Washougal officials take sides in election

Mayor, council members show ideological division

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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Washougal Mayor Sean Guard has told anyone who would listen this year’s four council elections could represent a “turning point” for his city. The council could potentially swing far to the right — and he aims to stop it, he said.

Guard’s endorsements in each council race and the rationale for his decisions have sparked criticism from several council members who question what he means when he says he fears seeing the seven-seat nonpartisan elected body going farther right.

Washougal council members Molly Coston, Rod Morris and Jennifer McDaniel are each facing two or more challengers in the Aug. 16 primary. Fellow councilman Michael Delavar faces challenger Joyce Lindsay in the Nov. 8 general election.

Guard views the current council as having a four-person conservative bloc: Delavar, McDaniel, Jon Russell and Dave Shoemaker. Members of the so-called Washougal Four have denied such a bloc exists.

“This year’s election could be a turning point for Washougal,” Guard said. “… We’re either going to go further to the right or come back to the center.”

Guard sent supporters an email from his personal account July 16, declaring his support for Coston, Morris, Lindsay and Niki Anderson, a challenger to McDaniel. The First Amendment grants elected officials the right to openly vouch for candidates for elected office, Washington state Secretary of State officials said.

Should his candidates win, Guard believes, the new council would cease to make decisions based on ideological preferences, and act instead in Washougal’s best interests.

“It doesn’t really make sense,” Delavar said of Guard’s statements. “We don’t have a party in Washougal.”

Guard is not the only Washougal elected official supporting candidates in the council races or the only one to back a challenger for council.

Russell supports Connie Jo Freeman in her bid to unseat Molly Coston. While some elected officials, Guard included, wonder if Russell is not influencing other races, Russell said he is not supporting candidates in other primary races.

Councilman Paul Greenlee publicly supports incumbents Rod Morris and Molly Coston.

Shoemaker is endorsing McDaniel in the primary and whoever runs against Coston and Morris in the general election, assuming the incumbents reach that stage.

Coston, McDaniel and Delavar each said they did not plan to support candidates in the primary. A phone call to Morris was not immediately returned Friday.

‘Political garbage’

The four Guard depicted as an über-conservative voting bloc rejected the idea that they are pulling strings to advance an ideological agenda.

“The council is divided, there’s no doubt about it, but everybody on the council does their own research” and makes up their own mind about issues, Shoemaker said. “The idea somebody put together a bloc with a bunch of independent-minded people is beyond my comprehension.”

The council’s votes on issues don’t bear out Guard’s “Washougal Four” assertions, Shoemaker said. McDaniel, in particular, often sides with Coston, Morris and Greenlee, Shoemaker explained.

“It’s almost conspiratorial,” Russell added, in regards to Guard’s statements. “It’s almost black helicopter-type stuff.”

McDaniel called Guard’s statements “political garbage.”

“The mayor’s time and energy should be focused on bringing us together rather than tearing us apart,” she said.

‘Interesting sideshow’

Guard put a bulls-eye on McDaniel’s seat in his July 16 email to supporters.

The mayor encouraged readers to donate money to McDaniel’s challenger, Anderson, so she could purchase campaign signs. He noted Anderson needed $750.

Guard’s email labeled Anderson as a fifth-generation Washougal resident, while describing McDaniel being a newcomer who moved to Washougal from Texas six years ago.

“Frankly, I’m surprised he sees me as a threat,” McDaniel said, when asked about Guard’s email.

Guard described the email as a way to tell people whom he supported for council and the reasons why he supported them. He desires council members, he said, who will make up their own minds on issues and vote accordingly. He does not want seven people who agree with him, he added.

Such emails take away the council’s focus from important issues, Shoemaker said.

“It’s an interesting sideshow,” he said. “It’s fascinating and fun, but it’s not the real game. The real game is economic development, spending money wisely and giving citizens value for the tax dollars they provide.”

‘That’s the people’s seat’

Much like Guard’s decision to back candidates, Russell’s decision to support Freeman against Coston has raised eyebrows. Freeman participated in Russell’s failed run for a state representative seat.

“Connie Jo Freeman will help move Washougal beyond the political scandals of the last three years,” Russell wrote on his blog, Washougal Kibbutz. Russell’s post referenced economic turmoil that arose during former mayor Stacee Sellars’ tenure.

Guard and Greenlee chastised Russell for his words’ implications. If anyone should be linked to the political scandals of the last three years, Guard and Greenlee agreed, it should be Russell.

Russell considered himself the de facto chairman of the city’s finance committee, Guard said. The committee did not actually have a chairman, the mayor noted.

“How he can think he’s free and clear boggles my mind,” Guard said of Russell.

Russell clarified that his post merely meant to support his friend Freeman, not to implicate Coston in wrongdoing.

“That’s not Molly Coston’s seat,” Russell said. “That’s the people’s seat. They elect whoever they want to elect. If that’s Molly, then that’s Molly.”

Attempts to ask Coston about Russell’s endorsement of Freeman were unsuccessful.

‘Where is it turning?’

Opinions on whether this election season represents a possible “turning point” for Washougal differ among council members.

“It could be, but only if it swings one way or the other,” Greenlee said. “Frankly, I suspect that’s not what’s going to happen.”

Washougal needs a turning point, Shoemaker said, so city leaders will stop spending reserves that can’t be replaced on projects that, while worthwhile, leave the city in a financial hole.

The city has passed its turning point, McDaniel argued.

“We’re moving forward,” she said. “We’re doing positive things. The last thing we need is more negativity.”

Future council members will need to determine how best to attract and retain businesses, Russell said. To do so, long-time Washougal residents and the newcomers Guard referenced in his email must work together.

Guard’s Washougal “turning point” prediction ultimately left Russell puzzled.

“Where is it turning?” Russell asked.

Ray Legendre: 360-435-7517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities; http:// www.facebook.com/raylegend; ray.legendre@columbian.com.