One and a half years after the contentious “pool bond” election of November 2019, in which more than 90 percent of Camas voters shut down the city’s bid to build a $78 million public community-aquatics center and hundreds of Camas residents loudly complained in online forums of a perceived communications breakdown between city officials and the community, the city has launched Engage Camas, an online platform designed to be “an alternative to traditional public engagement.”
“As many people know, traditional public engagement or community involvement usually involves attending a public meeting or providing a written submission to the city council,” the Engage Camas site informs Camas residents. “This can be time consuming and inconvenient; it can also be a little intimidating. Engage Camas gives you the opportunity to have your say on issues that are important to you, at a time and place of your choosing.”
Camas Communications Director Bryan Rachal, who spearheaded the Engage Camas project, has used Engage platforms in his work with other cities, including Boulder, Colorado, and said the online platform is another tool for the public to communicate with city staff and officials.
“This isn’t the be all, end all,” Rachal said of the new Engage Camas platform, which launched in early April on the city of Camas’ recently redesigned website. “We still have to do outreach. But this is another touchpoint, another type of engagement tool.”
Rachal, the city’s first communications director, started his new position at the start of the new year, on Jan. 11. He landed in Camas as the website redesign was wrapping up, and said he heard from the city’s new administrator, Jamal Fox, as well as Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell, about the importance of establishing better methods of communication with Camas residents.
Engage Camas was a tool he’d used before, and one he knew was working in other Southwest Washington cities, including the city of Vancouver.
“A lot of cities around us use it,” Rachal said, “but we hadn’t seen that type of engagement tool in Camas.”
Residents can sign up for Engage Camas at engagecamas.com, and submit questions or comments about the city’s various projects. Currently, the site offers two opportunities for the public to weigh in: the city’s “Keep the Mask Camas” campaign, which encourages Camasonians to continue wearing face coverings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and a question-and-answer section for Mayor McDonnell. Soon, residents will be able to contribute to conversations about the city’s new Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces comprehensive plan update and on other major city projects, Rachal said.
“This will give us a better idea of what people think about things,” he said.
Once the city has posted more projects and has more conversations happening on the Engage Camas site, Rachal will update the public on how the Engage Camas conversations are impacting city policy decisions.
Rachal will keep public records of the Engage Camas questions and comments, and plans to post — and answer — most of the questions people submit to the site.
Though the site launched just a few weeks ago, on April 5, Rachal said he thought, based on conversations he’s had with Camas residents concerned about open dialogue between city officials and the public, that the site would garner more interest.
“I did think we would have a hotter start,” Rachal said. “We’ve had three questions, but one was more of a statement and one was not specific. We did answer the (third) publicly.”
That question concerned Discover Recovery, a company slated to operate a 15-bed inperson drug treatment and rehabilitation center in Camas’ mostly residential Prune Hill neighborhood.
“How can we have any confidence that Discover Recovery will be safely overseen when the city can’t even seem to get the nearby restroom timers (in the city’s Dorothy Fox Park) to work?” a Camas resident known as “Heather M” on the Engage Camas site asked McDonnell.
“Our crews do a cleaning and inspection (Monday through Friday) and are finding lock mechanisms tampered with by filling the latch with paper,” Rachal responded on the Engage Camas site. “We know this is the case for certain at Dorothy Fox (Park). We also will be taking a look to see if there are additional issues going on with the locks in response to this inquiry. We always appreciate to hear from our park users, as this is usually the best source of information to finding these issues out.”
The Engage Camas site is one of several ways the city has been trying to reach out to its residents, Rachal added, noting that the city has also tried to become more active on social media sites, posting events and news to the city’s NextDoor site and partnering with the Clark County Historical Museum to post historical posts on the city’s social media channels every Friday.
“We’re trying to meet people where they’re at,” Rachal said. “We know people are (using social media to communicate), so we’re putting our messages out there and hoping they hit home.”