BG officials offer perspectives on government changes

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category icon Columns, Opinion

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” wrote Charles Dickens in his “Tale of Two Cities;” a magnificent author and book which still provides relevance to contemporary generations.

What does this have to do with our community here in Battle Ground? As city leaders within Battle Ground, we would like to offer some personal perspectives on the significant seismic governance changes occurring within the communities of Battle Ground and Washougal.

In Battle Ground, we maintain a manager-council form of government (approved over 15 years ago by voters) in which citizens elect individuals to represent them as council members. Upon their election to office, those council members then internally elect a mayor and a deputy mayor to carry out duties such as presiding over council meetings, setting the agenda (in consultation with the city manager who runs the city’s day-to-day operations), and representing council on certain boards, commissions and the public at large; a state statutory requirement.

Although this form of governance (also known as a “weak mayor”) has had many detractors since its inception 15 years ago (when our population was around 5,000), it has maintained transparency and protected the voice of the people — until recently.

In July 2013 a majority coalition arbitrarily changed our form of government. Council members met in private (a potential violation of the Washington State Open Public Meetings Act) and drafted changes that voided any vote of a mayor (going against the original intent of the voters 15 years ago), placed restrictions on council member speech, and avoided public input because it was deemed “not necessary.”

This was done without the standard “three touch” practice (discussing an issue in an open meeting three times) appearing to capitalize on the absence of a council member and rushing it through to ensure that limited discussion could occur.

This action has left a large majority of citizens disenfranchised and with a feeling of an unstable form of governance within their community.

But what does this have to do with the community of Washougal?

Currently, citizens of Washougal are undergoing a significant debate (and a vote scheduled later this year) in which they will ask themselves the same question our Battle Ground community did over 15 years ago. Do they wish to maintain citizens directly electing their mayor (known as a strong mayor) or do they wish to have a manager-council form of governance and prohibit their citizens from directly electing their mayor.

Now as a paramount disclosure we must submit the following mantra: “when visiting the house of a friend avoid telling them how they should arrange their furniture”.

What this means is voters of Washougal know what is best in how they will govern themselves however, as an informational tool Battle Ground can provide valuable insight.

Changes in governance alone do not bring stabilization or solve the problems of communities–regardless if the problems are interpersonal dynamics, financial issues, or important policy directions.

The most important form of governance is one which is transparent in every manner (regardless of procedural requirements), one that protects the voice of the people, and one that recognizes that council member seats and Mayoral titles are bestowed by the citizens–not exclusive clubs in which political games can be played.

When we all recognize this fact, the communities of Washougal and Battle Ground will see more “best of times” and less “worst of times” as Charles Dickens wrote.

Michael Ciraulo is a former Mayor and current Battle Ground Council member and Adrian Cortes is a current Battle Ground Council member.