placed on suspension without pay from June 1 through 21, and was required to be evaluated by a city appointed doctor to determine his “fitness to return to work.”

After showing up for the evaluation on June 8, Kakuk refused to answer certain questions. It was this action by Kakuk that ultimately led to his termination.

On June 28, Kakuk initiated a formal grievance process for wrongful termination though the Camas Public Employees Association union, but according to city documents the CPEA board later decided not to advance the issue to arbitration.

When asked to comment on the firing and the incidents leading up to it Kakuk referenced his appeal to the Employment Security Department, where he said he believed he was “terminated for refusing to give medical history.”

“I appealed this accusation to the Washington State Employment Security Department,” Kakuk said. “The Washington State Employment Security Department’s decision concluded that insubordination had not been established and ruled in my favor.”

The appeal determination letter from the Employment Security Department dated July 13, 2011, stated: “Based on the information provided, misconduct has not been established.” It also states, “Attempts to obtain further details on the incident/investigation options were not successful. Therefore, this determination is being made solely based on the information on hand.”

This ruling means that Kakuk is eligible receive unemployment benefits, but has no direct impact on his employment with the City of Camas, according to Camas Human Resources Director Jennifer Gorsuch.

Kakuk said he now plans to open his own consulting firm.

Despite the circumstances surrounding his abrupt departure from employment with the city the same month he filed to run for mayor, Kakuk said seeking political office is something he’s had an interest in for quite some time.

“I’ve always had an inkling to get into politics,” he said. “That is where the policies and rules are made. I have a real strong commitment to the rights of the people to know what their government is doing. I believe in open and transparent government and community involvement.”

Kakuk, who has been a frequent attendee at City Council meetings, said he supports accessibility and accountability, which appear to be his primary campaign issues.

“I think it’s lacking in all governments,” he said. “I think it’s difficult for anyone to know what is going on.” 

Kakuk said he would like to see more of the city’s public documents posted on its website, meetings video recorded and held at a time that is more convenient for citizens, and the city use social media avenues including Facebook.

“There is any number of resources out there to make the information more accessible,” he said.

Improving public access to its city government through technology upgrades is an area of special interest for Higgins, 39, who is a preacher at Hockinson Church of Christ.

He said a series of technology initiatives are underway to make City Council meeting agendas and minutes more accessible and integrated with video of the meetings. A presentation regarding the proposed changes were made at a recent workshop.

“We are working on streamlining meeting minutes, providing video for our meetings, and interlinking that video to the agendas, and making it easier for public records requests through that process,” Higgins said. “It’s a software package that several cities are using.” 

He said the efforts, which also include a major website overhaul, will reduce the amount of time an administrative assistant is currently spending on agenda and meeting preparation, attending meetings, note taking, and transcribing the minutes.

“It’s a cumbersome process that technology will be able to help with and free up those resources,” he said.

Higgins said the capital project, proposed at $45,000 in 2012, will be funded primarily through Real Estate Excise Taxes.

“It’s something I have been thoughtful of for many years, but we just haven’t been able to get to the point where we are able to do it,” Higgins said. “Now from this position I am a little more prepared to do it.”

The budget is an area of interest for both candidates. Higgins said Camas has a history of smart financial choices, while Kakuk said some changes are needed.

Higgins said after several years of weathering a difficult economy he is optimistic about the city’s financial outlook, which includes an “uptick in the value of property,” as well as an increase in sales tax revenue and the number of permits making their way through the building department. The construction of the new Fisher Investments buildings and Highway 14 improvements are also benefitting the city financially.

“I think this is our last flat [budget] year,” he said. “I think there are enough things going that 2012 is going to be the year where things turn for Camas. If that is the case and we can come out of this deep recession not having closed our pool, not having closed our library, never really eliminating services, then we are really blessed people. That is an amazing thing that we’ve been able to accomplish.”

Kakuk said the city could be run more efficiently.

“I think we are doing OK,” he said. “We are a great community, a great place to live. I think we could do more with less. I think we could do more by becoming more efficient.”

For example, Kakuk said, the city should work to limit the number of change order requests on construction projects, which tend to drive up costs, hire fewer consultants and conduct fewer studies.

“I think we could do better. I think we are going to have to,” he said. “We are in tough times, really tough times.”

Kakuk would like to see returned to the budget funding for the Downtown Camas Association. While the city has contributed to downtown revitalization efforts for many years, last year a tight budget meant elimination of the monetary support. The proposed 2012 budget also does not currently include funding for the DVC.

“Large businesses seem to be getting most of the attention now,” Kakuk said. “We have a lot of other aspects to our economy rather than just them. I think we could do more to help the downtown area of Camas, and provide them more support in as many ways as possible.”

Another element of the budget drawing attention is the emergency medical services fund. A shortfall in that property tax levy supported account has been a concern since 2010.

The Camas and Washougal fire departments are currently in the midst of a six-month trial consolidation period, in an effort to find efficiencies. A recent report from both fire chiefs indicated that savings in overtime costs are already being realized.

“The bottom line is we are seeing really good things happen as a result of our consolidation efforts,” Higgins said. “I do anticipate it continuing. I do believe that when both councils see the results that are happening, and hear the stories about what’s happening, they are going to realize that this is a better way to provide fire service.”

Higgins admits, however, that a consolidation alone will not solve the EMS fund shortfall issue.

“It’s right now an unsustainable model and the consolidation isn’t a fix for that,” he said. “It’s a piece, and there are some great efficiencies that our communities are going to benefit from. But there’s still got to be another solution for that EMS piece. I don’t know what the answers are yet. Something structurally will need to be different.”

Kakuk said he generally supports the trial consolidation process, but admits he needs to find out more about how a fire authority or consolidation would impact the community.

“I’m interested in what the tax burden will be, what they expect to solve and what the returns will be,” he said.

With recent financial challenges in mind, efforts aimed at adding to the city’s tax base have drawn kudos and criticism.

The Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, a joint effort between Camas, Washougal and the Port of Camas-Washougal, is aimed at improving the local economy through supporting currently existing businesses and bringing in new investment.

Higgins and Kakuk have differing views on the formation of the organization.

Kakuk said an ethical question pertaining to the hiring of Paul Dennis, who was mayor during the period of time when the organization was being planned and formed, to lead CWEDA has not been adequately answered.

“I think the thing that I wonder about the most is the criticism of it, and why hasn’t the city stepped up to produce a full report of exactly who was at what meetings and what influence they had.”

Higgins said he understands the questions being raised, and has no problem defending the process with the facts.

“The second we knew Paul was going to be a candidate the city backed away 100 percent,” he said. “We said we don’t want anybody on council, or anybody on city staff, being involved in picking who is going to help us in economic development so that there is no undue criticism.”

Ultimately, the interviews were conducted and a recommendation to hire Dennis was made by a committee that included Clark County Administrator Bill Barron, Clark Public Utilities Director of Water Services Doug Quinn, Port of Camas-Washougal Director David Ripp, Washougal City Administrator David Scott, Washougal Mayor Sean Guard, and Port Commissioner Mark Lampton,

“I think it is a very far stretch to suggest that kind of manipulation [of that committee] could ever happen,” he said. “It is not logical to me.”

Kakuk said he has concerns about the amount of money Camas contributed to the effort — $50,000 in 2011 — but realizes that the foundation for the organization has been set. Now it is time to watch for results.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a bad thing. It’s already done.” Kakuk said of the formation of the CWEDA. “There are folks who have already spent a considerable amount of time discussing that issue and going through the process. Now it seems like what’s done is done and let’s see what kinds of fruits come out of it.”