A Thurston County, Washington, man the Seattle Times once called a “serial filer of campaign-finance complaints aimed at Washington’s Democratic candidates and organizations” has extended his reach into Camas.
Glen Morgan, of Tenino, Washington, filed a complaint with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) on Oct. 7, alleging the city of Camas, Camas Mayor Shannon Turk, Camas City Council members, City Administrator Pete Capell and Parks and Recreation Manager Jerry Acheson have “seriously violated Washington State’s campaign finance laws” by hiring a professional services firm to assist with public outreach on the city’s $78 million community-aquatics center construction bond on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Morgan contends the city of Camas, which he mistakenly refers to as “the City of Chelan” in his complaint, “does not employ a contractor to run ‘marketing’ or ‘information’ campaigns as part of it’s (sic) ‘normal and regular’ conduct,” and is using public resources “to run a marketing campaign to promote the tax proposal.”
At issue is the city’s approval of a $69,490 contract with the Portland branch of WSP USA, Inc., a professional services firm that has worked with the city of Camas in the past.
The city contracted with WSP to build an informational website about the bond proposition, create mailers with information about two separate open houses on the community center proposal — one of which was held before the city council voted to put the bond on the ballot to gauge what Camas residents wanted to see included in the bond — put together press releases about the open houses and the bond, create a flyer and set up a Camas Days booth and provide social media updates about the bond and the open houses.
Capell, the city’s administrator, said the WSP contract is part of the city’s normal public outreach efforts on issues like bond propositions.
“We don’t have the resources to do all of this work in house. The computer work, creating the mailings and getting them sent out in that timeframe … That’s just not expertise we have in the office,” Capell said.
Capell said he is not too concerned by Morgan’s complaint.
“We’re confident that WSP was helping us gather the thoughts of the public and educate (citizens) about the bond,” Capell said. “So I have no concerns about the final outcome.”
The city has retained the services of the city’s bond counsel attorney from Foster Garvey, PC, to respond to the complaint. Capell said the city’s response is due within 30 days of the complaint.
This isn’t the first time Morgan has made such a complaint against city leaders. He told the Columbian newspaper in January 2018 that he had filed 320 similar complaints against politicians and organizations over a two-year period, and had been involved in 20 lawsuits related to campaign-finance violation allegations.
In the complaint, Morgan called it “a little odd” that WSP started working on public outreach as early as May 2019 but that the city council didn’t approve the contract with the firm until July 15, “at the same county (sic) council meeting when the ordinance for the tax was created.”
At the Camas City Council’s July 15 workshop meeting, Capell explained why the $69,490 contract was coming to the Council in its consent agenda for approval nearly two months after WSP had already started its outreach efforts.
“When we contracted with (WSP), we needed them to turn things around in short order,” Capell said, referring to the fact that the city had decided to go solo in its efforts to build a community-aquatics center after months of joint community center meetings with representatives from the city of Washougal, the Port of Camas-Washougal and both school districts in Camas and Washougal. “We needed to get the mailer out and prepare for the open house, so we issued a notice to proceed for up to $10,000.”
After WSP sent a mailer alerting Camas residents to an upcoming open house to discuss ideas for the community-aquatics center, built a website to house information about the community center and held the open house, WSP told the city it expected to exceed the $10,000 allowance.
“So we added $20,000 to (the notice to proceed),” Capell told city councilors on July 15. “Now, we have a scope of work … and (WSP’s) work will continue because we’re going to want to keep the website populated with all of the information (and give) voters more details on what it is we’re doing.”
The council approved the contract as a part of the consent agenda at its regular meeting later that night.
In its contract with WSP, the city lists a number of responsibilities including developing an information project website and social media campaign “to inform and engage the community … educate stakeholders and residents, thus helping to build project momentum and understand community priorities and concerns related to the aquatic center and sports fields’ project.”
The firm was also tasked with community outreach and for hosting open houses “to engage the community and solicit community input on recreation preferences and concerns related to a community aquatics center and sports fields.”
Part of the outreach done by WSP included a flyer with information and frequently asked questions regarding the community aquatics center that would be distributed at the annual Camas Days celebration in downtown Camas in July, and open houses that were to be up to two hours long, informational mailers sent to all Camas households and the writing of press releases sent to local media once a month June through September “to announce the outreach events and distribute accurate project information leading up to the (Nov. 5) election.”
In an extensive list of permitted activities surrounding ballot measures and public agencies, the PDC states that “agencies may develop an objective and fair presentation of the facts regarding agency needs and the anticipated impact of a ballot measure, and may distribute it in the agency’s customary manner.”
The PDC does not allow agencies to distribute election-related information “that targets specific subgroups” or information that supports or opposes a candidate or ballot measure.
In trying to decide if the city of Camas and those named in Morgan’s complaint have violated the state’s campaign-finance rules, the PDC will likely ask if the city typically distributes information by the same form distributed by WSP — via websites, mailers, open houses and frequently asked question flyers — and if the information presented by WSP relating to the ballot measure “provides an objective and fair presentation of the facts.”