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  • Writer's pictureLeslie Lewallen

Did You Know- The Revolving Door Keeps Spinning

There’s something troubling in the City of Camas. In May, when the Mayor and City Administrator abruptly quit their jobs after serving less than a year and a half, the citizens of Camas were left scratching their heads and saying, “Wait a minute—who’s steering this ship?” 16 months into a four-year term for Mayor Barry McDonnell and Jamal Fox just 9 months into the highest paying job at City Hall. Both men gone -- checked out with zero fanfare, essentially leaving the City of Camas rudderless and drifting. Which leaves me with the question: What exactly is happening in Camas City Hall?

In Case of Accountability Emergency, Please Use the Revolving Door

Did you know that City Hall has a revolving door reserved just for our City leadership? Despite the tens of thousands of dollars spent on search firms and consultants, newly anointed Captains and crew members continually lower their personal life rafts and jump off the U.S.S. Camas at an alarming rate.

Freshman Councilmember Ellen Burton, now serving as Mayor Pro Tem, is bailing out at the end of her first term. She’s announced she won’t be running again so she won’t have to answer for any of this on voting day. Yet as Mayor Pro Tem, with aspirations to become “Interim Mayor”, she will have the authority to recruit and hire our next City Administrator that she insists must be in place BEFORE the new Mayor is elected in November. She has already promised to do exactly that. Begin at 2:15 mark of this video. On her way out the door, she’ll leave HER choice in charge of City Staff and recipient of Camas’ highest municipal paycheck.

After 17 years on the City Council, Councilmember Melissa Smith has also announced her retirement from City politics. She has decided to call it a career, walking out the door after only 2 years ago running as a write-in for Camas Mayor. In her ward, Ward 1, 4 citizens have filed as candidates to take her job.

Veteran 4-Term Councilmember Steve Hogan has also walked away from his spot of 16 plus years on the Council in Ward 2. He chose to give it up to run for Mayor, unlike Smith, who actually ran for Mayor while maintaining her Council position. Nothing to lose there, I guess.

Speaking about Mayors of Camas, the revolving door hasn’t stopped spinning as a long line of them have pushed through the City Hall turnstile.

Former Mayor, Paul Dennis (2003-2011)

Dennis has been charged with first-degree theft on accusations of using association funds for personal expenses. He is awaiting his September 2021 trial.

While in office, Dennis hatched the idea and framework for the Camas Washougal Economic Development Association (CWEDA), which allegedly became his personal ”slush fund” used to misappropriate public funds from 2011-2019. As its paid Executive Director, the taxpayers of both Camas and Washougal were possibly fleeced out of more than $1.2M in questionable expenditures while Dennis led CWEDA with little oversight from its board of directors or respective City Council liasons. State Auditors, brought in to clean up the mess, could not verify that these expenditures were either legal or served any public purpose. They found that CWEDA and its Board did not have adequate procedures in place to protect public funds.

Former Mayor Scott Higgins (2011-2018)

Higgins was appointed to the Mayor’s position by the City Council to fill the seat vacated by Dennis, mid-term in 2011. Higgins was on the Board of Directors of CWEDA at the same time controversial Washougal Mayor Sean Guard was tasked with CWEDA oversight. Higgins was quoted as saying:

“I believe the ship is on the right course. It is well run and well administered,” he answered. “I want to add my vision to what is already established.”

But the ship quickly veered off-course. Mayor Higgins had promised to surround our beloved (now toxic) Lacamas Lake with “Legacy Lands”- private property that the City would buy from local landowners to be preserved in perpetuity. He promised the price tag would not exceed $4.7M total and after grants and help from the county, a maximum net cost of $2.0M to Camas taxpayers. However, the City ended up paying roughly $24M in all for the lands, lands that actually have no legal protection from sale or development at all, with no bond or voter approval, all approved by the Council behind closed doors in executive session. Why did the City pay more than 700% of the lands’ appraised value? And why did the appraised value suddenly jump by 700% the same year the City had inquired about purchasing? Is anyone at City Hall held accountable for the $20 million dollar cost overrun taxpayers were forced to pay while being told they had 3 minutes to comment?

Upon his abrupt mid-term departure while claiming he wanted to spend more time with his family, Mayor Higgins then suddenly became the Vice President of a large real estate company, even though he had no previous real estate experience and had recently been a pastor of a church and a copier salesman. Coincidence? You decide.

Former Mayor Shannon Turk (2018-2019)

Turk was appointed by the Council to replace Higgins, and had only served a year before she asked the City of Camas to “trust” her on the construction of a $78 million dollar Aquatic Center on top of 5 homes near Lacamas Lake. Pushing Proposition 2, known as the Pool Bond, was Turk’s signature legislative goal. Unfortunately, nine out of ten of her constituents didn’t see it that way. The Pool Bond was defeated by the largest margin in Washington State history, 90% to 10%. It also cost Turk her job as Mayor, being replaced by a man who won as a write-in only 30 days before election day. Another first in Washington State history!

Former Mayor Barry McDonald (2020-2021)

McDonnell served only 16 months from January 2020 to May of 2021. Like Higgins, McDonald abruptly resigned, citing more time with family as his reason for leaving office barely a third of the way into his 4-year term. Now, Camas is being led by a Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Burton, who as mentioned earlier, is also jumping ship in November.

Transparent Government For a Better Future

City Administrator, Jamal Fox, also joined the exodus and announced he was quitting just 2 weeks after a group of local citizens filed a motion for reconsideration of the land use decision allowing a drug detox center to be located right next to Dorothy Fox Elementary School. Unfortunately, leaders running out the revolving door at Camas City Hall is something we all have become frustratingly accustomed to.

Citizens filing lawsuits against their own community while leaders are bailing at record speeds isn’t a good look. As the United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said about ineffective government, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” In other words, a representative democracy depends on a transparent government that acts in the “sunlight” and not the “shadows.”

(To read more about why transparent, accountable leadership is critical in government, see my published law review article - Telford: Casting Sunlight on Shadow Governmental Limits to the Delegation of Government Power to Associations of Officials and Agencies )

When decisions are made in the shadows or behind closed doors without transparency (like City Hall deciding to support a $78 million pool bond), infections start to fester. If left untreated, this infection grows – and it has: Allowing developers to put a detox next to an elementary school; Building $8 million roundabouts; Purchasing $24 million of land valued at $4 million along the Northshore; and actively stonewalling efforts to clean toxic Lacamas Lake that just gets worse year after year.

Unfortunately, for far too long, this City has suffered a lack of honest, transparent and accountable leadership. The absence of such leadership and legitimate citizen oversight creates a breeding ground for mismanagement and leaders who quickly search for the exits when the reckoning comes their way. The result is a series of bad decisions that are neither clearly understood nor supported by the public, leaving citizens with many unanswered questions by decision makers who no longer are in office.

To cure this progressive disease in government, we must cast a bright spotlight on the decision-making process and decision-makers of Camas to ensure transparency, accountability and effective leadership. Only this “sunlight” can cure the City of Camas. If elected, I promise the citizens of Camas to fill and complete my term as City Councilor, regardless of the political climate which I may encounter. I am your voice on the council, and I will make your voice heard each and every day, from the first to the very last. Together, we can change the revolving door of leadership in Camas once and for all.

Camas Deserves a Better Future

I’m committed to representing democracy as it was intended -- of the people, by the people and for the people. My vision aligns with those of the citizens. To create, sustain and nurture a successful and thriving community supported by a transparent and accountable City Hall. A future where leaders listen to the needs and wants of the people they represent to make the tough decisions affecting our daily lives. A place where leaders stand up and hold themselves and their peers accountable to the people.

I have already cast sunlight on the shadows, and if elected, I will continue to stand up and ask questions when others are silent. When tough decisions need to be made and explained to the citizens, I will roll up my sleeves instead of run for the door. I will embody the courage of our citizens who have fought before me for their voice, and continue to be courageous when others are not. I will actively listen to your voices as we tackle the tough challenges facing our community now and in the future. Only together can we restore a better tomorrow for generations to come.

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