Camas City Council candidates face off ahead of primary election

At July 10 League of Women Voters forum, council hopefuls talk parks, lake cleanup, affordable housing, racial equity and more

Candidates vying for two positions on the Camas City Council shared their views on everything from the city’s need for affordable housing and the future of Camas’ parks and open spaces to racial inequities and policing accountability during a July 10 online candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Clark County.

Three candidates running for the Council’s Ward 1, Position 2 seat currently held by Councilwoman Melissa Smith — Marilyn Dale-Boerke, a 35-year resident of Camas and current head of human resources at the Camas School District; Shawn High, a former Camas Library Board trustee and current member of the city’s planning commission; and Geoerl Niles, pastor of The Calling Church and also a member of the Camas Planning Commission — attended the League’s pre-primary forum. A fourth candidate, Gary Perman, owner of the PermanTech Search Group, was out of town and unable to attend the forum.

All four candidates running for Camas Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Burton’s Ward 3, Position 2 seat attended the forum. They include: Alicia King, a fourth-generation Camasonian, flight attendant and founder of the nonprofit Just a Girl in Camas media platform, which features community standouts; Leslie Lewallen, a retired attorney, former judicial clerk and mother of four children in the Camas School District; Jennifer McDaniel, a former Washougal City Council member who relocated to Camas in 2017 and has experience working on community boards and committees for Meals on Wheels, the local Chamber of Commerce, UNITE Washougal, and the Clark College Business Advisory Board; and John Svilarich, a 20-year Camas resident who currently chairs the Camas School Board’s Citizens Advisory Committee and is president of the Deer Creek Homeowners Association.

Voters should receive ballots in the mail for the Aug. 3 primary and special election no later than July 21. Not all Clark County voters will receive a ballot for this election. In Camas, only those voting in the Ward 1, Position 2 and Ward 3, Position 2 city council races will receive ballots. Washougal voters also will receive ballots to help narrow that city’s mayoral race. The top two finishers from the Aug. 3 primary election will move on to compete in the November general election.

Though the League of Women Voters typically hosts its candidate forums at the Camas Public Library, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced the forum online this year. Candidates had one minute to respond to each question.

On parks, recreation and cleaning up Camas’ ‘crown jewel’

League members came up with the questions posed to candidates at the July 10 forum. Knowing the city of Camas is currently involved in public outreach regarding the future of its parks, open spaces and recreational system, the League asked candidates to weigh in on their vision for Camas’ many parks and natural areas.

Dale-Boerke said she was surprised to learn just how many parks, trails and open space the city she’s called home for more than three decades actually has.

“We have 14 parks, 22 miles of trails and 1,000 acres of open space,” Dale-Boerke said. “But survey results revealed there is not a lot for older and younger citizens. We have a lot for parents, but what about our teenagers?”

If elected to the city council, Dale-Boerke said she would push for more “healthy gathering places” for Camas’ youth, as well as focus on city amenities like the Camas Community Center, which attract older residents.

High said he would want to “take what the city has and get the best use out of it” when it comes to parks and open spaces.

“We have a lot of green spaces, a lot of parks, but not a lot of access,” High said. “We should make the best of what we have and build it up, develop it for everyone to use.”

Niles said he felt the city was “far behind the curve when it comes to Lacamas Lake.”

“We need to be more proactive in getting our lake clean,” Niles said. “Residents are tired of having (toxic algae) warnings posted at the side of our lake. … We need to be proactive and go after these things. We need to protect it … and fix those pollution issues that can be fixed.”

High said he also believed restoring the health of Lacamas Lake was “an A-1 priority” for Camas leaders, but said he realized the city was working on the issue and that a lake cleanup “has got to be a process,” not a quick fix.

Candidates running for Ward 3, Position 2 also weighed in on the city’s parks and recreation future.

McDaniel said she believed one of the city’s biggest priorities is to protect and preserve public lands Camas already owns, and mentioned the Legacy Lands project that will eventually build a public trail around the entirety of Lacamas Lake with access to other regional trails and amenities.

“It is a very important part of our community,” McDaniel said, “and we need to make sure we protect and preserve the crown jewels of our community. I am committed to keeping them healthy, maintained and improved as needed.”

Lewallen focused on the health of Lacamas Lake.

“It is sick, polluted (and there is) toxic algae in Lacamas Lake,” Lewallen said. “We know what the problem is. We don’t need to study it anymore. We don’t need to pay consultants.”

The city of Camas and the state Department of Ecology recently launched long-term investigations to find and help mitigate pollution coming into Lacamas Lake within the city limits and throughout the more than 60 square miles of watershed that feeds the lake waters after running through agricultural, residential and industrial lands.

Lewallen said the city should require the Lacamas Shores homeowners group to repair their biofilter, which she called “a critical and huge source of pollution into Lacamas Lake.”

Svilarich argued Lacamas Lake’s problems go far beyond one biofilter.

“Lacamas Lake is part of a regional parks network and it’s not a simple solution of cleaning out a biofilter,” Svilarich said. “The lake is fed from a watershed that includes dairies, homes, a golf course … so, yes, the city has a responsibility, but it’s not simple. The city and county have invested in cleaning up the watershed that feeds (the lake) and working with property owners to minimize what is going into the lake.”

King, who has backed other environmental issues in Camas — including going before the city council to push for more protections for the city’s tree canopies — said she also realized “nothing is a quick process” when it comes to something like cleaning lake waters that are often plagued by toxic algal blooms.

“The lake is what brings people to Camas to visit … it’s a focal point in our city,” King said. “The city has already obtained grants that will help with the funding for (cleaning the lake) going forward. But nothing is a quick process.”

Having a better understanding of “exactly what is going on” with the lake waters, King said, is an important piece of finding a long-term solution.

“Making that lake clean and beautiful and healthy is the city’s responsibility,” King added.

On the issue of who can (and cannot) afford to live in Camas

Another project that recently came before the Camas City Council involved the city’s new Housing Action Plan, which establishes planning and development tools city leaders can use to help ensure more diverse and affordable housing for all income levels. With median home prices well above the regional average, Camas is becoming less affordable for seniors on fixed incomes, younger people just starting out and many families with young children.

So, the League asked, would the candidates be in favor of requiring developers to provide a small percentage of affordable housing — something most members of the planning commission and city council passed on when debating the Housing Action Plan?

McDaniel said she realized “many low-income families are having trouble affording homes” in Camas.

“We’re pricing out our senior citizens,” McDaniel said. “The city of Camas recognized this disparity and just recently approved the Housing Action Plan to increase diversity and affordability and access for people of all incomes. I am for expanding on the current multi-family tax exemption waiver for developers who include income-restricted (housing) in developments. I also am in favor of more public-private partnerships like we saw with the Camas Ridge Apartments … and for promoting accessory dwelling units (ADUs).”

King said she would love to see developers in Camas build more diverse housing, instead of the “super big houses with huge yards” the city is known for.

“You’re getting one type of person to buy those homes,” King said. “Affordable housing creates diversity in our community … We have some amazing senior citizens in our community, and people who rent, people just starting out with young families who deserve to be in Camas as much as everyone else.”

Svilarich said he would favor encouraging greater density in Camas while keeping the costs down by loosening restrictions for those who want to have something like an ADU on their property.

Lewallen said she would want to explore “the mill district,” referencing the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in downtown Camas.

“Let’s explore that. Let’s build some multi-use development right there,” Lewallen said. “We don’t need to worry about infrastructure there, because buses already go to that district.”

Though Georgia-Pacific recently shuttered its pulping operations and one of its two remaining paper lines, the company has insisted it has no plans to leave Camas any time soon or sell any of its privately owned, heavy-industrial property in downtown Camas.

On promoting racial equity and social justice in Camas

The League also asked the candidates if they would be in favor of pursuing policies to improve racial equity and social justice in Camas..

Svilarich noted that city officials in Camas recently approved a steering committee to look at racial equity and social justice in Camas, and said he would ask: “”Are we meeting our ideals? Are they working or not working?”

“I would like to see what information we have (from the steering committee) and talk about policies moving forward,” Svilarich said.

McDaniel said she felt the city was making progress when it comes to equity, diversity and inclusion but could do more to reach out to Black, indigenous and other people of color as well as the city’s LGBTQ population.

If elected to the council, McDaniel said she would reach out to groups working with LGBTQ and BIPOC populations to find more Camas-area residents willing to serve on the city’s many advisory committees, so underrepresented groups might have more of a say in what happens at the local city government level in Camas.

King said she felt city leaders should start to address racial inequities and social justice issues by listening and learning, and said she appreciated the Camas Public Library’s Read for Change program, which concentrated on the topic of racial inequities in 2020.

Lewallen said “instead of educating people,” she felt the city needed to “enforce the law.”

“The bottom line is we have laws that protect us from sexism, racism, that protect our minority groups and LGBTQ groups,” Lewallen said. “If we have someone at City Hall acting in an inappropriate and illegal manner, we need to terminate them. They’ve already been educated. They know what the law is. They need to be terminated.”

Dale-Boerke said she has immersed herself in issues involving racial equity, diversity and inclusion through her work with the Camas School District over the past five years.

“Part of it is working with our youth,” Dale-Boerke said. “We’re seeing injustices and students treated differently because of the color of their skin.”

As a city leader, Dale-Boerke said she would want to lead initiatives that helped people understand their own biases — possibly through the same type of communitywide “listening posts” the Camas School District has established to discuss issues of racial inequities and social injustice over the past few years.

High said he thought the question of how to pursue social and racial justice in Camas was overdue and should be “part of our city’s conversations throughout town.”

He added that he was a fan of former Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell’s move to include reports on how policies and changes at the city level might impact equality and diversity within the city on every staff report brought to city council.

“I’m glad it’s an option,” High said. “When we add things or make changes,” we need to know “what are the consequences?”

Niles said he is “the type of person who values someone where they are,” and said he values communication.

“We need to listen to every aspect of people in our town,” Niles said. “We’re a primarily white community but it is not going to be that way for long. There is an amazing amount of diversity (in Camas) … we have to keep asking questions, asking people who are not respected: ‘How can we do better?'”

To view the entire candidate forum, visit cvtv.org. The Post-Record will publish more information about the Camas City Council candidates running in the Aug. 3 primary election in upcoming print issues and online at camaspostrecord.com.