Camas mulls ‘buy American’ policy

Some councilors nix mandate but support policy ‘preferring’ city purchase U.S.-made goods

Should the city of Camas buy “Made in America” goods over those produced outside the United States? That was the question Camas City Council members tossed around during the Council’s first workshop of 2022, on Monday, Jan. 3.

Camas’ interim city administrator, Jeff Swanson, said city staff had researched the pros and cons of legislating a “buy American” policy for city goods at the request of Councilwoman Shannon Roberts and “with the support of” Councilman Don Chaney.

“I’m putting this out there because buying American-made products increases the demand and encourages more exports,” Roberts said during the Jan. 3 workshop. “The main reason is to keep American jobs in America but, second most, we know these products follow labor laws of the United States. We know what the labor laws are in other countries, and we don’t want to follow that. (The labor laws) are more stringent in the U.S. We don’t use child labor here, pay people wages they deserve and (I) think the city should be able to buy American.”

Newly elected Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen agreed.

“I think (over) the past couple years so many people have lost jobs and livelihoods, so I support anything that helps people get back on their feet,” Lewallen said.

Councilman Greg Anderson said he thought legislating a “buy American” policy would be complicated on a city level.

“We are resource-constrained. The money we have is constrained by what we get from taxpayers,” Anderson said Monday. “If there is a sizable difference in cost, we have to be able to explain that, to (show) there is a value that taxpayers can understand. Trying to legislate that is tricky. Trying to communicate it is even trickier. I’m not upset that we want to do it, but we should do it with our eyes wide open and look around for unintended consequences.”

Councilwoman Bonnie Carter said that, while she believes “keeping things local is ideal,” she would hesitate to support something requiring the city to only buy goods made in the United States.

“I think ‘preferred’ is a good word to use,” Carter said. “Mandating might get sticky with pricing and availability, so I’m more partial to the word, ‘preferred.'”

Camas Mayor Steve Hogan said he would urge the council members to consider setting perimeters for staff if they choose to mandate a “made in America” policy.

“I would say, at this time, we’re trying to buy at the lowest cost we can find under the laws we work under. If you make a change, there’s going to be some kind of a cost, so how much do you want to authorize staff to increase their spending on these products?” Hogan said Monday. “Taxpayers are going to fund it, so how much are we willing to make our taxpayers fund to support a policy that supports made-in-U.S. goods? … From an administrator standpoint, as mayor, I’m seeing some dollars going up pretty fast here.”

The city’s finance director, Cathy Huber Nickerson, said there were three main things to consider if the council decided it wanted to mandate a “buy American” policy.

“There are audit issues,” Huber Nickerson said. “State auditors will look to make sure we’re compliant … and that’s where it becomes tricky. For a lot of suppliers, it’s hard for them to distinguish what is ‘made in America.’ Does ‘assembled in America’ qualify?”

Huber Nickerson also said a “buy American” mandate on a city level could possibly jeopardize Camas’ chances of qualifying for federal grants if a federal audit showed a contractor working with the city had not, for example, differentiated between “made in America” goods and those produced outside the country during the course of their work for Camas.

One other thing to consider, Huber Nickerson said, is the additional work a “buy American” policy would place on Camas staff.

“We would have to have someone go through every contract to make sure they were all American-made (products),” Huber Nickerson said. “I understand the intent, but putting it in place, for a small city, is going to be really challenging.”

Steve Wall, the city’s public works director, pointed out that council members might want to wait to see what President Joe Biden comes up with on a federal level.

“President Biden has developed a new cabinet/office that deals specifically with Made in America (policies) and one of his initiatives is that we strengthen the language around ‘Made in America’ provisions, so we could have some guidance at a national level,” Wall said Monday. “We could wait and see where President Biden’s initiative goes.”

Newly elected Councilman Tim Hein said Monday he would likely not support a mandate, but would support city language that “prefers” city staff purchase goods produced in the U.S.

Roberts, the councilor who kicked off the conversation, agreed after hearing from city staff that “a mandate would be difficult.”

“Preference probably would work,” Roberts said. “But if we really want to do something, we can do something. If we really want to buy products made in America, where child labor is not being used, we can do that. Will it work in every situation? No, it won’t, but we can do what we can do. I just wanted to say that.”

Swanson said he would ask the city attorney, Shawn MacPherson, to draft a proposal that is “preferential toward American-made products” and bring that language back to council to discuss at a later date.

Editor’s note: This article was corrected on Jan. 7, 2022, to reflect the correct spelling of Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen’s last name. The Post-Record strives for accuracy and regrets the error.