On the surface, the Washougal mayoral primary election may not seem like that big of a deal.
After all, voters aren’t actually choosing their next mayor in the Aug. 3 primary — they’re simply narrowing the field of candidates from three to two, right? And isn’t the Washougal mayor more of a figurehead these days, anyway?
Yes to both, but the person named Washougal’s mayor will still set the pace for the city over the next four years, and will be critical in determining whether Washougal becomes a city known for its abundance of beautiful places, unique small businesses, wealth of artisans and access to the internationally renowned Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area — or drifts back into its former role as a small city best known for its unethical city leaders.
New Washougal residents and those unfamiliar with the city’s local government scandals might be scratching their heads right now thanks, in great part, to the fact that the city’s current mayor, Molly Coston, has always acted ethically and with what we believe are the best intentions for the city, its residents and its business community.
The city’s pre-Coston mayoral history, however, is another story.
In 2009, the Oregonian newspaper ran a story titled, “Washougal wants to move beyond small-town scandals” detailing the various misdeeds of the city’s former mayor, Stacee Sellers, who was censured by the city council for unethical behavior after a state audit showed Sellers had charged $135 worth of alcohol, including an $88 bottle of Italian wine, to the city’s credit card during a conference in Las Vegas.
The 2009 newspaper story focused on the city’s newly elected mayor, Sean Guard, the man who not only tipped off the state auditor to Sellers’ spending at the conference and then beat her in a general mayoral election by 46 percentage points.
Guard, a Washougal native who had served on both the Camas and Washougal city councils, and been the president of the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce, told the Oregonian he was ready to lead a new, more ethically run Washougal.
“The first step, (Sean Guard) says, is assuring ‘every citizen of the community that there are individuals who want to run this city legally and appropriately,’” the article reported.
Indeed, less than two years into his first term as Washougal’s mayor, Sean Guard was pushing the city council to strengthen its ethics policy, saying at an April 4, 2011 council meeting: ““I believe, as elected officials, our public demands more of us. I believe, as our current ethics policy says, that we should conduct ourselves with a high degree of honesty, fairness, decorum and professionalism. If we are not able to exhibit even that small amount of professionalism, then I believe that there should be consequences for both our actions and our words.”
Guard’s story, unfortunately, did not have a happy ending.
The same year he was championing the city’s new ethics policy, the mayor was charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly impersonating a law enforcement officer during a traffic stop on Interstate 5. Then, in 2017, during Guard’s campaign for a third term as Washougal’s mayor, he found himself embroiled in an even bigger scandal after a Washington State Patrol investigation found evidence the married mayor had paid a woman to have sex with him at his office.
Guard repeatedly claimed the allegations against him were false, were cooked up by those on the far-right who wanted to see the moderate Republican mayor fail, and that the social media posts released by individuals online showing conversations between the mayor and the woman had been faked. The WSP report, however, said investigators found no evidence that the mayor’s Facebook account or cell phone had been “hacked,” as Guard claimed.
The city’s leadership has been pretty subdued since Coston replaced Guard in 2018, so why are we dredging up the past four years after the fact?
Because Washougal voters are again facing the possibility of electing a controversial mayor.
As we have reported in this newspaper over the past few weeks, community members have raised some serious questions about one of the three Washougal mayoral candidates vying to move on to the November general election.
Mayoral candidate Derik Ford has been questioned about lawsuits and controversies connected to his massage parlor franchises as well as his dismissal from an Oregon police department.
And, much like the infamous Washougal mayor that preceded Coston, Ford adamantly denied any wrongdoing when contacted by Post-Record, telling our reporter that his law enforcement career ended because Sweet Home was a “toxic environment” and he “didn’t fit in.”
As reported in today’s Post-Record, court documents do not support Ford’s story. In reality, the Sweet Home Police Department let Ford go after realizing he had not been honest during his hiring process and had failed to mention the fact that he’d been dismissed from an Alaskan police training academy for, again, not being truthful.
Ford’s history of half-truths, lawsuits and controversies should raise red flags for any Washougal voter who wants to see their city continue to avoid scandal and live up to its potential as the area’s beautiful and unique “Gateway to the Gorge.”