Looking back: Top 10 Camas-Washougal stories of 2021

From the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 to environmental cleanups, the search for a new Camas schools leader, fights over a drug rehab and a scandal-filled mayoral race, we countdown the biggest issues impacting our community this year

As we roll into a new year and say hello to 2022 this week, it’s time to reflect on some of the stories and issues that most impacted the Camas-Washougal community this year. Following is The Post-Record’s countdown of the top 10 local stories of 2021: 

No. 10: Camas tackles lack of affordable housing

The city of Camas concluded the end of its yearlong housing action plan in 2021, and consultants found housing costs in Camas were higher than those in surrounding areas, with a lack of affordable options for lower-income and middle-income earners, including many professionals working for Camas city agencies and the local school district. 

Even the bottom price points are well above what you would think of as a “starter home,” a consultant told city leaders in March 2021. “These pressures may be extreme for first-time homebuyers in Camas, who already face challenges due to the city’s limited supply of smaller starter homes.”

The housing action plan made its way through a public input process and gained approval from the Camas Planning Commission before being approved by the Camas City Council in the summer of 2021. The plan gives city officials a roadmap of strategies designed to make Camas more affordable for all income levels, including seniors on fixed-incomes and young people just starting their careers.

No. 9: Cleaning up Camas’ lakes

The city of Camas, along with regional partners and staff from the state’s Department of Ecology, took first steps toward improving water quality in Camas’ Lacamas, Round and Fallen Leaf lakes this year. 

In April, city and state staff explained that, while the city is busy tackling pollution sources that are directly discharging into the city’s lakes, the state’s Department of Ecology will be looking for pollution sources upstream, in the 67-square-mile Lacamas Creek watershed.

“There is a connection between what’s happening upstream in the watershed to what’s happening downstream in the lake,” a water quality specialist with Ecology told The Post-Record in April. “So we will need action from people who don’t live near the lake … who may not even visit the lake.”

The first phase of the lake cleanup got underway in June and helped determine the data collection needed in the more extensive “Phase II” part of the cleanup. 

“The idea wasn’t to just jump in and make assumptions about what we think may or may not work,” Camas Public Works Director Steve Wall told Camas city officials on Aug. 2. “We want to base this on the science. We have to figure out what’s going on (with the lakes’ water quality) and what the current conditions are.”

No. 8: Residents, officials weigh in on environmental cleanup at Camas paper mill

Pollution inside Camas’ lakes wasn’t the only local environmental-cleanup issue that got a jumpstart in 2021. 

In April, Camas residents and officials weighed in on the state’s future cleanup of the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in downtown Camas and told Ecology staff: “You get one shot to do it right.” 

Most argued the state should establish cleanup standards that would go beyond those used at sites zones for heavy industrial uses, like the 135-year-old paper mill, which is still operating one paper line at the Camas mill. Setting cleanup standards would give the city the flexibility to change the prime waterfront site’s zoning to something more flexible, like mixed-use commercial, retail and residential, if Georgia-Pacific ever decides to sell the land and completely shutter the historic mill. 

In November, the Downtown Camas Association put out a call for community members interested in serving on a community advisory group that will guide public participation during the mill’s cleanup process.

No. 7: Camas residents fight drug rehabilitation center

Neighbors in Camas’ Prune Hill neighborhood banned together in early 2021 to form the Dorothy Fox Safety Alliance, a group opposed to the siting of a private, 15-bed drug recovery and rehabilitation center at the former Fairgate Estate senior care home next to Dorothy Fox Elementary School. 

“All I can say is there goes our home values, our security and our hill,” Camas resident Robert Ball said in March. “Great idea but absolutely the wrong place for it.”

The Safety Alliance fought the center’s conditional-use permit during a March 24 hearing before Camas Hearings Examiner Joe Turner, claiming they feared patients at the center would harm children at the nearby elementary school and lower their neighborhood’s property values. 

In April, Turner ruled in favor of the drug rehabilitation center, paving the way for the owners of Discover Recovery to open a 15-bed rehabilitation center geared toward working professionals seeking help for substance abuse disorders at the 2.39-acre Fairgate Estate property at 2213 N.W. 23rd Ave., in Camas. 

The Safety Alliance filed for reconsideration in May, and asked for a stipulation that the center employ a 24-hour security guard. Turner denied the group’s petition for reconsideration on May 24. Two weeks later, the Safety Alliance said they were taking their fight – this time against not just Discover Recovery but also the city of Camas – to Clark County Superior Court. 

All parties argued their case in a remote superior court hearing in October, and are still waiting to hear the judge’s final ruling on the Safety Alliance’s appeal. 

No. 6: Fire department merger not working; new facilities needed

City officials from Camas and Washougal have been at odds over how many firefighters their joint Camas-Washougal Fire Department needs – and how the cities will pay for them – since 2018. In early 2021, the city of Camas hired an outside consultant to review the nearly decade-long merger of the two cities’ fire departments.

While the consultants reviewed the fire department’s funding structure and future needs, city officials in Camas and Washougal came to a temporary agreement on firefighter positions and pay through 2022, and discovered in October – through another consultant’s report – that the joint fire department will need to raise at least $33 million to replace, build three new fire stations over the next decade.

In mid-November, the consultant hired to evaluate the two cities’ fire partnership came back to Camas-Washougal officials with some big news: the fire merger that created the joint fire department in 2013 was no longer sustainable. 

Now, city officials must decide how they move forward. 

“You could disband the partnership and let each community go its own way, but we’ve heard from all of you that’s not the expected result or something anybody is particularly interested in,” the consultant told city officials. 

Instead of recommending each city goes its own way again and disbands the joint fire department, the consultants are now working on evaluating three primary alternatives: forming a regional fire authority; creating a fire district (with the possibility of combining with the East County Fire and Rescue district) and finding an alternative interlocal agreement that could include forming a governmental nonprofit organization to oversee the fire department.

The consultants plan to come back to Camas-Washougal officials in February 2022 with more information. 

No. 5: Washougal waterfront development taking shape

In February, a developer selected by the Port of Camas-Washougal to oversee the new Washougal waterfront development near Parker’s Landing, unveiled plans showing a “Main Street” stretching east-to-west alongside a 260-unit apartment complex and 56,000 square feet for restaurants and retail shops. 

Port officials and the developer have said they envision the project’s main thoroughfare, tentatively named “Waterfront Way,” to be a social place where people can run into their neighbors and meet for street fairs or small outdoor concerts.

Port officials approved the waterfront development plans in March. One month later, advocates of a performing arts center said they hoped Port officials would still consider placing such a center near the waterfront if backers can come up with the data and evidence showing the project’s feasibility.

In December, the Port said it hopes to “reintroduce” the waterfront project to the community in 2022. The first phase of the development’s construction also is slated to begin in 2022. 

No. 4: Camas School District seeks new superintendent

In March, Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell announced he was leaving the district he’d helped lead for the past decade to the superintendent job at Vancouver Public Schools. After Snell’s departure in July, the district’s director of elementary education, Doug Hood, stepped in as the Camas School District’s interim superintendent and the Camas School Board began its search for Snell’s permanent replacement. 

In October, the search for a new superintendent went nationwide and the school board reached out to the community with a series of in-person listening sessions, remote meetings and online surveys to figure out which qualities and traits Camas community members, parents, students and teachers hoped their next schools superintendent would embody. 

By the time the school board’s November deadline rolled around, they’d attracted 17 candidates for the position. The school board, with the help of a consultant, later narrowed those candidates down to the final four and invited those candidates to meet with board members and other stakeholders in late November. 

The board named John Anzalone, an assistant superintendent from the Clark County School District in Nevada, as its superintendent pick in mid-December. Anzalone is expected to start his new position in July 2022. 

In mid-December, Camas School Board President Tracey Malone and board member Erika Cox traveled to Anzalone’s school district in Nevada to get to know their top candidate on his home turf. “It was clear that the staff hold John in high regard. We were impressed with how John is able to support and nurture school communities in such a large system with a wide range of diversity and needs,” Malone said. “Although we are a much smaller system, we feel like John has the experience and the heart to lead our district.” 

“I very much appreciate the time Tracey and Erika took to visit and get to know the district that supported me for many years,” commented Anzalone. “I firmly believe that creating strong, personal connections with students and staff members is how we make a larger district feel small and a smaller district feel like family.” 

Anzalone was named as an assistant superintendent for Clark County School District in 2021, and he has 16 years of experience leading middle and high schools. He holds a doctorate from Walden University and a master’s degree from the University of Phoenix.

“As we head into the new year, I plan to visit Camas often to start creating those connections to hit the ground running on July 1,” Anzalone said. 

Malone thanked the community in December for helping the school board members make their decision.

“This has been quite a journey, and we are thankful for the hundreds of people, including staff, students, parents, and community members who helped us make this decision,” Malone said. “We are excited for the next chapter in Camas School District’s story and for John to help us write it.”

No. 3: Contentious school board meetings 

The Camas and Washougal school boards were not immune to a nationwide movement in 2021 that saw school board meetings inundated by people protesting everything from COVID-19 mitigation efforts to racial justice programs.  

In May, community members and parents turned out for an in-person Camas School Board meeting

 to rail against masks in schools, “woke” agendas, sexual education and the district’s equity-diversity-inclusion policy. 

Washougal health care provider Scott Miller, the owner of Washougal Family Pediatrics – who later had his medical license suspended by the Washington Medical Commission for a number of allegations, including prescribing unproven medications to patients ill with COVID-19 and berating medical professionals who treated those critically ill patients once they’d been hospitalized – was one of many speakers who refused to abide by the board’s mask policy and said the school board members were either “negligent” or “pure evil” for requiring students to follow COVID-19 safety protocols. 

The following day, on May 11, Washougal School Board members said they were forced to end their meeting early after community members became disruptive.

“There was an incident with some individuals being disruptive by refusing to wear masks, yelling and writing on windows with washable window markers,” Washougal Police Chief Wendi Steinbronn told The Post-Record in May. “The main problem person was criminally cited for disorderly conduct, and all three were trespassed from the property.”

Two of the women cited by police following the school board meeting later formed a group called Washougal Moms and began to target individual school board members on their social media sites.

In late May, the group sent 70 notarized affidavits to Washougal School District leaders accusing them of discrimination, bribery and treason. A few weeks later, the Washougal Moms hosted a gathering of about 400 people to conduct a “tribunal” where attendees “voted” to remove the school board members from office. To actually recall school board members, the group would need to go through the state’s recall procedure, which includes collecting enough signatures to hold a special recall election.

Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton later wrote to the group and said “engaging in idle threats and making attempts to coerce compliance is simply no way to have civil discourse about disagreements” and that the school district “has no interest in continuing to communicate with” the Washougal Moms. 

Many community members spoke out in favor of the school board members and their COVID-safety and equity-diversity policies. In June, Camas parents defended the school board and said the vocal critics of the district’s equity policy “do not represent the majority of Camas parents.” And, in November, those parents were proven correct after a majority of Camas voters cast their ballots for the incumbent members of the school board

No. 2: Students return to classrooms with COVID-19 mitigations in place

School districts in Camas-Washougal started 2021 with most of their students still in remote mode, but a return to in-person learning was on the horizon. 

In January, Camas School District officials urged state leaders to move K-12 staff up on the list of those who might receive early doses of the just-released COVID-19 vaccines, noting that other states were already vaccinating teachers and other school staff. 

At least one Camas School Board member, Connie Hennessey, mentioned a then-new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 – the much more contagious delta variant that would soon lead to a much deadlier wave of the pandemic – and said she thought it would make sense to vaccinate school staff before reopening school buildings. 

In late January, as COVID-19 rates began falling from what the state’s public health officials considered “high” (more than 350 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period) to “moderate” (between 50 and 349 cases per 100,000 residents with a positive test rate between 5 and 10 percent), the Washougal School District began bringing its elementary school students back to their classrooms, using a hybrid of in-person and remote learning. Some parents and teachers worried the district was moving back to in-person learning too soon, but district leaders said they were confident they could keep teachers and students safe due to mitigations like masking and physical distancing. 

In April, a new state rule giving schools more flexibility in distancing students inside classrooms allowed the Camas and Washougal school districts to bring students in all grades back for four days of in-person learning. 

Camas-Washougal seniors returned to in-person graduation ceremonies in 2021, but attendees still had to wear masks to help protect against COVID-19 transmission. In August, teachers union leaders in Camas and Washougal responded to the news that K-12 teachers, school staff and school volunteers would be required to get COVID-19 vaccinations to keep their jobs during the 2021-22 school year, saying “safety is the most important thing.” 

In September, the majority of Camas-Washougal students returned to full-time, in-person learning. Some families opted to remain in remote mode, however. In Camas, nearly 200 students decided to attend the district’s new, fully remote Camas Connect Academy at the start of the 2021-22 school year. 

No. 1: Scandals, resignations shake up city politics

A wave of unexpected resignations rocked the Camas political boat in 2021.

The first inkling that the city’s leadership might be in trouble came in April, after news broke that Camas’ newly hired city administrator – on the job for just eight months at that point – was already interviewing for positions with other cities

Then, in early May, Camas’ mayor, Barry McDonnell – who had already shocked local political followers by winning his write-in mayoral campaign just weeks after entering the contentious November 2019 election – announced his resignation, effective immediately, citing a need for more time with his young family. Soon after this, McDonnell’s chosen city administrator, Jamal Fox, also resigned just nine months into his new role. 

While the city of Camas grappled with finding a new mayor and city administrator, the city of Washougal was having its own mayoral problems. 

During the run-up to the August primary election, community members began to question the past of Derik Ford, one of the three candidates running in the Washougal mayoral election.

Over the course of the next few months, voters would learn that Ford, 45, who owned and operated 2 Rivers Bar and Grill in downtown Washougal, had been dismissed from his job as an Oregon police officer for allegedly lying about being kicked out of a police academy; violated a restraining order; been accused of domestic violence; and permitted a man accused of sexual assault to continue working as a massage therapist at one of the Oregon-based Massage Envy franchises owned by Ford. 

Despite these revelations, Washougal voters still turned out for Ford in the August primary election, giving him 1,274 votes compared to longtime Washougal City Councilman Paul Greenlee’s 1,086 votes. Ford, along with the top vote-getter in the primary election, Rochelle Ramos, who earned 1,627 votes, were slated to move on to the November general election. 

Then, in September, Camas police arrested Ford on domestic violence charges, and he suspended his mayoral campaign. Two weeks before Ford was scheduled to appear in court, he was found dead in an Ohio hotel room. His death was later ruled a suicide.

In November, voters elected Ramos to be Washougal’s new mayor, and longtime Camas City Councilman Steve Hogan beat out Jennifer Senescu, the director of the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce, in that city’s mayoral election. 

Both mayors took their oaths of office before the end of 2021.