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category icon Editorials, Opinion

As of this newspaper’s print deadline, there were only two days remaining for candidates to throw their hats into the 2019 elections for city councils, school boards and other local offices.

So far, however, competition is nonexistent.

As of Wednesday afternoon — just two days before the Friday, May 17 filing deadline — not even one person had filed to run against any of the incumbents running for mayor, city council or school board in Camas or Washougal.

That’s not to say this won’t change on Friday. It certainly could. But history shows it’s not likely.

Review any of the longtime Camas or Washougal city leaders and you often discover they came into their position after being appointed to an unexpectedly open position by other council or board members. After being appointed, these candidates usually go on to run — often unopposed — in an open election months or maybe one year later, easily winning voter approval since they’re running as the incumbent.

This has been the case with Camas’ most recent mayors: Scott Higgins and Shannon Turk. Higgins, who resigned unexpectedly in June 2018, was appointed to his position in 2011 after then-mayor Paul Dennis stepped down. After Higgins resigned in 2018, city council members appointed Turk to her current role as mayor. Turk is currently running unopposed for her first four-year term as Camas’ mayor.

That’s not to say that appointed mayors, councilors or school board members aren’t the best candidates for the job. These political leaders have often put in hundreds of hours poring over decisions regarding a city’s roads, parks, fire and police department or tackling teacher strikes and looming school district budget shortfalls by the time they actually run in an election. In fact, both Higgins and Turk had been longtime city councilors in Camas when they were appointed to their mayoral positions. And both had the experience necessary to lead the city. But they did not become incumbent mayors through the will of the voters. Rather, they earned that status through the will of their council colleagues.

What should be more concerning than a tendency to elect an appointed incumbent, however, is the lack of overall interest in local government positions that control the types of things — parks, libraries, sewer services, fresh water, first responders, roads, business development, class sizes and improved school buildings — that make or break a community.

Fewer than 20 percent of registered Clark County voters cast ballots in the August 2017 primary and just 30 percent voted in the 2017 general election.

This isn’t just a Camas-Washougal or Clark County problem, though. Decreasing enthusiasm for local elections is happening across the United States.

A 2016 Portland State University report found that fewer than 20 percent voted in mayoral elections in 15 of the country’s 30 biggest cities in the 2015 elections.

A 2017 report on National Public Radio (NPR) discussed the trend toward fewer candidates running for local and state government positions. Citing long hours and low or no pay as factors that may be discouraging potential local or state politicians from running, a political science professor noted: “One of the biggest issues in state legislative races all over the country is uncontested seats,” and said 35 percent of state legislative races go uncontested each year.

The problem is threefold: voters aren’t voting, candidates aren’t running and, when candidates do run, they typically represent a whiter, more affluent, older slice of the population, which may discourage voters.

A new report shows a connection between local newspapers and local elections. Published in the April 3 Urban Affairs Review, the report shows that areas where newspapers had staffing declines also had “significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races” and were connected to lower voter turnout.

The report posits that fewer reporters covering local government issues had “negative consequences for the quality of city politics because citizens become less informed about local policies and elections.”

This week, as the Post-Record staff says good-bye to our Camas building and embarks on a new phase that will see our staff of one editor, one full-time reporter and one part-time reporter working from offices at our sister paper, the Columbian’s, home in Vancouver as well as reporting remotely from Camas-Washougal, we are thinking about these connections between local news and local government.

We can only hope more Camas-Washougal residents and businesses will support their local newspaper and help us continue to cover the school board, city council and local government decisions and policies that will shape the Camas-Washougal of today and tomorrow.