OPINION: May Cheers & Jeers

We can’t pretend it’s been easy to find cause for “cheers” in this month’s “Cheers & Jeers” column, especially knowing that our country hit yet another grim milestone — 100,000 Americans now dead from COVID-19 — this week.

That’s why our first CHEERS goes out to all of those who have shown creativity in the face of closures and physical-distancing public health experts have said are a necessary means of saving as many lives as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michelle Fox, founder of TreeSong Nature Awareness and Retreat Center, a nonprofit located up the Washougal River Road, showed this type of creative thinking recently. When the pandemic put a damper on TreeSong’s variety of in-person programs, Fox got creative, opening an online nature-education program to help families connect with nature while still social distancing. “It’s a beautiful thing to know that the magic (of nature) is enduring,” Fox said.

A second CHEERS goes out to those who have shown resilience during the pandemic. We are particularly proud of the young people like Camas High gymnast Kaylee Sugimoto (featured in the Sports section of today’s Post-Record) who are looking on the bright side even as they mourn the loss of milestones they’ve looked forward to for years.

Lastly, a CHEERS to the local small business owners who are doing their best to make ends meet without sidestepping public health requirements. We should all be applauding business owners who are going out of their way to protect their employees and customers by implementing policies — including mandatory mask-wearing and physical distancing — touted by health experts as the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and protect our community.

On that same note, our first JEERS of the month is for those pushing for a rushed reopening not based on scientific data. Try as we might, just closing our eyes and wishing the coronavirus would disappear or magically become less deadly or less contagious isn’t going to work. In fact, a recent report shows that areas where people are returning too quickly to pre-COVID lives are at risk of a deadly second wave of infections.

“The model shows potentially ominous scenarios if people move around as they did previously and do so without taking precautions,” the Washington Post reported on May 22.

Likewise, World Health Organization leaders last week warned that second waves of COVID-19 infections are likely to occur in areas that do not have adequate testing and contact-tracing capabilities in place before lifting “stay home” orders.

Our final May JEERS has nothing to do with the coronavirus. Instead, this one is for systemic failures related to the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association (CWEDA), which led to the Washington State Auditor’s Office to conclude this month that CWEDA’s board of directors “did not adequately monitor financial activity … (and) did not have adequate procedures in place to safeguard public funds.”

The state’s auditor not only found that CWEDA director Paul Dennis — a former Camas city councilman and mayor — used more than $19,000 in public funds for personal use and had about $45,000 worth of “questionable” expenditures, but also that the board apparently had no policies concerning public monies flowing through CWEDA from 2011 to May 2019.

“Payments were not reviewed or approved by the Board, as required by state law,” the report stated.

In the end, the state auditor’s office stated it could not conclude whether $1.1 million in CWEDA expenditures — money that came from the cities of Camas and Washougal as well as the Port of Camas-Washougal — even served a public purpose.

While we must recognize CWEDA board members for finally implementing new financial procedures once it realized CWEDA was a public agency subject to public agency rules, it’s hard to overlook many of the revelations that that have come out of the state auditor’s reports as well as the findings of a Camas Police Department investigation into Dennis’ alleged theft of public funds.

Of those revelations: the fact that Dennis only worked an average of four hours a day on CWEDA activities while earning a salary of $9,700 to $11,000 a month; allegations that Dennis spent CWEDA money on things not even remotely related to economic development, including a home climate-control system and parts for his classic Mustang; and that he wrote $850,000 worth of checks to his own professional services company “without a contract in place. What else can you say to those disclosures but “JEERS to that”?