Council veteran jumps into mayoral race

Melissa Smith launches write-in campaign against Mayor Turk

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Camas Mayor Shannon Turk (left) and Camas City Councilor Melissa Smith (center) are pictured here with City Councilor Don Chaney (right) at a 2018 city council meeting. Smith recently announced her write-in candidacy to replace Turk as Camas' next mayor. (Post-Record file photo)

The Camas mayoral race wasn’t expected to be a big deal this election season. In fact, Mayor Shannon Turk was running completely unopposed until just a few weeks ago, when whispers of write-in campaigns started to get louder.

The first to file as a write-in candidate for Turk’s seat was a Camas newcomer named Barry McDonnell. Then, a few days later, on Oct. 8, Melissa Smith, a lifelong Camas resident and 15-year veteran on the Camas City Council, threw her hat into the write-in ring.

Having already ran unsuccessfully against Turk for the council’s appointment to the mayoral seat left vacant in 2018 after then-Mayor Scott Higgins unexpectedly resigned, Smith said she has had people ask her if she launched her write-in campaign as a “way to get back” at Turk or her city council peers.

“No. That is not why I’m doing this,” Smith said. “I wasn’t going to run a campaign against (Turk). We’d actually talked about it, and I told her I wasn’t going to run. But then I had a lot of people approach me about running, and I had to choose: Would I keep my word to one person or to my constituents?”

Turk, who has worked for local and state governments since 1995, was appointed to her first Camas City Council stint in July 2011 and has nearly a year of mayoral experience under her belt, seems to be taking the bids for her seat in stride.

“Neither time did it surprise me,” Turk said of the two write-in candidates. “People feel passionate about things that are on the ballot, so it doesn’t surprise me that people who were feeling frustrated or angry would want to (launch a write-in campaign).”

And even though she had discussed the issue with Smith before the actual candidate filing deadline in May and wasn’t expecting the city councilwoman to run against her in the mayoral race, Turk said she understands Smith’s write-in campaign.

“It’s something that she wants to do,” Turk said of Smith. “And she doesn’t need to honor a commitment to me.”

‘We’re not forcing the community center on anyone’

Turk said she does feel that the anger and frustration some Camas residents have expressed over the city’s ballot proposition to build a community-aquatics center for up to $78 million — which seems to now be directed at the mayor herself — is puzzling.

“It’s fair, because I’m an elected official and I’m supposed to be representing them, so I understand why they’d take it out on me. But I’m confused as to why there is anger,” Turk told the Post-Record this week. “We’ve heard over the years that this is what people want. So we placed it on the ballot.”

The city’s leaders, Turk said, are not forcing the community center on residents.

“We’re not saying, ‘We’re building this and we’re going to raise taxes to do it,'” Turk said. “If I had forced it on people, I could understand (the anger). But we didn’t do that. We’ve placed this on the ballot to let voters decide if this is something that is important to them. And, if it is, are they willing to pay this much for it?”

Smith said the frustration she’s heard from her constituents regarding the community-aquatics center bond proposal, which would build a community center, improve sports fields throughout the city and make several traffic and parking improvements to accommodate the community center, was one of the reasons she decided to launch her write-in campaign.

“I’m comfortable with it being in the hands of the voters,” Smith said of the $78 million bond proposition. “But it almost seems like it’s five bonds rolled into one. Maybe it was just too much.”

Camas City Council members were unanimous in their July 15 vote that approved placing the $78 million bond on the ballot in the Nov. 5 general election, but Smith said the process toward that July vote felt rushed.

“If people were to go back and watch (the July 15 city council meeting), the process was very short,” Smith said. “We (council members) didn’t even get to read the proposition.”

When she compares the past few years to her first dozen on the city council, Smith said she frequently feels rushed to make important decisions without adequate information.

“We’ve been piece-mealing projects over the past two or three years,” Smith said. “We often don’t get all of the information. We’re always asking for more information. And then we’re always rushed at the 11th hour to make a decision.”

Turk said her biggest concern right now is getting information out to the voters about the community-aquatics center. She acknowledges that the process of getting the question onto the ballot may have seemed rushed — to councilors like Smith as well as members of the general public.

“I wish I’d had the sense of the wherewithal to realize early on that the joint meetings with Washougal were not going to go anywhere,” Turk said of efforts throughout 2018 to investigate a joint Camas-Washougal community-aquatics center. “We could have gotten that community engagement going early on.”

Smith, who sat on a joint committee in 2018 that investigated the possibility of forming a metropolitan parks taxing district to help fund operations costs at a future Camas-Washougal community center, said the process became overly complicated and convoluted, which makes her concerned about how the city will pay for the operations costs associated with the community center if voters do approve the $78 million bond next month.

City Administrator Pete Capell said in July that a Camas-Washougal group working to build a joint community center had previously estimated operating costs for a similarly sized aquatics center at around $2.6 million per year, with revenues from member fees and other usage projected to be about $2.3 million.

That would give the city about $300,000 per year in operations costs to cover through other means.

Turk said last week she understands why people might fear their taxes going up to help cover the unknown operations costs at the community center.

“It is a legitimate fear because that is an option,” Turk said. “But we cannot do that without taking it to the voters first. We can look at different fees … but the Camas Council is very cognizant of the (fact) that the citizens are not willing to be taxed.”

Turk said she believes the community-aquatics center will help increase Camas’ livability, which would, in turn, help the city attract big businesses.

“If we were to bring in the big businesses, we could lower taxes by spreading the tax burden,” Turk said. “I understand people’s concerns about taxes. We are very aware that Camas is not the most affordable community. So we want to spread out that tax burden.”

According to the city’s finance director, Cathy Huber Nickerson, the bond would cost Camas property owners $1.04 per $1,000 of assessed property value in 2021 and decrease gradually to 67 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in 2039. This would cost the owner of a $464,400 home — the median Camas home price — $41 per month, or $492 per year, in 2021.

The bond would cover the costs of construction as well as the equipment and furniture needed for the community aquatics center, parking and traffic improvements and renovations at the three sports fields.

To pass, the proposition will need to garner the approval of 60 percent of voters in the Nov. 5 election.

A question of leadership

Having worked together on the city council since 2011, Smith and Turk understand each other’s leadership styles.

In Camas’ strong-mayor system, the mayor is not just a figurehead, but in charge of the city’s day-to-day operations and oversees city staff.

If elected through her write-in campaign, Smith said she would “put the rudder back on the ship and give some consistency and stability” to the city’s executive branch.

“I would focus on the day-to-day operations,” Smith said. “We have a vision for North Shore and we’re growing. But how do we support the North Shore? How do we get garbage, fire, police services out there? Do we rely on mini stations for (emergency responders) or are we going to need to build new stations? We have to have a leader who can answer these types of questions.”

If elected to be Camas’ next mayor, Smith said she would be an approachable mayor, but that she likely would concentrate more on daily city operations and less on “ribbon cuttings” and other social events.

“I love this town. It’s my hometown,” Smith said. “I am a genuine and authentic person. I would be a person (constituents) could approach and know that I will work to help with their issues.”

Smith said she realizes a write-in campaign isn’t the best way to win an election, but she still hopes to make a point even if she doesn’t get the votes required to replace Turk as the city’s new leader.

“I have name recognition, so that could detract from the other write-in candidate. We may split the vote,” Smith said of McConnell, who didn’t return requests for comment in time for this week’s Post-Record publishing deadlines. “But maybe this will send a message to (Turk) and to the council.”

Turk said she understands Smith and possibly others may have lost confidence in her leadership over the past year, but that she has been learning from her time as mayor and feels ready to lead the city for another four years if elected on Nov. 5.

“I think we all have different definitions of leadership, so it doesn’t bother me that someone has lost confidence in my leadership,” Turk said. “Through this whole year and this whole process, I’ve learned a lot — and there are definitely things that I will do differently if I can continue as mayor.”

As for the bulk of the day-to-day operations at the city, Turk said she trusts the staff she oversees to do their best work.

“We have professional staff who are experts and are able to be there eight to 10 hours a day,” Turk said. “And I think it’s easy to say what you would do in a situation before you (have that job). I liken it to having kids. Before I had kids, I was going to be the best parent in the world. They were never going to have meltdowns in the grocery store and they would only eat healthy meals. Then I became a parent … and there were meltdowns and they ate pizza sometimes. Everyone has a great idea until they’re actually engaged in it.”

If elected to retain her mayoral seat on Nov. 5, Turk said she would not look at the write-in campaigns as “a wake-up call,” but just another part of her learning process.

“It’s easy to focus on the bad and say, ‘That’s where we’re at as a community,'” Turk said. “But we have so many good things going on right now. We’re master-planning for the fire department and making a comprehensive budget where we look at everything … and we have legacy lands that we’ve purchased north of (Lacamas Lake) that will be saved for generations. That is a fantastically good thing the city has done. One of many good things. And I know it’s easy to see the negatives, but there are positives, too.”

Turk said although the conversations about the community-aquatics center bond and the bid to see who will be the city’s next mayor may be painful to her on a personal level, she knows having people engaged in the future of the city is a good thing.

“I just wish (the write-in candidates) had filed in May because then we would have had plenty of time to focus on all of these things,” Turk said.

Editor’s Note: The Post-Record will publish more on write-in Camas mayoral candidate Barry McDonnell in our Oct. 31, 2019 issue.