Form of government change is not needed in Washougal

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

Washougal voters have an important decision to make when their ballots arrive in the mail for the Nov. 5 General Election. It may, in fact, be one of the most important issues to appear on local ballots in recent history.

If approved, Proposition 1 would transition Washougal from its current mayor-council form of government to the vastly different council-manager system.

Currently, Washougal citizens have the right to elect a strong mayor, who is the chief executive officer of the city, along with seven city council members who form its legislative body. Washougal’s city administrator, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council, carries out the day-to-day operations of the city.

Proposition 1 proponents would like to change the system so that there is an elected city council who makes policy and then also hires a city manager who is put in charge of administration. In council-manager cities, the mayor could be appointed by the city council from among its members. Alternately, one of the city council seats could be designated as the mayor position, although this person is a only ceremonial mayor and retains the same powers as a city councilor.

As a city, Washougal has certainly had its share of challenges. Those challenges reached their tipping point with the departure in 2009 of disgraced Mayor Stacee Sellers amid allegations of wrongdoing. However, since voters subsequently elected Mayor Sean Guard in November 2009, Washougal has been moving slowly, but steadily forward in a positive direction.

With this in mind, there is no legitimate reason to make such a drastic change as implementing a new form of government.

Although supporters of Proposition 1 claim their efforts are not a referendum on Guard’s job performance, the city’s list of accomplishments under his leadership are worth mentioning.

Guard was among the group of elected officials who championed the formation of Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, an organization that has by all accounts done a huge amount of good for the local business community, and continues to make strides that many believe will continue to boost the local economy. Also worth mentioning is the collaborative work toward what could eventually become a full consolidation of the Camas and Washougal fire departments. This effort has and will continue to create a more efficient emergency services entity.

Guard also made the key hire of Jennifer Forsberg in July 2010 to serve as the city’s finance director. Forsberg formerly worked as the fraud manager for the Washington State Auditor’s Office. Under her leadership, the state’s audits of the city for the past three years have produced clean reports.

Other accomplishments include a whistle blower policy that was adopted in April 2010, improving the city’s level of credibility and transparency. Guard has also worked to establish, develop and build upon partnerships in the community and beyond.

These accomplishments have all been made with the leadership of a strong mayor working together with the city council for the benefit of the city and its residents.

Proposition 1 supporters argue that a council-manager form of government, in which the city council has authority over the city manager — including the ability to fire him or her — would bring the city stability that it has lacked. But the reality is that the council itself has not been the picture of stability. In the 2011 election alone, three incumbents lost their bids for re-election. Current and past council members have also been the ones to bring forward regional and national topics that are not relevant to the local community, essentially wasting city council and city staff time on issues the Washougal governmental body has no real say in.

Proposition 1 supporters also argue that Washougal needs “professional management to move our city forward.” But Washougal already has professional management in its current city administrator, David Scott. Following a thorough recruiting process, Scott was offered the position by Mayor Guard — a choice that was confirmed by a unanimous vote of the Washougal City Council in April 2010. Scott, who holds a master’s degree in public administration, came to the city after working for the City of Vancouver for 11 years as its director of development review services. His reputation is that of a strong leader who is successful at overseeing the city’s daily operations and strategic planning efforts.

City Council members Joyce Lindsay, Jennifer McDaniel and Brent Boger, vocal supporters of Proposition 1, have all said that communication between council members and the mayor have not met expectations. While Mayor Guard could perhaps take some steps to improve communication with council, given Washougal’s history it makes sense that there should be some sort of structured way questions from the city council are answered by staff. Having a “chain of command” in place using the current strong mayor system is one logical way to do this.

When it comes down to it, Proposition 1’s strongest supporters just haven’t crafted a strong argument to support their proposal to completely change the city’s form of government, especially when the current mayor has done so much to get this once flailing city back on the right track.

The strong mayor-council system that is currently in place provides for a mayoral leader that is specifically elected by the people to run the city, and is therefore accountable to the people. And this, Washougal voters, is the way it should stay.