Coston retained as Washougal mayor

Washougal Mayor Molly Coston (left) administers oath-of-office statements to city council members (from second to left to right): Alex Yost, Ernie Suggs, Ray Kutch and Michelle Wagner at a Jan. 13 meeting. Yost, Suggs, Kutch and Wagner won their bids for re-election during the November 2019 general election. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

Washougal City Councilman Ernie Suggs (right) nominates Molly Coston (second from left) to continue as the city's mayor at a Jan. 13 city council meeting. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

She’s still “Mayor Molly.”

Molly Coston, who has served as Washougal’s mayor since 2017, was unanimously chosen by her fellow council members to continue in the role for the next two years during Monday’s city council meeting at Washougal City Hall.

“She represents the city well and positively,” said City Councilman Paul Greenlee. “She’s done a great job, as I expected. She’s deeply competent. She’s very smart in dealing with people, and she has a lot of experience as a manager. She’s always on an even keel; even if something’s going on underneath that calm exterior, she still presents as calm and in control. And as far as I know, she doesn’t have any bad habits, which is a great thing given the history with our (previous) two mayors. She will make the city proud.”

In the weeks leading up to the council vote, Coston didn’t hide the fact that she had a strong desire to continue on as mayor.

“I still have a lot of things I’d like to do,” she said. “I always loved learning, and I’m always learning something in this job. Always. And I end up asking many questions: ‘Well, what about this? Or how do we do this?’ Because we have the right people in place, the right council members in place, we’re making (the city) successful. I actually feel very, very comfortable with the role.”

An emotional transition

In November 2018, one year after choosing Coston as mayor, Washougal residents approved Proposition 8, which proposed a change from the city’s mayor-council setup to a council-manager arrangement.

The mayor-council form features a mayor, elected at-large, who serves as the city’s chief administrative officer; and a council, elected either at-large or from districts, which is responsible for formulating and adopting city policies.

The council-manager format consists of an elected city council, which is responsible for policy making; and a professional city manager, appointed by the council, who is responsible for administration. The city manager is directly accountable to, and can be removed by, the council. Although mayors in council-manager cities have no administrative or executive duties, they do serve as the chair of the city council and often play a prominent political leadership role.

According to a study issued by the Seattle-based Municipal Research and Services Center in March 2018, 43 percent of similarly sized Washington cities had council-manager governments.

“Reflecting national trends, the mayor-council form remains the most common form of government found in Washington cities and towns, particularly among the smaller jurisdictions and for some of the very largest,” the report stated. “For the smallest cities and towns with relatively few services and more modest budgets, the mayor-council form is perhaps the most practical and economical form of government. For the very largest cities, the mayor-council form remains a popular choice.”

After the change, Coston became the Washougal council’s eighth member and was selected to continue as mayor in November 2018.

Coston knew the change in government format was likely; in return for the support of several council members during the 2017 mayoral election, she agreed to place Proposition 8 on a special ballot in 2018, said Greenlee.

But even though it didn’t come as a complete surprise, Coston took the change personally. She struggled to not view it as a demotion.

“I can’t say that I fully accepted it,” she said. “I had to adapt to it. I told a group of Dave’s peers at an International City/County Management Association meeting, ‘Yeah, I actually do miss the …’ and then I thought for the right word, and I ended up saying ‘power. I miss the power of the position,’ and everybody laughed, but it was the case because as a chief executive officer, you’re in a very powerful position. As the chair of the council, a legislative mayor, not so much. There was a little bit of an ego (involved).”

Greenlee said Coston “was a little disappointed” with the change.

“There were things that she wanted to get done that she could’ve done as a strong mayor, but not as a weak mayor. She felt hobbled a bit, I’m sure,” he said. “Occasionally, you could see she was a little frustrated.”

But that frustration “never really came out,” according to Greenlee. Coston said the city’s employees helped her adjust.

“She took the change as a given and moved forward. She was very good about that,” Greenlee said. “The change was less traumatic and difficult than I expected, partially because David had been (city administrator) for eight years, and Molly had been mayor for a year, and they developed a good relationship, and they worked together to make a smooth transition.”

Scott said Coston “was very gracious” and “did a great job” during the transitional period.

“She was getting used to the role (the way it was), and then that role changed. Anytime you go through that, you have to work through it, and she did,” he said. “She’s been very supportive for me as the manager. She has adapted, in my opinion, very well. She is still ‘Mayor Molly.’ The Mayor Coston before and the Mayor Coston after, in terms of who she is and how she engages, didn’t change at all.”

And now, not only does she actually like the current form of government better than the previous one, but she feels like she still has an amount of authority that she’s comfortable with.

“There’s no doubt in my mind (this is a better form of government for Washougal),” she said. “And whether I’m a strong mayor or not a strong mayor, I’m still a mayor, and I am often the point person for people that want to come to me with a discussion about issues. I still feel like it’s a leadership position. Dave calls me ‘the first among peers’ on the council.”

From ‘nomadic’ life to community engagement

Coston’s personal and professional lives have been filled with varied opportunities and experiences which have helped her in her role as a public official.

“She’s a very interesting woman with quite an interesting background,” Scott said.

Coston was born in central New York and moved with her family to Tucson, Arizona, when she was 13 years old. She graduated from the University of Arizona with bachelor of science degrees in biology and organic chemistry, and then worked in the school’s biochemistry research department. She then served as a researcher/tester for the state of Arizona’s public health department before leaving the science field to become a business owner, operating a bar/restaurant, then a trucking company, both in Tucson.

But for the bulk of her career, she worked for Nortel Networks, a global telecommunications company. She started “at the bottom, as a tech,” and worked her way up to a senior project manager position, managing large telecommunication projects in Alaska, Micronesia (where she lived for two years) and the Pacific Northwest.

“I would have anywhere from one or two people to 60 people working for me, and 95 or 96 percent of them were male,” she said. “People have asked me, ‘How much flack did you run into?’ Surprisingly, not a lot. I grew up with five brothers, so I’m very accustomed to handling those kinds of relationships.”

Coston and her husband, fellow Nortel employee Phil Harris, moved to Washougal in November 2000. Coston immediately became active in the community, joining the Camas-Washougal Rotary Club and the Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards.

She was elected to the Washougal city council in 2005 and served for six years. She also represented east Clark County for three years on the Vancouver-based Regional Transportation Council board of directors, chairing that board in 2010.

“When I worked so much, I really had no connection to my community,” she said. “I was in Alaska probably 60 percent of the time. We (lived in) Micronesia. We had a 35-foot fifth-wheel, and if we were in the states, we lived in that, if we weren’t in the states, we didn’t have upkeep on anything. It was nomadic, in a way, but it was great. I don’t regret a single moment of that.

“But although I loved the work, I had no local connection to even the neighbors around me or the community that I lived in,” she continued. “When we moved to Washougal, I said, ‘Here’s the community I’m going to become engaged in.’ This is an incredibly compassionate place. The people have stayed really friendly. When people talk about the ‘small-town feel,’ that’s really kind of what it is — that openness to actually engage with other people that you may not even know. That’s becoming rarer and rarer as we urbanize.”

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