Officials reflect on failed $78 million community-aquatics center bond

Camas councilors talk about lessons from contentious November ’19 election

Camas City Council members and Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell reflected this week on lessons they learned from the November 2019 general election, when a clear majority (90 percent) of voters shut down the city’s proposed $78 million community-aquatics center construction bond.

“One of the main things I regret is that we didn’t slow down,” said Councilwoman Bonnie Carter. “We should have taken another year (and) said, ‘We need more data.’ We had years of data but we’re really good about keeping that data in a bubble and weren’t good about pushing that data out to the community.”

Carter added that she regretted the fact that council members didn’t “pump the brakes” instead of trying to rush the issue to the ballot.

“I know we felt we wanted to give the opportunity to the public to vote … because we’d been talking about a pool for so many years, but I regret we didn’t slow it down,” Carter said.

The issue came up during the city council’s annual planning retreat, held Friday and Saturday, Jan. 24-25, at Lacamas Lake Lodge in Camas.

“This past fall was an interesting time for our community and there was a lot of energy (around the community-aquatics center bond) and it was different from what we’re used to,” said Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell, who was in charge of mediating Friday’s council planning retreat.

Snell added that the city hadn’t put a bond on the ballot in a very long time, but that the Camas School District was used to that process.

“It was a little different in your situation,” Snell told the council members and mayor. “As you look back to the fall — in whatever role you were playing — what kinds of things will you take forward … to help serve the community in the future?”

Snell said that, for him personally, the energy surrounding the failed bond made him feel “nervous for (the) community.”

“I had the sense that our community didn’t feel the same as it felt before,” he said.

Councilman Greg Anderson, the council’s longest-serving member with more than two decades’ worth of experience as a city official, said he felt that, normally, city leaders would “stop and listen and pause at the right time,” but that they obviously had not when it came to the community-aquatics center bond.

“We’ve done one bond measure in 20 years … and then we did a second,” Anderson said. “We’re not very good at it.”

Both Anderson and Councilman Steve Hogan said they would like to know more about how the Camas School District (CSD) goes about putting a bond or levy issue to voters.

“(CSD) has so much listening and outreach,” Anderson said of the district’s “pre-bond” communications with the community.

Councilwoman Ellen Burton also said she thought the city could learn from the school district’s bond and levy process.

“School districts do this all the time. We don’t,” Burton said. “So we need to bring in the experts. There are talents in this community. (We need to) bring in the right talent.”

Burton added that she thought one of the lessons from the failed bond is that the city should rely more on its alliances with other jurisdictions.

“We had the opportunity to work with Washougal (on a joint Camas-Washougal community-aquatics center),” Burton said. “There is a lot of value to having partnerships, of keeping those alliances and strengthening (the partnerships) … and of sometimes taking trade-offs.”

Burton added that she felt city leaders would need to regain the public’s trust following the failed bond proposition.

“It takes so long to build trust and (it’s) so easy to lose it,” she said. “Our job ahead is … to purposely build trust, which will be a continuous effort”

McDonnell, who ran for mayor as a write-in candidate who opposed the community-aquatics center bond proposal, said he felt the city rushed the bond process.

“It felt very disconnected in the direction we were going versus what people were going for,” McDonnell said. “As it was communicated out to the public, it didn’t feel transparent to the public. It was scary from my perspective when you don’t have all the information. It creates a whole level of distrust … it was scary.”

Councilwoman Shannon Roberts, who also ran as a newcomer to city politics who opposed the November 2019 version of the community-aquatics center bond, said she felt the city’s communication about the bond proposal could have been better.

“There was no sense of peace that everything was good, that wise decisions were being made,” Roberts said, adding that if the city wanted to do surveys about issues like building a community center, they should attach prices to possible bond measures required for such efforts.

“You have to have price tags attached (to surveys or polls) so they will think about that,” Roberts told her council peers on Friday.

Councilwoman Melissa Smith, a Camas native who is serving her fourth term on the Council and who also ran as a write-in mayoral candidate in the November 2019, said she felt city leaders “did a poor job communicating what (they) were asking of the citizens.”

“The impression I got from citizens was that the council … had voted ‘yes’ (on the community center bond), but all we did was put it out there for the people to decide. We weren’t advocating one way or another.”

Hogan said he wished the council had had a way of stopping the process after they’d decided to put the issue on the ballot but before they had more information from city staff.

“There was a beginning (when we) said, ‘Yeah, go for it, get this formed,’ but the next key step — if we didn’t have it put together properly — that’s where we should have said, ‘No, we don’t have a full deck of cards here.’ Everyone should have felt comfortable shooting it down at that point.”

Even if the city had spent money preparing the bond for the ballot, Hogan said, if the council’s “key checks” didn’t pan out before the deadline to place the bond on the ballot, council members should have felt OK holding off on putting the issue to voters.

“For me, (the lesson from the election is) understanding that it’s OK to go ahead and start the process, but that is just one point and then (we should have) key checks and no problem at all saying, ‘No, we’re not going to do this,'” Hogan said.

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