The predictable failure of CWEDA

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Recent press reports reveal that Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association (CWEDA) Director Paul Dennis was recently investigated by the Camas Police Department for financial impropriety. Specifically, he is suspected of using $15,000 of public funds for personal expenses. Camas police have referred the case to the Clark County District Attorney with a recommendation for prosecution.

Local guardians of the public trust who created CWEDA reacted sympathetically to recent revelations of financial impropriety at CWEDA. David Ripp, Port of Camas-Washougal chief executive officer, expressed his surprise, disappointment and frustration. Washougal Mayor Molly Coston, an enthusiastic early proponent of CWEDA, said she was disappointed and saddened by the results of the police investigation. Former Camas Mayor Scott Higgins, also present as a Camas city councilman at the creation of CWEDA, emphasized CWEDA’s accomplishments and shared a personal story that suggested he knew that the CWEDA director managed his own finances sloppily.

How did we get here? The history of CWEDA’s founding provides some insight.

In early 2011, then-Port of Camas-Washougal Commissioner Mark Lampton and Ripp proposed at a joint meeting of the Port commissioners and Camas and Washougal city councilmembers a three-way partnership in the creation of an economic development agency. There was much enthusiasm. Two Washougal City Council members however, Jon Russell and myself, objected to the haste, ill-defined structure and lack of performance standards to measure organizational effectiveness of the proposed entity. Our objections were trampled in the stampede to establish CWEDA and select Dennis, then the mayor of Camas, to head the organization.

Dennis, approaching the end of his second term as Camas mayor, was cleared by Camas contract legal counsel who saw no conflict of interest in the Dennis being picked for the post created by the consortium that included his city, so long as he resigned as mayor before taking the new position. He did.

Port sponsors stressed the necessity of haste without providing a good rationale. Efforts by CWEDA and its supporters to answer some of our objections produced fig-leaf measures to buttress CWEDA’s poorly substantiated claims of success.

Claims that CWEDA has been directly responsible for bringing new businesses and jobs to the area are difficult to adequately document, and the benefits to Washougal have been less than the gains of Camas and the Port.

When Councilman Russell moved to Virginia, I became a minority of one on the Washougal City Council opposing CWEDA’s periodic reauthorization and funding. Dan Coursey added his support when he was elected to the Washougal City Council in 2013. Ours was a solitary, principled and largely unsuccessful effort on behalf of local taxpayers. CWEDA supporters from the Port, and Camas and Washougal city councils won the battle, allowing the continued funding of a hastily conceived, badly managed and poorly overseen public operation. Coursey moved to Monterey, California, before the end of his term, and I did not run for reelection in 2017.

And that is how we got here. Now, the same people who insisted on rushing CWEDA’s creation are washing their hands of it. They are lauding CWEDA’s accomplishments to justify its creation and describing it as an initial phase of a long-term economic development effort for the three partners. They are putting lipstick on a pig.

CWEDA, as established in formal audits, is a poorly conceived, badly managed and unsatisfactorily overseen quasi-governmental entity that wasted taxpayer monies for questionable public benefits. Where do we go from here?

Many of the people who heaped this indignity on hard-working local taxpayers are not only still in office, they plan to remain there. Aside from the three Washougal councilmen who opposed CWEDA, all those who were in Port and Camas and Washougal city council positions between 2011 and 2016 supported CWEDA. Some are running for reelection this year. Others will be running for reelection in 2022. Do you want these people in elected office, lavishing your taxes on unaccountable organizations run by managers with integrity issues?

The August primary and November general elections are your opportunity to get better representation. I urge you not to miss the opportunity.

The views expressed in this article are my own. They are based on my 10 years of interaction with CWEDA creators and defenders while serving two terms between 2010 and 2017 as a Washougal city councilman, and two years volunteer service as a Washougal Planning Commission member and chairman of the Civil Service Commission.

Dave Shoemaker served on the Washougal Planning Commission and chaired the city’s Civil Service Commission before serving two terms as a Washougal city councilman from 2010 to 2017.