Top 10 stories of 2023

From the Camas library’s 100th anniversary celebration to the first-ever Camas teachers’ strike, we count down the issues that impacted Camas-Washougal residents this year

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Camas teachers and their supporters walk the picket line near Helen Baller Elementary School in Camas Monday, Aug. 28, 2023. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Whether it was the local library celebrating its 100th anniversary with a year’s worth of events, Camas teachers going on strike for the very first time, the critical Washougal school levies that failed in February, then passed muster with voters in the spring, or the re-opening of the newly revamped Camas skatepark, there was no shortage of hyperlocal, Camas-Washougal news in 2023.

As we head into the new year, we’re counting down the “top 10” issue that impacted local residents and got readers talking over the past 12 months:

10. Camas Public Library turns 100, celebrates ‘A Century in the Books’

In January 2023, the Camas Public Library The Camas Public Library kicked off the mother of all birthday celebrations, with the first of many 2023 events honoring the library’s 100th anniversary.

Camas Mayor Steve Hogan proclaimed the entire year of 2023 “The Year of the Camas Public Library Centennial,” and said the local library “has proven itself to be an integral part of the community, providing friendly service, a home for readers and those in pursuit of knowledge and a welcoming place to gather.”

Events under the library’s “A Century in the Books” anniversary celebration tagline included an all-day celebration on the library’s actual 100th birthday on April 4; a “Women Who Shaped Camas” event at the Joyce Garver Theater featuring a panel of four notable Camas women — former Camas Mayor Nan Henriksen, Camas historian Virginia Warren, Second Story Gallery founder Barbara Baldus and Downtown Camas Association (DCA) Executive Director Carrie Schulstad — discussing how women helped shape the Camas we know today; art events at the Second Story Gallery showcasing the library’s history as well as the history of the local newspaper of record, The Camas-Washougal Post-Record; a “Kids Time Capsule” event; a 100-word story contest; a “memory library” where residents could share memories of their lives in Camas; a specially designed “centennial” library card; a Camas Days parade float; and a slew of other anniversary-related contests, trivia nights, community talks and library events.

9. Cities, Port tackle climate change

Camas-Washougal officials began to tackle climate change in earnest in 2023. In August, city officials in Camas and Washougal said they were considering participating in Clark Public Utilities’ community solar project at the Port of Camas-Washougal’s industrial park, and discussed purchasing up to 10 kilowatts from the community solar project.

Clark Public Utilities said in August it expected its east community solar project at the Port of Camas-Washougal to be “installed and operational by January 2024.”

Camas-Washougal officials also decided to band together with Clark County and other regional jurisdictions this year to plan for climate change impacts and set the stage for lowering each city’s carbon emissions — something required by state officials as part of House Bill 1181, which passed in early 2023.

The city of Camas is just beginning its required comprehensive plan update, and has received a $500,000 state grant to address the climate change requirements in its new comprehensive plan and to implement future climate-related policies, Peters said.

Joining the ILA with Clark County, Battle Ground, La Center, Ridgefield, Washougal and Yacolt for cooperative climate planning, Peters said, would allow Camas to better identify its greenhouse gas sources, as well as its risk from climate change.

“We will still have a Camas-specific team to help with our own, local goals,” Camas Community Development Director Alan Peters told Camas City Council members in November, “but by going in with these other cities and the county, we can get some good data on what our climate risks really are.”

8. Camas says goodbye to longtime police chief, welcomes Chief Tina Jones

In July, longtime Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey passed the torch to the city’s new police chief, Tina Jones.

“I know this is what everyone says, but I’ll miss the people. I’ll miss my coworkers … and the interactions at work,” Lackey told The Post-Record on Friday, July 7.

For Lackey, a lifelong Camas-Washougal resident who graduated from Washougal High School in 1978, and worked for The Columbian newspaper’s circulation department for a decade before joining the Camas police force as an officer in 1990, retirement has opened up a world of traveling, working in his backyard and spending time with his family, which includes ihs wife Carol, the couple’s two grown daughters and four young grandchildren.

Jones, who has lived in Clark County for the past two decades and worked most recently for the Portland Police Department before being selected as Camas’ next police chief, was sworn in to her new position during the Camas City Council’s July 3 meeting and said she is “deeply honored to be joining this tremendous team and getting to know all the people who live and work here.”

Jones also commented on the fact that Camas was recently named the safest suburb west of the Rocky Mountains.

“That’s a huge accomplishment,” she said. “And it wasn’t done in a vacuum. It was due in large part to a supportive council, mayor and community members who participate and care deeply for our public service agencies.”

7. Camas kickstarts decades-long Everett Street Corridor revamp

In the summer of 2023, the city of Camas entered the final phase of its three-phase Everett Street Corridor Analysis project and, later in the year, presented a “preferred alternative” plan to improve the 1.5-mile portion of state Route 500 that stretches from the Lake Road-Everett Street roundabout to the city limits near Northeast Third Street.

Though the project will, according to Camas Public Works Director Steve Wall, take decades to fully complete — and will have to be done in several “chunks” beginning with the section of road closest to the Lake-Everett roundabout, the improvements will eventually make the Everett Street Corridor a safer place for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers.

“We are likely not talking about one single project … but multiple projects that will take quite a bit of time and money to (complete),” Wall told Camas officials in the summer. .

City staff kicked off the Everett Street improvement project in the summer of 2022, and met with stakeholders — including people who own businesses, work and live along the improvement corridor — throughout 2023.

6. Camas skatepark gets a long-awaited revamp

The long-awaited Riverside Bowl Skatepark in Camas opened to public fanfare, skateboarding demonstrations and the unveiling of the park’s murals created by a Washougal artist on July 27.

Camas Mayor Steve Hogan said the park remodel has been a long time coming.

The park has been a part of Camas’ city parks for 23 years, Hogan said, and had gone through a long “dry spell.”

“Some local people … have done a lot of work to get this where it is,” Hogan said, before introducing Tim Laidlaw, a Washougal skateboarder who kicked off efforts to revamp the aging, failing skatepark in 2017, and the park’s mural artist, Kevin Seagraves, also a Washougal skateboarder.

Camas city officials approved a 350,403 bid from Lee Contractors of Battle Ground to remodel the skatepark in December 2022, and construction kicked off in the spring of 2023.

The updated skatepark, located at 2900 N.E. Third Ave., in Camas, is meant to be accessible for skateboarders, BMXers, scooter-riders, rollerbladers and roller skaters of all levels. The new renovations feature a new bowl, a pyramid-shaped riding element, new rails and ramps, and Seagraves’ murals along several of the park’s cement walls.

5. Cities grapple with water quality issues

Whether it was the public notification in early 2023, that toxic “forever chemicals” had been discovered in one of Camas’ drinking water wells or the release of data detailing pollutants in Camas’ Lacamas, Round and Fallen Leaf lakes, the community was keyed in to local water quality issues in 2023.

In January, the city of Camas sent notices to Camas drinking water customers to let them know elevated levels of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) had been found in a city well (Well 13) located south of East First Avenue near Louis Bloch Park in downtown Camas.

The city’s other wells were “not close to exceeding” the state’s recommended PFAS levels, Rachel added.

Known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally and can build up in the bodies of humans and animals, including many freshwater fish found in lakes and rivers. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, high levels of PFAS have been linked to liver and kidney disease, a decreased vaccine response in children, fetal complications, an increased risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia in pregnant people, high cholesterol and an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.

The EPA noted that water contamination by PFOS is usually connected to releases from “manufacturing sites, industrial sites, fire/crash training areas, and industrial or municipal waste sites where products are disposed of or applied.”

The city of Camas’ communications director, Bryan Rachel, told The Post-Record this week that determining the exact source of the PFOS in Well 13 is “extremely hard to do” and noted that, although some jurisdictions have found elevated PFAS levels in water sources near military bases or certain manufacturing sites, there is no obvious contamination source near Well 13.

“We don’t know why that well was testing higher,” he said.

The city took Well 13 offline during non-peak months, after discovering the elevated PFAS levels, and city staff are researching possible long-term solutions.

“As far as the city is concerned, our water is safe for consumption right now,” Rachel said, adding that Camas leaders are taking steps to address the PFAS levels in the water.

“It will be an issue other cities will be dealing with,” Rachel added, noting that he expects other Clark County jurisdictions that did not volunteer to conduct early testing may soon find themselves in similar predicaments.

City of Camas staff and consultants also wrapped up a yearlong water quality study of Lacamas, Round and Fallen Leaf lakes in September 2023, and presented city officials with recommended strategies for reducing the toxic algal blooms that have plagued the lakes in recent years.

Camas Public Works Director Steve Wall, along with Geosyntec consultant Jacob Krall, unveiled a draft Lakes Management Plan to Camas City Council members during a special meeting held Sept. 28.

“This is not the end all,” Wall said of the in-depth plan, which details water quality data from all three lakes and suggests short- and long-term strategies for preventing algal blooms and make the lakes safer for people recreating in the water.

“This is a baseline with scientific understanding of what’s going on in the lakes,” Wall explained. “This is meant to be a baseline. There are a lot of things we say ‘aren’t recommended right now’ because of … unknowns and a host of other factors that we’ll have to keep tracking between ourselves and our partners and stakeholders.”

Making the lakes safer for recreating and, eventually, cleaning up the 67-square-mile Lacamas Watershed, which is Lacamas and Round lakes’ main source of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen that feed algae and contribute to algal blooms that can sicken and kill humans and pets — will take long-term solutions and assistance from city, county, state, nonprofit and community stakeholders, Wall said.

“It will take all of us to make it work,” Wall told officials on Sept. 28, adding that the city and its consultants have been working with a wide range of partners, including Clark County’s public works and public health departments, the state’s Department of Ecology, the Clark Conservation District, the Lacamas Watershed Council, the Watershed Alliance of Southwest Washington and the Camas Parks Commission during the run-up to the draft Lakes Management Plan.

In December, Camas officials approved new rates for its stormwater services that will, in addition to funding other long-term capital needs, help pay for treatments the City may use to treat Lacamas and Round lakes and, if all goes as expected, help prevent toxic algal blooms in the popular recreation areas.

4. Camas, Washougal secure millions in state, federal grants

When it came to collecting money in the form of grants from state and federal agencies, 2023 was a lucrative year for the cities of Camas and Washougal.

In late May, Washougal officials learned that the city will receive a $40.5 million federal grant to fund the design and construction of its 32nd Street underpass project. The City’s $50 million underpass project will reconnect Washougal’s Addy Street neighborhood with its downtown and Port of Camas-Washougal areas by reconstructing five intersections along 32nd Street.

In July, the city of Camas learned it was set to receive the lion’s share of a batch of outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat grants awarded to Clark County jurisdictions.

The Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) announced July 18, that it had awarded nearly $190 million in grants to communities statewide “to improve outdoor recreation and conserve important wildlife habitat for Washingtonians and the plants and animals that live here.”

The RCO awarded $3,315,000 in grants to Clark County projects, including three Camas-specific grants totalling $2.25 million. The Camas grants included $1.25 million for completing the “missing link” in the Green Mountain area; $500,000 to improve the South Lacamas Creek (Third Avenue) trailhead on the south end of Lacamas Lake Regional Park; and $500,000 to revamp Camas’ historic Crown Park.

A couple months later, in September, the city of Washougal announced it had received a $10 million Public Works Assistance Account (PWAA) loan for the construction of a new biosolids handling facility from the Washington State Public Works Board. The loan was part of the $221 million in funding the Public Works Board awarded in early September to Washington cities, counties and special-purpose districts for local community infrastructure projects.

Washougal City Manager Dave Scott said 62 applicants submitted 85 funding requests totalling more than $312 million in PWAA funding for the 2024 fiscal year. The Public Works Board considered the rated and ranked applications, and awarded loans and grants to 51 construction projects for a total of more than $221 million.

3. Voters reject, then pass Washougal school levies

Washougal voters overwhelmingly approved the Washougal School Distict’s two levy requests April 25, after rejecting them two months earlier.

The school district put replacement educational programs and operations (EPO), which funds student learning and staffing and operations costs not covered by the state, as well as athletics programs, health and safety needs and instructional support, and technology, which would help replace a failing roof at Washougal High School, make ADA improvements and provide technology support to Washougal students, levies on the February special election ballot. After voters rejected both levies, Washougal School Board members voted to re-run the levies in April.

School district leaders said a second failure to pass the two replacement levies would have resulted in a 20% reduction of the district’s operating budget and the loss of 244 staff positions — including 40 teachers, counselors and certified staff members; 44 paraeducators, custodians, bus drivers, secretaries and other classified staff members; five district administrators; and 155 coaches and club advisers — for the 2023-24 school year.

A group of Washougal residents, led by Clark County Republican Party precinct committee officer Glenn Kincaid, encouraged voters to reject the levies, arguing that the district was lying to them about a variety of issues, including the amount of additional taxes, the cost estimate of the Washougal High roof replacement project and the severity of the proposed reductions; and the students’ “failing” test scores didn’t warrant continued investment.

In April, ahead of the second levy vote,the city of Washougal and Port of Camas-Washougal issued proclamations of support for the Washougal School District, which was preparing to eliminate more than 200 staff positions, extracurricular activities and a variety of educational programs and services in the event of a second levy failure.

Instead, Washougal voters rallied for the district and passed both replacement levies by wide margins during the spring special election.

The levies will replace the district’s current levies, which are set to expire at the end of 2023.

2. City leaders tackle fire department needs

Officials in Camas and Washougal continued to work on critical fire department needs throughout 2023, including the replacement of two fire stations — the Washougal station and the Camas-Washougal Fire Department’s headquarters station next to Camas City Hall in downtown Camas — hammering out a new interlocal agreement (ILA) that will extend or replace the 10-year agreement that formed the joint fire department in 2013 and is set to expire at the end of January 2024; and possibly bringing a ballot measure to Camas-Washougal voters that would form a regional fire authority and take the financial burden for the joint fire department away from the cities’ general funds.

Under the current ILA, the cities split the fire department’s costs, with the city of Camas paying around 60% and the city of Washougal paying around 40% of the costs.

Both cities use their general fund — which also pays for things like streets, police and parks — to fund the fire portion of the CWFD and voter-approved levies to pay for the fire department’s EMS services.

In recent years, however, Washougal officials have said their city cannot afford the staffing increases Camas-Washougal Fire Department leaders have said are necessary to keep up with the area’s growing population and emergency medical service needs.

In June, Camas Mayor Steve Hogan presented options for moving forward to the Camas City Council — the body responsible for making financial decisions related to the joint fire department.

“The intent is to take the existing (Camas-Washougal Fire Department) and assist them toward a future with a regional fire authority,” Hogan said in June, adding that the “ramp up time” to a new regional fire authority (RFA), which will need to be approved by Camas-Washougal voters, would likely take three years to implement.

“It will take a planning committee a year or two to create the structure for this,” Hogan said of the RFA.

1. School districts face budget woes, staff cuts, lower enrollment, teacher strikes

The Camas and Washougal school district both faced challenges in 2023, including decreased per-pupil state funding due to lower-than-expected enrollment figures; the need to make tough decisions when it came to balancing the districts’ budgets; and, in Camas, a teachers’ strike that postponed the start of the 2023-24 school year.

In March, the Camas School District (CSD) sent notifications to staff members impacted by the district’s nearly $6 million in budget cuts. The initial cuts called for cutting $1.77 million from the central administrative office, $1.56 million from the district’s high schools, $1.16 million from the district’s middle schools, $1 million from the district’s elementary schools; and $510,000 in other cuts.

Camas students and families later went to bat to help save programs and staff positions at the district’s Discovery and Hayes Freedom high schools. Dozens of Discovery students participated in a planned walk-out the day before students went on their spring break to protest the district’s plans.

“Students aren’t feeling good about this,” said Hannah Cuffel, 16, Discovery High’s sophomore class president, in April. “We’re losing our principal … and we can’t think of anyone else who could run this school.”

On April 7, Cuffel and three other Discovery High students — junior Jax Goertzen, 16; freshman Zimry Baxter, 14; and junior Angel Harp, 16 — gathered at a booth near the Camas Hotel during the Downtown Camas Association’s popular First Friday event. They handed out literature asking people to “protect PBL” and said they wanted to make sure students would play a role in the district’s hiring of the next PBL/CCA principal. The students also said they worried about losing educators who were well-versed in the project-based learning philosophy.

In August, Camas teachers went on strike for the first time ever, and called for higher cost-of-living increases, caps on classroom sizes and more equitable funding for music, physical education, health and library programs.

The teachers’ strike delayed the start of the 2023-24 school year, which was set to start Aug. 28, until Sept. 8.

Also in August, Washougal school officials predicted “tough times ahead” for that district.

Then Washougal School Board President Cory Chase said in August: ““I just think it’s worth noting that we are signaling that there’s some tough decisions to be made. Our income is not going to match what our expenditures are. We know that costs are rising, and the environment isn’t what it used to be. I just hope that everybody’s prepared.”

Reporter Doug Flanagan contributed to this article.