An advisory committee charged with looking into the city of Camas’ current “strong mayor” form of government recommends that Camas leaders put a new form of government known as the “strong council” government to voters in November.
Former Camas Mayor Nan Henriksen presented the Form of Government Advisory Committee’s findings to the Camas City Council and Mayor Scott Higgins at the council’s regular meeting Monday evening.
The committee, made up of two former Camas mayors, a former city administrator, former public works director, the president of a leadership development firm and a Camas Civil Service commissioner, Henriksen said, was unanimous in its recommendation.
“The entire committee was very engaged and spent many hours of research and work outside of meetings,” Henriksen said, adding that the committee met five times between March and May, to discuss the pros and cons of the two systems.
Camas currently operates under a “strong mayor” or mayor-council form of government, in which the elected mayor acts as chief executive and administrator of the city.
The recommended “strong council” or council-manager government would retain the current makeup of seven elected city council members and council could either select a chair — a mayor — or propose to voters that the mayor position still be an at-large, elected position, which is what the committee recommended. Under this form of government, the council hires a city manager to act as chief executive officer of the city. A majority of the council could remove the city manager.
Henriksen said the committee members recognized that the idea was not coming from a state of crisis or from any sort of problem amongst the current leaders of Camas.
“There is no city government structure that guarantees good governance,” Henriksen said Monday. “Excellent leaders can make any structure work and vice versa, so we have focused on taking current and past individuals out of the positions, looking at the structures themselves and determining which form provides the best chance for good governance into the future.”
The committee, appointed by Mayor Higgins in February, said the council-manager or “strong council” government would “provide the most predictable, stable and prosperous framework for the long-term vision” of Camas.
Not everyone was pleased by the committee’s recommendation.
Ken Fisher, founder of Fisher Investments, one of Camas’ largest employers, expressed what he called his “extreme negativity” toward the idea of shifting away from a “strong mayor” form of government.
“If you wanted to declare war on your largest private sector employer and lots of your other private sector employers, this is a great way to do it,” Fisher told the council on Monday night. “There was no outreach and most (private employers) will be opposed to this. Not the ones involved with construction, engineering, design or building, but those focused on customers … on working with people.”
Fisher told the council he is “different” from other citizens.
“There is so much about me that cannot be said about other Camas residents,” Fisher said. “I can pretty much talk to anybody in the world that I want to, any time I want to, and most Camas residents can’t.”
He went on to say that Fisher Investments was not interested in locating in a place that had a council-manager government.
“If Fisher Investments had wanted a city manager form of government … we thought about that at the time, could get that in Clark County, but we didn’t want that,” Fisher said. “I just want you to think about that. That says a lot in itself in terms of where we located.”
Addressing the council members, Fisher said: “I just know you will not vote on the 18th to (put the council-manager government option on the November ballot) unless you’re ready and willing to … hold forums on both pros and cons, of which there’s lots of cons. None of which are in that report, which I consider to be kind of like ‘woo hoo.'”
Randy Printz, a Vancouver land-use attorney who represented Fisher Investments when the firm developed its Camas office towers in 2010, also spoke at Monday night’s council meeting.
“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” Printz told the council, saying that, although he thought researching the two forms of government was an “extremely good exercise,” he wondered why people would want to change Camas’ current form of government right now.
“Is there a true, compelling reason today or within a year to fundamentally change the form of government?” he asked.
Henriksen said the committee thought this was a good year to go to voters, since 2019 is a mayoral election year.
Mayor Higgins later apologized for “not thinking through a couple folks that maybe (he) should have asked to be a part of this discussion in the beginning” and encouraged community members to weigh in on the subject.
“If you have an opinion on whether council should move forward or table this, let the council know,” Higgins said.
Contained in the committee’s report were pros and cons for both forms of government. Under the current “strong mayor” system, committee members felt the pros included the fact that the mayor, with veto power, could rectify unpopular council decisions. The mayor under this system also has a higher visibility in the region and establishes political leadership. The cons include the fact that strong mayor systems can give too much power to one person, may install a mayor who has little to no management training or experience, keeps incompetent mayors in power, risks expensive recall elections and could politicize daily city decisions.
The “strong council” government, on the other hand, removes city business from politics, limits abuse of power since the city council could remove an incompetent or corrupt manager, and would allow the city to hire a qualified manager to oversee its employees. Cons of the council-manager government include the fact that the council could give too much decision-making power to the manager, who is not accountable to the public; concerns about managers from outside the city who don’t understand the community; running a city like a business instead of a community; and the risk of losing a manager to a higher-paying city.
Of the comparable cities they researched, only one had a “strong mayor” government like Camas, Henriksen said, adding that businesses interested in locating within Camas have shown a preference for council-manager government over “strong mayor” forms, and that increasing demands from state and federal laws on local governments have made several cities switch over to the more professional council-manager system.
To view the committee’s report, visit ci.camas.wa.us and find the June 4 council meeting agenda.