Election 2021: Camas mayoral, city council hopefuls sound off at candidate forum

During remote Oct. 1 forum, League of Women Voters group questions candidates on city's growth, housing affordability, political polarization, fireworks and more

Camas City Councilman Steve Hogan campaigns to be Camas' next mayor ahead of the Nov. 2, 2021 General and Special Election. (Photo courtesy of Elect Steve Hogan campaign)

Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jennifer Senescu is running in the Nov. 2, 2021 General and Special Election to be Camas' next mayor. (Contributed photo courtesy of Jennifer Senescu)

Local candidates vying for everything from a shot at being Camas’ next mayor to having a seat on one of the local school boards hopped onto a virtual candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Clark County on Friday, Oct. 1, to tout their experience and answer a range of questions about local Camas-Washougal issues. 

Candidates who participated in the remote Oct. 1 forum, which livestreamed on CVTV and is available for viewing at cvtv.org, included Camas mayoral candidates Steve Hogan and Jennifer Senescu; six people vying for positions on the Camas City Council; six candidates hoping to be on the Camas or Washougal school boards; and two Port of Camas-Washougal Commission hopefuls. 

Ballots for the Nov. 2 General and Special Election will be mailed to voters on Oct. 15. For more information about the election, visit clark.wa.gov/elections/november-2-2021-general-special-election.

Following are highlights from the forum for the Camas mayoral and city council candidates: 

Camas mayoral race

League of Women Voters’ moderator Judy Zeider kicked off the Oct. 1 forum with questions for Camas mayoral candidates — longtime Camas City Councilman Steve Hogan and Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jennifer Senescu. 

Hogan, who is retired from a career as a senior manager and chief operating officer for recycled paper, wood and steel companies, comes to the race with nearly two decades’ worth of elected experience having been on the city council for 16 years, voted mayor pro tem in 2014 and 2017, and serving on several boards and committees, including the Georgia Pacific Mill Advisory Committee, Lacamas Watershed Committee and the Columbia River Economic Development Council Board of Directors. Hogan said he had decided to run for mayor after 16 years on the city council because he viewed this as “a pivotal time in Camas’ history.”
“With 16 years’ of government experience, I’ve seen what has worked and what hasn’t worked,” Hogan said, pointing out that Camas will have had five mayors in just four years following the Nov. 2 election. “It’s time to stabilize the city and restore trust.” 

Senescu, a lifelong Camas resident who graduated from Camas High in 1985, earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from Washington State University and has co-owned the Camas Gallery with her mother, Marquita Call, for the past seven years, said she also would like to “restore the public’s trust in city government” if elected mayor. 

“It is the right time for leadership and team-building (in Camas), and I believe I’m the right person to do that,” Senescu said. 

Once voters have elected a new mayor, city officials will begin the process of finding a new city administrator to assist the mayor with running the day-to-day business of the city. Asked what they might look for in a new city administrator, the two candidates had different ideas of what would best serve the city’s administrative needs. 

Senescu said she would not want to hire “a lifelong bureaucrat.”
“Every new department head … must be fully vetted, and that has not happened in the past,” Senescu said, adding she would want the next city administrator to be a person who would “be willing to usher in a new era of customer service and put our residents first.”
“This is missing from City Hall,” Senescu said, adding she would want a city administrator to “rebuild the trust that has been so badly damaged over the past several years between City Hall and its residents.”
Hogan, on the other hand, said he would look for a city administrator who had a “good history of working in municipal settings, with a proven track record of putting budgets together and managing people … someone who (has) a good background in employee performance reviews.”
Though managing city staff and overseeing the daily operations that keep a municipal government running are the main duties of Camas’ city administrator, Hogan also said he would look for someone who could communicate effectively with the public and “help us restore the quality we need throughout the city.”

Both candidates said they believe residents must play a role in policy development, but Hogan and Senescu have very different ideas about what this might mean. 

“I would encourage them to be a part of the process,” Hogan said, adding that the public can view the city council’s agendas ahead of time and weigh in by making public comments before the council takes a vote or by writing comments that are sent to council members. 

“I do think it’s a big priority and would like to see that improve in the future as much as possible,” Hogan said about encouraging more public input on matters before the council. 

For the past two years, city officials in Camas have said they are trying to improve communications with the public. The city hired its first communications director in 2020; established the new, online Engage Camas communications site, where the public can weigh in on issues ranging from the use of fireworks to water quality in the city’s lakes to Camas’ upcoming parks, recreation and open spaces (PROS) plan; unveiled an interactive budget-planning tool for citizens to weigh in on where they would most like to see their tax dollars go in Camas; and have held open houses and surveyed hundreds of residents about issues such as the city’s North Shore Subarea Plan and the PROS plan over the past year. The council also takes public comment at the start and end of each workshop and regular meeting and held a town hall for the public this week. 

Despite these efforts, Senescu said she believes “in recent years, leaders at City Hall have slowed in listening to citizens and communications have been shut down almost completely.”
“Important information is being withheld and the public is being left in the dark,” Senescu said. “Citizens deserve to be heard. As mayor, I’ll restore public trust in our city’s leadership team. I’ll lead the charge for direct communications and open dialogue.” 

Senescu said she believes it is time for city council meetings, which have been held remotely, on Zoom, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and recent fourth wave of transmissions, hospitalizations and deaths throughout Clark County, to “be reopened to the public.” She also would like to see the council and mayor have two-way conversations during council meetings. 

“Currently, folks can talk during meetings, however, they don’t get a response,” Senescu said. “They don’t feel validated. They don’t feel their concerns are being addressed. And, without any direct, two-way communication, they don’t know that their situations are being adequately addressed by their government.” 

In their one-minute closing statements, Hogan and Senescu highlighted why voters should choose them to be the city’s next mayor. 

“I will draw from my experience at the Chamber to improve our local businesses,” Senescu said. “As mayor, I’ll never forget I work for the citizens … and will collaborate with industry leadership to bring more family wage jobs to our community.” 

Hogan said he wants to help Camas remain “one of the most successful and livable cities in Clark County” and to help create a vision for the city that honors its past while welcoming its new, more diverse present.
“We have a diverse city now because we’re attracting people from around the world,” Hogan said. “We’re a welcoming area. We have a downtown that is second to none in the region, an outstanding school system … and I want to see us move forward and continue this.” 

 

Camas City Council, Ward 1, Position 2

The Oct. 1 forum also featured candidates running for three Camas City Council positions. The first to highlight their campaigns were Marilyn Dale-Boerke and Gary Perman, the candidates for the Council’s Ward 1, Position 2 seat. The incumbent in that seat, longtime city councilwoman Melissa Smith, decided to not run for reelection in 2021. 

Instead, voters in Camas’ Ward 1 will choose between Dale-Boerke, a 35-year resident of Camas and current head of human resources at the Camas School District, and Perman, a lifelong Camas resident and owner of the PermanTech Search Group in the Nov. 2 election. 

Asked during the Oct. 1 forum how they might address Camas’ population growth and lack of affordable housing, the candidates were both concerned the city was approving housing developments without having proper roads in place to support the population growth. 

“Camas seems to work too closely with residential developers,” Perman said, noting that Crown Road will go from a country road to a curbed housing development with hundreds of homes to a country road again. “And there are 1,000 cars a day coming down that street … we haven’t built up our street system since … the 1980s.” 

Dale-Boerke agreed with that assessment. 

“We do have some infrastructure challenges in our city,” she said. “We keep adding people and have these sweet, little country roads that can’t sustain that.”
But Dale-Boerke also said she realizes city leaders have to do something to help families afford to live in Camas, which is quickly becoming unaffordable for even middle-income earners.
Dale-Boerke said city officials must look to solutions like rezoning, restructuring to “do what we can to serve (its) citizens” when it comes to improving the city’s housing affordability. 

“As a 30-year resident (of Camas) who has worked in the Camas School District for 21 years, we’ve felt the impact in our school system. … I’ve seen unhoused families and the impact on their kids. … and a lot of our employees cannot afford to live here.” 

Answering a question about the political polarization among Camas residents, Dale-Boerke said that issue was what prompted her to run for the city council. 

“I’m a peace builder,” she said. “But (the polarization) is not just in Camas. It’s everywhere. And engaging in respectful discourse is critical for any community. We have to listen to our citizens and find out why they feel the way they do, and how we can come together as a community. (People are) finished, frustrated with all the challenges we face. Yet, we’re Camasonians, so what can we do to come together and forge a community in which our citizens can thrive?” 

Perman said he believes the pandemic also has impacted citizens’ polarization. 

“It contributes to more unrest and people who are disappointed in the city council because there are a lot of things happening behind the scenes,” Perman said. “We don’t know what’s going on. So there has to be more transparency within the leadership of Camas.” 

If elected to the city council, Perman said he would work to “improve infrastructure and streets … recruit and bring higher wage jobs (to the area) … and lower taxes.”
“I know that’s a lot to take on in four years, but I’ll give it a shot,” Perman said. 

Dale-Boerke said she believes it is “a pivotal time” for Camas. 

“Factions are at war with one another,” she said, “and that’s not the best way to get things done and to have a wonderful, thriving community.”
If elected to the council, Dale-Boerke said she also would concentrate on communication between the council and its citizens. 

“I think people deserve a voice (in city government), and that’s why I’m running for city council,” Dale-Boerke said. 

 

Camas City Council, Ward 2, Position 2

Next up in the forum were Tim Hein and Martin Elzingre, the two candidates running for the Camas City Council Ward 2, Position 2 seat currently held by mayoral candidate Steve Hogan. 

Hein, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point who served as an officer with the United States Army for six years before working 25 years as an executive for various medical-device companies, has served on the Camas Planning Commission for the past 17 years and was formerly engaged as a volunteer member of the Camas Education Foundation the Camas School District superintendent’s budget committee. 

Elzingre, a manager at what he describes as a high-tech Fortune 500 company in his campaign literature, has said he “is not a politician” but rather “a proven leader that ‘gets things done.’” 

Asked why they had decided to run for city council, the candidates said they loved living in Camas and wanted to improve their city. 

“My family and I really enjoyed the opportunity to move here 20 years ago,” Hein said. “I’ve been on the planning commission for the past 17 years … and as a council member I would like to be one of the members that helps shape the future of the city.” 

Elzingre said he also loves living in Camas, but that some of the things that attracted him to the city “are in danger.”
“We need better planning … less consultants,” Elzingre said. “I’m a successful business leader at a Fortune 500 company. I will apply those skills to the city and make it an even better place than it already is.” 

When it comes to growth in Camas, both of the Ward 2, Position 2 candidates recognize the city is somewhat constrained by state rules that require cities to accommodate a certain amount of growth. 

“We have a 20-year growth plan given to us by the state, but I see areas where we could have improvement,” Elzingre said of the city’s approach to its rapid population growth and lack of affordable housing. “More affordable housing might mean denser housing. We’re going to grow whether we like it or not. If we don’t pay close attention to our zoning, we’re going to continue to see the problems we’re having today.” 

Hein, who has been part of the city’s main body charged with planning for the future, said he believes the city has potential in its North Shore and downtown areas for more mixed-use and “creative ways to create housing” in the city limits, and pointed to the planning commission and city council’s recently passed strategies for encouraging more affordable and diverse housing in the city of Camas. 

Another issue that came up during Hein’s and Elzingre’s forum was the issue of what Camas officials should do when it comes to discharging fireworks within the city limits. 

Hein said he believed the use of personal fireworks should be limited to the Fourth of July holiday, but would also consider regulating the type of allowed fireworks as well as the times for setting them off in the city. Hein also said he might be open to encouraging more “group activities versus individual acts of patriotism, especially in times of drier conditions” when it comes to fireworks. 

Elzingre agreed with Hein on the fireworks issue. 

“When I go around and talk to people, it’s almost 50-50,” Elzingre said, adding some people say they love shooting off fireworks while others worry the annual tradition harms veterans and animals in the area. 

“We have to consider public safety, but also respect people who choose (fireworks) to celebrate their holiday,” he said, adding he would encourage the city council members to “listen to both sides and figure out something that works for everybody.” 

Asked about their vision for Camas in 10 to 20 years, the candidates pointed to differences in their campaigns. 

Elzingre said one of the “hallmarks” of his campaign was a desire to control the city’s taxation of private residents. Instead, he would like to attract new businesses, perhaps semiconductor industries, to Camas, Elzingre said, to help grow the city’s tax base. 

He also would like to address cleanups at the Georgia Pacific paper mill property in downtown Camas and at Lacamas Lake.
“I want our downtown to expand,” Elzingre said, “to have more good restaurants, more places where we can all gather with our friends and family.” 

“I will work hard to clean up the lake, control taxes and bring business in to provide more (of a) tax base,” Elzingre said later.

Hein agreed that he would also like to see the city push to clean Camas’ lakes and to see Camas have a more diversified tax base. 

“I’m a big believer in the Camas 2035 vision,” Hein said, referring to the city’s 2035 plan that included extensive community input. “I see a thriving area north of the lake with a (combination) of industrial, cleaner industrial, integrated with commercial and residential.” 

In his closing statement, Hein said he saw a bright future ahead for Camas.  

“I believe in Camas, in what we have been, what we are now and what we can be in the future,” Hein said, adding that he would encourage city leaders to return to the ward meetings and possibly do more mailers to help build communication with Camasonians. 

“We have to build trust … as we continue to build our community,” Hein said. 

 

Camas City Council, Ward 3, Position 2

Up next in the Oct. 1 candidate forum were Leslie Lewallen and Jennifer McDaniel, the candidates running for Ellen Burton’s Ward 3, Position 2 council seat. Burton, the city’s temporary mayor, announced in the spring of 2021 that she would not be running for re-election to the council this year. 

Instead, Lewallen, a former deputy prosecuting attorney from King County, Washington, who described herself in the forum as “an attorney and mother of four children, ages 18 to 5,” threw her hat in the race alongside Jennifer McDaniel, a former Washougal City Council member who moved to Camas in 2017 after living in Washougal for more than a decade and now calls Camas her family’s “forever home.” 

Asked why she chose to run for city council, McDaniel said she had a desire to “protect and preserve our wonderful way of life,” plan for “thoughtful and intentional growth” in Camas and listen to and engage the city’s citizens. 

“I have a history of community service, of rebuilding partnerships and improving communication and transparency (between city council members and their constituents),” McDaniel added. 

Lewallen said she has been “working very hard to become (Camas’) next city councilor.”
“I’ve canvassed 4,000 homes and talked to thousands of people,” Lewallen said of her campaigning. “I’ve actually listened and heard (what) Camasonians want,” she added. “I intend to deliver for the citizens.” 

Addressing the political polarization of Camas’ residents, Lewallen said she believed there is “no room for politics in municipal government.”
“I do not run on ‘left or right.’ I run on ‘right versus wrong,’” Lewallen said, adding many local issues transcended politics. “We all want a clean lake. That’s not a political issue. That’s a Camas issue.”

McDaniel acknowledged polarization is “a growing problem” in Camas, and said it makes compromising on local issues “almost impossible.” 

“Party politics has no place in small, city government.  “Sometimes a decision isn’t popular with everyone, but it is a mistake trying to place political labels on these everyday services,” McDaniel, who served on the Washougal City Council for nine years 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, said. 

Regarding the city’s rapid population growth and lack of affordable housing, McDaniel noted that, in Washington, all cities are required to plan for 20 years’ of growth and that Camas is unique because it has limited possibilities for where it can accommodate this growth. 

“Camas is bordered on three sides, by two cities and a river, so the only land available for annexation is north,” McDaniel said, adding that city leaders had already annexed approximately 800 acres into the city’s northern area to allow for future growth.

McDaniel said she believed the North Shore Subarea Plan vision statement the city council adopted this year is “an important planning tool” and said she believes the city’s downtown could include some creative rezoning of the current Georgia-Pacific paper mill property to include mixed-use with family-residential zones if the company ever decides to close the mill completely and sell its property, which is currently zoned for heavy industrial uses.

Georgia-Pacific downsized the Camas paper mill in 2018 and closed its pulp mill operations, but the company still has more than 100 employees working at the downtown Camas site on its remaining paper line and company representatives have repeatedly said Georgia-Pacific has no intention of leaving Camas anytime soon. 

Lewallen has brought the Georgia-Pacific property up throughout her campaign as a possible solution to Camas’ affordable housing woes. 

“The mill district, or what I like to call the mill district, is uniquely positioned to provide a variety of opportunity for growth,” Lewallen said during the Oct. 1 forum. “We want smart, effective growth. (Camas residents) don’t necessarily want it to become Vancouver or Portland. They like Camas because it is special.” 

Though most of the city council candidates, including Lewallen, said they did not support changing the Camas city government from its current, “strong mayor” form of government to one in which the mayor acts more as a figurehead, with a professional city manager running the day-to-day business of the city and the elected city council members having control over the hiring of the city manager, McDaniel broke from the pack with this question and said she might consider a change in the city’s form of government. 

“Sometimes we elect a good mayor and sometimes we don’t,” McDaniel said, adding she thought former Mayor McDonnell fit the latter description. “McDonnell was way in over his head and resigned fairly early in his term.” 

The other option, the “council-manager” form of government that is found in Vancouver and Washougal, “would offer more stability, especially on the operations side of the city (because) an experienced city manager would actually be responsible for running the day-to-day business of the city,” McDaniel said. “I think I would like to consider that, and send that to the voters.”