Focus on healing, moving forward in Yacolt

Council features just one holdover after a year of controversy

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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YACOLT — Six months ago, Yacolt resident Jeff Carothers stood before the town’s council and asked how to start a petition to remove a member from the council. The only council member eligible for a recall was Karen Holyk.

Talk of a recall turned out to be nothing more than that. Now, Carothers is the town’s mayor and Holyk is its mayor pro-tem. Lest anyone think trouble is on the horizon, each dismissed suggestions this week they were ever at odds.

“Whatever happened was back in the past,” Holyk said. “We just need to move forward.”

Carothers and Holyk are not the only residents of Yacolt (pop. 1,566) taking that approach.

After an at times turbulent and acrimonious year among Yacolt leaders, town residents decided to wipe the slate clean by electing four new council members and a new mayor. Aware residents yearn for a fresh start, the new leaders said they aimed to bring fresh ideas, more transparency and a sense of stability lacking in recent years.

Carothers and three of the four new council members were sworn in last Monday night during a scheduled council meeting.

Jeff Hall, Jerry Newell and Rick Urias made their council debuts. Vince Myers will replace councilman Dave Hancock on Dec. 19. Holyk, who became mayor pro-tem last Monday, is the lone holdover on the council.

“The citizens wanted a change … I think that’s pretty obvious,” Carothers said.

Not all see it that way.

Dave Ayers, who lost his council seat this fall, pointed out the majority of Yacolt residents did not vote in the November election. He views the current landscape as divided between people trying to preserve small-town Yacolt, loved for its peace and quiet, and those who would like to see growth on some level.

Turbulent 2011

Yacolt is a place you have to make a conscious effort to find. It is not off Interstate 5 like Ridgefield or La Center. It’s nestled among hills, as if hidden from time or care.

The town itself is about as low-key as it gets. There are few gathering places or entertainment outlets. There are bountiful opportunities to enjoy nature, though.

The town is, in essence, the picture of a bedroom community. And most people like it that way. They’ll take their serenity, and their neighbors in larger communities can have the hustle and bustle.

However, Yacolt’s town government was anything but quiet in 2011.

In March, a state audit determined the town violated state laws when it purchased equipment from a town employee without going through the competitive bidding process. Mayor Joe Warren resigned a week after the audit’s release, but said his decision to step down after six years resulted from unspecified health reasons.

Three months later, council members narrowly shot down a resolution recognizing Warren. Council members who voted against the June 6 resolution said they did so because the town staff had failed to notify them of their intention to honor Warren.

Some residents viewed the council’s decision as a deliberate attempt to insult Warren. As a result, town residents, including Carothers, asked officials at the June 20 meeting how they could start a recall petition.

He said this week he had spoken on behalf of neighbors who desired information about a recall. He denied his queries were directed toward Holyk, who was the only council member who had been elected. The other four members were appointed, and thus not eligible for recall.

Shortly after the June 20 meeting, former town clerk Lynne Oldham filed a complaint against Yacolt with the Washington State Auditor’s Office. She accused town officials of trying to humiliate her by inserting an attachment into the council minutes that suggested she raised her middle finger toward Warren.

Tensions inside the town escalated again during the campaign season. Unknown assailants keyed four of Carothers’ vehicles. The home of his opponent, Skip Benge, was egged. It is unknown whether either event was related to the elections.

Election season animosity did not exist between candidates, town officials agreed. Rather, it existed between supporters of candidates. The bitterness seems to have since died down. Focus, officials said, has turned to issues affecting the town.

The new-look Yacolt council wasted little time diving into big-ticket issues last Monday. Among those they discussed were the town’s 2012 budget and septic system inspections. The town does not have a sewer system.

The council also approved EMS and property tax levies.

“We are really excited to work together and work with the citizens,” Carothers said.

Carothers’ excitement extends to working with Holyk.

“We’re relying heavily on her experience and what she brings to the table,” Carothers said.

Holyk returned the favor, noting she had a “very positive relationship” with the new mayor.

How the council members interact over time remains to be seen. Voters elected “five independent thinkers,” and in doing so gave the town a “fresh start,” said Pete Roberts, Yacolt’s public works director.

“They’re not part of a group,” Roberts said. “They never knew each other before.”

Mark Stephan, a political science professor at Washington State University Vancouver, recommended the town’s officials hold a retreat to get to know each other better. Carothers said there is not time, due to remaining budget work.

“If the group could spend half a day or a few hours talking about process,” Stephan said, “I can’t see how they wouldn’t be served by this.”

Not everyone is convinced old wounds are healed.

Ayers, for one, rejected characterizations that Carothers and Holyk’s relationship was rosy.

“I don’t believe they’ve been buried yet,” Ayers said of possible hard feelings between the pair.

“Forgiveness is more likely than forgetting,” Stephan added, when told of Carothers’ query about a possible recall, and how it could have impacted Holyk.

Ayers spoke Friday afternoon from behind the bar of his Red Fir Inn. The Red Fir Inn, which is part of Yacolt’s shopping center, is one of the few places in town to grab food and a drink on a Friday night, patrons said.

The town remains divided about its future, Ayers said.

“We really want to retain the small-town atmosphere,” said Ayers, a Yacolt resident since 1974, “and we’re trying to get everybody back together because we have a lot of good things going on in Yacolt.”

Some people in town want to bring in more chain businesses, Ayers said, a possibility he is firmly against.

Oldham shared Ayers’ view about Holyk and the rest of the town leadership.

“They’ll get rid of Karen Holyk as soon as they can,” said Oldham, who lives outside the town limits. “They’ll find a way.”

Roberts, the public works director, sought a restraining order against Oldham last month on the grounds that she has repeatedly harassed him. Oldham denied the accusation. A Clark County District Court judge is scheduled to rule on the order later this month.

Council members said they don’t see the division between Roberts and Oldham negatively impacting the town’s government. Oldham has stopped attending council meetings, she said.

While officials are optimistic, they are not blindly optimistic. For instance, no one expects the next four years to yield 5-0 votes on every significant item.

“We understand sometimes you have to agree to disagree on some items,” Carothers said, “but that’s going to stimulate good discussion and bring up good ideas you haven’t thought of before.”

Yacolt’s soon-to-be councilman, Myers, described the new council as a “work in progress” and noted its members needed to be transparent. Many residents believed, whether true or not, that the previous council did not listen to them, he noted.

“Just because we’re a small town doesn’t mean everyone knows everyone else,” Myers said. “We have to work through our differences.”

Even Ayers, who believes the town was divided, urged residents to wait before passing judgment on the town’s new leadership.

“Please give the new council a chance to get their feet wet before we crucify them,” Ayers said.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com