Camas mayor’s new job causes stir

Washougal councilor opposes hiring on ethical grounds

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

There will be at least one dissenting voice when Camas and Washougal councilors meet Monday to discuss a proposed economic development association that recently named Camas Mayor Paul Dennis its leader.

But whether Washougal Councilman Michael Delavar — a vocal opponent of the economic development group — stands alone in opposing Dennis’ hire on ethical grounds remains to be seen. Other Washougal councilors indicated Tuesday they wanted to learn more about the Port of Camas-Washougal’s hiring process before signing off on Dennis’ hire.

Meanwhile, multiple people involved in the port’s selection process, including Washougal Mayor Sean Guard, vouched for its ethical approach. State ethics agencies said that Dennis’ hire did not appear to violate any municipal government laws.

Dennis and his consulting company — Cascade Planning Group — were selected last week to head the proposed Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, which will work with Camas, Washougal and the Port of Camas-Washougal to retain and attract business to the area.

The port will use $100,000 from its 2011 budget toward the economic development group. Camas and Washougal will each kick in $50,000 apiece.

The city councils and port will hold a joint public meeting to discuss the association’s formation at 4 p.m. Monday at the Camas-Washougal Municipal Court building, 89 C St. in Washougal. The councils are expected to vote on the association at their respective meetings June 6. The port’s commissioners will vote June 7.

Delavar publicly criticized Dennis’ hire at Monday’s Washougal council meeting. He reiterated his views Tuesday during a phone interview.

“I have nothing against Mr. Dennis,” Delavar said. “I don’t know the man. I have no beef with him. But the process he was selected with was inappropriate.”

Dennis will step down as Camas’ mayor at month’s end to head the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association. Camas Mayor Pro-Tem Scott Higgins will replace Dennis as the city’s leader.

Dennis said he spoke with Delavar prior to his comments at the council meeting. He described them as being “without merit.” He estimated he had received around 200 supportive voice mails, text messages, emails and Facebook messages.

“If people want to make a mountain out of a molehill, they certainly could,” Dennis said. “We have a common thread between all three entities. We want to see job creation, business development and a better economy.”

Dennis and Camas City Administrator Lloyd Halverson stepped away from the process before any decisions were made so questions about undue influence would be avoided, Guard and Port of Camas-Washougal communications manager Jack Hardy agreed.

“I don’t see any conflict or any impropriety with it at all,” Guard said of Dennis’ hire.

Dennis noted he had not attended any meetings in the past year, after he realized he might work for the group.

“It’s irrelevant whether his intentions were there or not,” Delavar said. “The fact he was at the table is much more important. That makes him ineligible.”

Washougal councilors Jon Russell and Jennifer McDaniel said they believed Dennis was the best candidate, but wanted to know more about the hiring process before signing off. Fellow council member Paul Greenlee said he had followed the process to select Dennis and was satisfied the port followed local and state laws.

The port took pains to involve outsiders, including Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes, in the selection process to prevent conflicts in the search process, Guard and Hardy said.

Officials with state organizations that monitor city governments for potential ethics violations said the Port of Camas-Washougal’s hire of Dennis did not break any Washington state laws.

“Everybody’s got a perception about what does or does not look good, but if it’s not a violation of city or state code, it’s not a legal issue,” said Pat Mason, senior legal consultant with the Municipal Research and Services Center of Seattle. He noted he could not find a provision in the law that barred former mayors from conducting business with cities they once led.

Mindy Chambers, a spokeswoman with the Washington State Auditor’s Office, agreed with Mason that Dennis did not appear to break any laws. The ethics of his move would “be up to the court of public opinion,” Chambers said.

Dennis’ hire does not violate Camas ethics and whistle-blower laws, Camas and Washougal leaders agreed.

Camas’ policies forbid city employees from doing business with the city within a year of leaving their employment. No such policy exists for elected officials.

This “loophole” does not legitimize Dennis’ hiring, Delavar said.

“To me that’s just a political word,” Dennis replied, after being told of Delavar’s use of the term loophole. Dennis welcomed anyone with questions about the hiring process to research it.