Washougal Mayor Sean Guard announced during last night’s City Council meeting he has returned a car issued to him, after concerns were raised regarding him using a city-owned vehicle for personal reasons.
A charge of second-degree criminal impersonation has been referred to the Cowlitz County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. A report has been sent from the Washington State Patrol to Chief Criminal Deputy Michelle Shaffer.
Guard was stopped by a state patrol trooper on Dec. 24, along I-5 near Kelso.
Steven Schatzel, a State Patrol public information officer for District 5, said the trooper was responding to a dispatch issued after someone called 911 about a person who was using emergency lights in order to get slower traffic to move out of the left lane.
“The trooper stopped the vehicle and asked questions,” Schatzel said. “The trooper called the prosecutor’s office right then, right there, to make sure they had asked all the right questions. When you refer charges to the prosecutor, you don’t write a ticket.”
Guard said the car – a 1995 Ford Taurus previously driven by former Police Chief Bob Garwood – does not have emergency lights. He said he was alternating between the use of no front lights to high beams to get the attention of drivers who were traveling in front of him at speeds lower than the speed limit.
“It was 3:30 and rainy,” Guard said.
He said he turned on the vehicle’s hazard lights when he was pulled over.
“I did not get a ticket or anything,” Guard said. “He cautioned me to not flash high beams.
“The left lane is the passing lane,” he added. “That’s the way I drive. There are signs along I-5 that say the left lane is for passing only.”
Guard said the trooper told him to go into the right lane of the three lane highway to pass other vehicles.
“Driving laws must have changed,” he said. “I was taught you don’t pass on the right.”
Guard was a Camas reserve police officer for approximately five years in the 1980s.
At the time of the traffic stop, he was traveling to the South Tacoma area with a woman and two children.
Guard has declined to identify them.
“My wife knows who they are,” he said. “They are individuals who are not unknown to our family.”
Guard said they had been out to breakfast and Christmas shopping. He said his wife Annie had stayed home to take care of Christmas Eve preparations.
“My wife has progressive multiple sclerosis,” Guard said by email Monday morning. “Depending on the kind of day she is having and what she may be doing, she uses anything from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair to a power scooter. Our personal vehicle can accommodate any of those devices.
“I did make an error in judgment to use my city-assigned vehicle that day, and I am sorry that decision has caused embarrassment to the city and my family,” he added. “As I think about it, I should have made other arrangements that day and taken our family vehicle.”
Guard read from a statement during the council meeting, reiterating the error and embarrassment.
“While I believe that it has been convenient and efficient for the city to have the vehicle assigned for my use, there is no doubt in my mind that the negative attention of the last 10 days that I have brought onto the city and myself are not worth the use of the vehicle,” he said. “I have returned the vehicle to the city’s surplus fleet.”
Finance Director Jennifer Forsberg said Guard was assigned the use of a surplus city vehicle in the early part of 2010.
“The mayor has paid for all gas for the vehicle since that time and has been taxed according to IRS guidelines and city policies for personal commuting use,” she said.
Forsberg referred to city policy 27.06 “Personal Use, Passengers & Authorized Drivers of City Vehicles,” which allows for personal use of city vehicles on a limited basis.
“The mayor position is part-time; however Mayor Guard is the chief executive of the city,” she said. “Therefore, he is always on call – 24 hours a day. In addition, he is traveling for the benefit of the city many hours during any given week. The assigned vehicle is in essence a mobile office that the city benefits from as monthly personal reimbursements paying for mileage, gas, etc. are not being submitted for payment.”
In 2010, Guard submitted two requests for reimbursement. They include one for $39.85, which paid for lunches and dinner for the mayor and City Councilman Dave Shoemaker during the Association of Washington Cities “Elected Officials Essentials” training sessions in Lynnwood, Jan. 15 and 16.
Guard also submitted a request for reimbursement of $155.92, which included $135 for driving his personal vehicle 270 miles round trip to a Jan. 28 AWC legislative conference in Olympia. That reimbursement included $20.92 for breakfast and lunch.
Before the mayor issued a verbal apology last night, City Councilman Michael Delavar made the observation that “Washougal is making news again.”
He sought to have Mayor Pro-Tem Jennifer McDaniel consent to a discussion about the use of public vehicles for personal use.
Councilman Paul Greenlee said it would be better to discuss that topic at a council workshop.
“Around the table with staff, it is easier to think about such issues,” he said.
McDaniel said city policies could be discussed at the next council workshop, which is scheduled for Monday, at 5:30 p.m., in the council chambers at City Hall, 1701 “C” St.
Delavar said he wondered if it is appropriate for elected officials to be assigned vehicles.
Councilman Rod Morris questioned why Delavar wanted McDaniel to oversee a discussion about the use of city vehicles.
Delavar said he had considered a verbal reprimand involving Guard and determined it would make sense to have the “second in command, the pro tem,” instead of the mayor, oversee those discussions.
After the meeting, Delavar explained why he did not ask the council to issue a verbal reprimand.
“I thought it prudent to discover some more details before even contemplating going down that road,” he said. “However, in response to the incident, the mayor has already done what a good leader should do – which is to recognize the appropriate course of action and accept responsibility for his actions.”
Greenlee said he began 2010 with some “trepidation” about how the new mayor would work out.
“Over the past year, I have been greatly impressed by our Mayor Guard’s skills and abilities, both in managing our human and capital resources and in administrating the details of running our city.”
Greenlee included the recruitment and hiring of Forsberg and City Administrator David Scott, as positive examples of Guard’s leadership.
“He has been open and patient,” Greenlee said. “He has encouraged an open dialogue and has been willing to allow things to work through.
“I believe that we, on council, should be actively seeking ways to work more closely, more collaboratively with our mayor and not seeking out ways to insert more distance and estrangement.”