How should Washougal pick its mayor?

Council may ask voters to decide if choice belongs to public or council

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Washougal City Councilman Ernie Suggs (right) nominates Molly Coston (second from left) to continue as Washougal's mayor during a January Washougal City Council meeting. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

Will voters or city councilors decide Washougal’s mayor? That’s a question Washougal leaders are trying to answer.

At a Feb. 24 city council workshop, Washougal leaders discussed the possibility of asking voters to vote on a ballot proposition that would designate the city council’s No. 1 position, which is elected at-large every four years, as the city’s mayor.

Currently the city council selects the mayor every two years from a pool of elected city councilors. That system is the result of a 2018 proposition that changed the city’s form of government from a “strong mayor” system in which an elected mayor, chosen every four years by voters, had authority over city staff and the city’s day-to-day business.

Proposition 8 changed the city’s “strong mayor” form of government to a “council-manager” format that 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.

Under the new form of government, the city’s mayor has no administrative responsibilities but does serve as a prominent political figure for the city.

Most recently, Washougal City Council members appointed Molly Coston, formerly elected by voters as the city’s mayor, to remain in her mayoral position on the council.

Putting the issue to voters — and letting them decide if they want to vote in a mayor when they vote for the council’s No. 1 position — would change the current way of doing things.

“You could put that on the ballot anytime if you chose to do it,” Washougal City Manager David Scott told the Washougal City Council on Feb. 24. “However, this November might have particularly good timing for that because position No. 1 is up for re-election in November 2021. If you wanted to ask the voters to (make that change) and they chose to do that, that would mean that in 2021, position No. 1 would be for mayor.”

The resolution that placed the change-of-government option on the ballot in 2018 contained a sub-section that stated the Council intended to bring this issue to voters if the council-mayor form of government was approved.

“So (the council has) two options — one is to leave the default in place just the way it is. That would require no action of this council,” Scott said. “Or they can follow up on what was in the resolution where there was an intention expressed back in mid-2018 that a proposition would be placed on the ballot to ask the voters if they want to designate position No. 1 as the mayor. That, obviously, would require action from the council to pass such a resolution.”

Scott added that the action would not change the mayoral role in Washougal but would “simply (be) about how the mayor is chosen.”

Six of the eight council members expressed a desire to move ahead with the proposition, saying they should honor the promise they made two years ago.

“I think that it’s more transparent if the mayor is elected by the community,” Coston said. “We just moved from that, so the community is accustomed to electing a mayor.”

Councilman Brent Boger said he doesn’t think the 2018 proposition would’ve passed without the addition of the sub-section.

“There was a concern that if we went to an elected mayor and the community elected a person that was not suited to be mayor, then we’re stuck with them,” said Boger, who said that he doesn’t intend to seek re-election to his position in 2021. “But what are we stuck with? We’re not stuck with them administering the city. We’re stuck with them just presiding over council meetings, and a council majority can deal with that. I think there’s something to be said for having an elected mayor being a representative for the city. There’s more of a gravitas, I think, with that.”

Councilman Ernie Suggs said he doesn’t “view it as a big problem because the council really has more control now than the mayor had before.”

“My concern is less now that we have a city manager (running things instead of the) previous mayors, who controlled everything, and that is difficult to remove,” he said. “Now we have consistency when we didn’t have consistency before. If we can find a way to keep Molly on for another 10 years, I’ll be all for it.”

Councilwoman Alex Yost said that although she believes good arguments can be made for keeping the default option in place, “we are a democracy, and that’s reflective of the fact that if the voters want to vote for somebody that they feel is the champion of the city and is going to represent them, that is their right.”

“Before, when we had previous mayors that didn’t represent the city well, we were a different system,” she said. “So now the mayor is basically just a council member and therefore doesn’t wield as much power and can’t just create their own budget. I’m eternally optimistic, as many of you know, but I also believe that if we’re doing our jobs, then we’re creating a cohesive environment in which we’re all working together.

Council members Paul Greenlee and Michelle Wagner expressed a preference to remain with the current selection process.

Greenlee said the fact that there isn’t a true “impeachment process” for mayors hurts cities if their leaders conduct themselves in an unprofessional manner or otherwise prove unfit for duty.

Voters opted to change the form of government in Washougal following the run of two disgraced mayors: Stacee Sellers, who resigned in the fall of 2009 after a Washington State Auditor’s Office audit showed about $100,000 of revenue from city-sponsored events was unaccounted for and criticized thousands of dollars in charges on city credit cards and gifts of city money; and two-term mayor Sean Guard, who had pushed for stronger ethics rules for Washougal officials, dropped out of the May 2017 election amid a sex scandal that resulted in a three-month-long Washington State Patrol investigation and law enforcement officers asking the district attorney to bring solicitation of a prostitute charges against the mayor.

Voters elected Coston to succeed Guard as mayor in November 2017.

“Our two previous mayors – I’ll be kind and say they did not reflect well on the city, and there was nothing we could do about it. This way we can have Molly as mayor as long as she wants to do it,” Greenlee said. “It’s not a question in my mind of admirative ability, especially under the current form, but who is it that represents the city honorably and well? If you have somebody who all of a sudden isn’t doing that, then you ought to be able to fix it.”

Wagner expressed her reservations about changing the current process, which allows elected council members to choose a mayor amongst themselves.

“I like the process of (our current government) a lot better,” Wagner said. “I think that after you have some seasoning on the council for a couple of years and get a little more comfortable with the way things run, you make a better mayor that way. Molly was a council member for six years before she became mayor.”