OPINION: Camas officials need to return to pre-COVID transparency

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

The fact that the city of Camas finally has a city administrator ready to take the reins and lead day-to-day operations should come as welcome news.

And the fact that the chosen candidate, Jamal Fox, comes with an impressive resume and a passion for bringing people together as Camas moves forward is an added bonus.

Still, the sudden announcement — after literally six months of silence — came as a bit of a shock.

After all, when we asked Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell where the city was in its then 5-month-long hiring process, the mayor assured us that he hadn’t forgotten about the city’s promise in January that the selection of a new city administrator would include public input.

“We’re still moving along,” McDonnell told the Post-Record on June 15. “Last week we completed interviews with eight great candidates. Hopefully we can meet in person, maybe in July.”

Once the city moved into Phase 3 of the state’s “Safe Start” reopening, McDonnell added, he wanted to release the top candidates’ names and figure out community events to include the public’s input.

Granted, in the four weeks between then and now, COVID-19 cases have continued to climb and the likelihood of having a large community gathering this summer is not looking good.

Still, the fact remains that Camas leaders told citizens they would be a part of this process.

In January — the last time the council discussed the issue at a public meeting — city councilors selected an executive search firm to lead the hunt for a new city administrator and interim city administrator Jennifer Gorsuch told councilors there was much more to come in the process.

“There will be interviews with key stakeholders, council members, community members,” Gorsuch said in January. “Down the line there will be community open houses so they can meet … will all of you to make sure they hear what your vision is.”

Two months later, of course, the city and the rest of Washington had thrown normal business procedures out the window in a rapid attempt to keep the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus at bay.

Since then, the council has shifted into low-power mode — holding remote council meetings and canceling six out of seven council workshops as well as the July 6 regular council meeting.

Other branches of city leadership also have gone quiet over the past four months. The Camas Planning Commission’s July 21 remote meeting was the first one held since Feb. 19. The city’s Parks and Recreation Commission also hasn’t met since February.

Local journalists were already operating at a disadvantage before these councils and commissions went silent — the pandemic has reduced revenues and forced layoffs at nearly every local news outlet in the country — but the lack of public meetings and online meetings makes it nearly impossible for reporters to keep track of what’s happening at the local government level.

In the pre-COVID days, reporters who wanted to know more about a specific issue could simply show up at a city council or planning commission meeting and try to catch the ear of local officials after the meeting ended. They could come to City Hall and request a meeting with the city administrator or mayor. They could attend town halls at the library and ask in-person questions. They could see city councilors on the street or at community events.

Now, we must rely on officials returning our phone calls and emails.

We must rely on the mayor’s home videos posted to the city’s YouTube channel — videos that provide zero opportunities for questions.

We must rely on public document requests that often take several weeks, if they come at all.

Why should the public care? Because it means they might not know what’s happening in their community until it’s too late to make a difference.

Some residents have already noticed their voices seem to matter less in the world of remote and canceled city meetings.

“It is a sad day when conversation about our core future is relegated to one-way efforts of written questions lacking serious answers.” Camas resident Randal Friedman told the Camas City Council and the mayor at the council’s June 15 Zoom meeting. “Relegated to a loudspeaker I feel I’m in a dystopian sci-fi story,”

Friedman reminded the council that the majority of voters elected a new mayor and knocked down the city’s bond proposal to build a $78 million community-aquatics center in November 2019.

“The people of Camas spoke last November,” Friedman said. “They do not want the status quo to continue. They want to be listened to and taken seriously. You got off to a good start but the strong current has pulled you back. It is time to recapture what was started.”

We can only hope the city’s new administrator will do what he promised in the mayor’s most recent YouTube video: “I’m looking forward to … building trust, or rebuilding and strengthening trust so Camasonians believe in the strategic vision,” Fox said. “As we talk about strengthening and building bridges, (we need to) make sure we have one voice, one vision, as one community.”

It sounds good. But for Fox to see this vision through, the city’s leaders must return to the level of transparency they had in those now-longed-for pre-COVID days, stop canceling workshop and commission meetings and figure out a new way of communicating with their citizens and local journalists as the pandemic shows no signs of going away any time soon.