The Washougal City Council has appointed Mayor Molly Coston to its vacant No. 5 position, choosing to move forward with seven members rather than filling the spot with an eighth councilor.
By a 4-3 vote, the council approved a motion to suspend its regulations for filling a vacancy during its Sept. 29 virtual meeting. The vacancy was created by Ray Kutch, who resigned on Sept. 11.
After the vote, Coston resigned from her No. 8 position and was reaffirmed as mayor by the other councilors.
“I do believe this is a more democratic process,” Coston said after casting the tie-breaking vote. “I thought a lot about this for a long time. I honestly see the value in both strategies, but I think this is the better solution.”
If the council had decided to fill Kutch’s position with a new councilor, Coston’s No. 8 position would’ve been eliminated in December 2021. However, Kutch’s resignation presented the council with an immediate opportunity to move back to the seven-member format that is most common among similar-sized cities in Washington.
Voters will decide in November 2021 who will fill the remaining two years of the No. 5 position. Kutch’s term was set to expire in December 2023.
“So from the day the election results are certified in late November 2021 through the end of 2023, whoever is elected in that election for Position No. 5 would be seated for basically those two years,” Washougal City Manager David Scott explained.
Coston and council members Alex Yost, Brent Boger and Ernie Suggs voted in favor of the motion.
“We’re going to have to revert back to seven eventually,” Suggs said. “We might as well take that plunge and do it now rather than wait and try to figure it out down the road. It would give us a ‘normal’ council of seven, which would help alleviate any ties. I think that’s the responsibility we have as a council.”
“I think there’s something to be said for putting an emphasis on education and really encouraging people to go out for those elected positions,” Yost added. “If we have candidates who are paying attention, understanding and showing up to meetings, I think regardless of their experience, (they can succeed). Saying you get a ‘better caliber’ of council member from an appointment, I think that’s making a lot of assumptions and generalizations about our community that aren’t quite accurate. And I don’t really know how we could get to know another council member in this crazy Zoom time.”
Council members Paul Greenlee, Julie Russell and Michelle Wagner voted against the idea of moving Coston into the vacant position.
“Filling Position No. 5 with someone new gives us an opportunity to train a replacement,” Greenlee said. “There’s at least one and possibly several of us who will leave council at the end of 2021. I personally think I have a responsibility to the community to turn over a council that is trained and capable and very much engaged in the community’s best interests. I frankly am not entirely sure that an open election creates that.”
“There is a learning curve,” Russell added. “Appointing somebody would give them an opportunity to be able to learn how the council operates. I like having some consistency, and some experience on the council is really helpful.”