EDITORIAL: Lessons from a heated election season

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

It may have been gorgeous weather outside, but inside, politically, October was sort of an ugly month in Camas.

Longstanding city officials found themselves in the middle of last-second races after an unprecedented number of write-in council and mayoral candidates threw their hats in during the last few weeks leading up to the Nov. 5 general election. Meanwhile, on social media and at town halls, the “anti-pool” crowd roared its distaste for the city’s Proposition 2 (Prop 2), which would have used up to $78 million in taxpayer dollars to build a community-aquatics center.

The divide between staunch anti-tax advocates and the city’s local government leaders grew heated online and in-person, with the former mayor even saying she couldn’t bear to read the hateful comments posted online in the election’s last few weeks.

Some community center opponents, including city council write-in candidate Margaret Tweet — one of the two people behind the “No to Camas Pool Bond” group — claimed city officials were unlawfully using public funds to promote the ballot measure and pointed to a campaign-finance violation complaint against Camas officials filed with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).

This newspaper tried to clarify the contents of that complaint — and its links to a man known for filing hundreds of often frivolous campaign-finance violation complaints against Washington state officials and organizations with ties to the Democratic Party — with a front-page article published Oct. 23.

To many voters, however, just hearing that the city, its mayor, all of its city councilors and two of its chief administrators had been named in a campaign-finance violation complaint may have swayed their decisions when it came time to fill out their ballots.

The fact that the complaint had no merit didn’t come out until this week, more than a month after an election that decimated the city’s bid to build a community-aquatics center and displaced the city’s mayor with a relatively unknown write-in candidate.

As we now know, the PDC found no indication of wrongdoing by the city or its officials in the build-up to the community-aquatics center vote.

The PDC’s Dec. 10 decision wasn’t the only one related to the community-aquatics center.

The state’s campaign-finance watchdog also weighed in on a complaint filed Oct. 28 by Douglas Speas, longtime president of the Camas Little League and visible proponent of the community-aquatics center bond, against Tweet and Scott Hogg, the folks behind the “No to the Camas Pool Bond” group.

The PDC found that Tweet and Hogg had failed to return anonymous contributions in excess of $300 as required by state law, but said the failure did not “amount to a violation warranting further investigation.”

Instead, the PDC issued a reminder to Tweet, Hogg and their Camas Taxpayers Alliance group “about the importance of carefully reviewing all applicable statutes, rules and requirements before engaging in campaign activity.”

When considering the most recent election season in Camas, it is apparent that the heated and often factually inaccurate world of social media is taking a toll on community members. Neighbors fought with neighbors, insults were hurled at public officials who had never before had such resistance and the results of a 2017 community survey showing more than 80 percent of Camas residents were “very satisfied or satisfied” with the city’s quality of services — and that many in the city listed a community center and indoor pool high up on their list of “wants” for Camas — seemed to be overturned by one single (but very expensive) ballot measure.

Voters are wise to be skeptical, but we can only hope that Camas-Washougal voters will turn that skepticism toward some of the online claims they see during the next election and weigh those claims against facts published in local newspapers like the Post-Record and our sister paper, the Columbian, as well as facts that come out of candidates’ own mouths during nonpartisan forums hosted by the League of Women Voters, before making critical decisions that will impact this community well into the future.