Government should focus on common good, not private industry

There seems to be an influx of business leaders and developers crying out for more room at the table in local government meetings, lately.

Last month, it was land developers, who felt left out of a two-year planning process regarding a proposed urban tree program in the city of Camas. This week, it was business leaders who said a volunteer committee charged with reviewing Camas’ form of government hadn’t done enough to reach out to them or to educate the community.

In both cases, the business sector asked local government leaders to halt their decisions.

The Camas Planning Commission did just that, returning a proposal — one that was based on two years’ worth of research, meetings, consultant reports, staff time, volunteer committee member input and field trips to meet with urban tree experts in other Washington communities — and asking city staff to do a better job reaching out to the upset developers.

And at a June 4 Camas City Council meeting, council members said nothing after corporate leaders, including Ken Fisher, founder of Fisher Investments, the city’s largest private sector employer, told them they were effectively waging war against private employers like him if they dared vote on a proposal to send a form of government question to voters in November.

Government leaders obviously have a responsibility to consider all possible pitfalls when weighing a decision, but should they be bending so far to please private business interests?

In the case of the developers and the urban tree program, city staff were right to not want to be influenced by the very people who might have to pay more to make a greener, healthier community that values trees over developers’ profits.

In their research, the committee members did consider the pitfalls of requiring too many trees, or in crafting a plan that might value quantity of trees over quality. They even lowered the tree units to make a program that might be more palatable.

Likewise, a lot of thoughtful consideration went into the recent proposal that Camas ask voters to move away from the current “strong mayor” form of government, which gives a vast amount of power to the mayor, and move toward a “strong council” government with a professional city manager running the city’s daily business. The council-manager government is something most American cities have now adopted, and proponents say it keeps politics out of local government decisions and prevents corruption from a mayor who cannot be ousted without a recall election.

The Camas form of government committee was led by two former mayors, a former longtime city administrator and others who know what they’re talking about when it comes to running a city. Their purpose was not to reach out to every sector of the community and see how they felt about changing Camas’ form of government. Rather, they were tasked with researching the issue, coming up with pros and cons and suggesting a path forward.

It is now up to city leaders to decide if they want to take the recommendation to voters — and to reach out to all community members, including business leaders, to ensure that they’ve considered all the pros and cons of putting the issue on the November ballot.

It is a dangerous road when government leaders start to give more weight to private sector concerns and demands over the needs of the entire community.

Government leaders are not running a business. They are running a community, and are supposed to implement programs that have social value. Often, the very things that benefit the community come at a cost to private sector employers. Adding more trees to a development, for example, is never going to be something that pleases a developer looking at shrinking profit margins. But our city leaders’ role is not to help those developers protect their bottom line. Rather, they should be concerned with protecting the area’s natural resources and enhancing the city’s health and beauty.

This is not to say that city leaders should ignore the needs and concerns of their private sector employers. The developers and corporate leaders help shape the community and provide homes and jobs for its residents, and their concerns are often valid and helpful to the overall process, but government leaders should be careful they are not valuing private sector desires and demands over the recommendations coming from their own professional staff and dedicated volunteer committee members.