Local city councils draw older members

Ridgefield City Council has chance to buck nationwide trend when it fills 2 new positions

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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photoCity council ages

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So how does a community encourage its residents, particularly its younger residents, to sacrifice for the good of the community?

There are several options, council members and political scientists noted, including casting a larger net on social media; partnering with high schools to have a student representative attend council meetings; and recruiting younger people to planning commissions or neighborhood associations, which can be stepping stones to a city council seat.

In his 30s, Don Stose crisscrossed the Pacific Northwest on a weekly basis as a factory representative for Toyota. When he returned home, he devoted his attention to his family. City issues were someone else's concern.

Today at 62 and retired, Stose is the youngest member of the Ridgefield City Council, a five-member elected body whose members' average age is 68.

Ridgefield's council has an opportunity to better represent its status as the county's second-youngest community when it appoints two new members next month, but Stose isn't sure that will happen.

Stose can identify with the main factors — i.e., children at home, a busy career and longer work commutes — causing age disparities between city councils and their residents not only in Ridgefield but elsewhere in Clark County and nationwide.

The percentage of city council members younger than 40 nationwide tumbled to 4 percent in 2011, according to a study by Arizona State University professor James Svara, in conjunction with the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the percentage of council members older than 60 skyrocketed to 50 percent during the same 32-year span.

As baby boomers reach retirement age, they are more apt to view council membership as a worthwhile time investment while people younger than 40 either don't have the time or are choosing to volunteer their time in different ways, said Svara, who teaches at Arizona State's School of Public Affairs. That is if the younger generations value public service -- a point of contention.

Clark County's seven city councils reflect the nationwide trend toward older members. More visible gray hairs does not mean an agenda more geared toward seniors, just as the presence of younger council members does not automatically entail a larger priority on issues such as parks and recreation, Clark County city council members said.

Age disparity does have its drawbacks though.

"You risk the city government getting out of touch," Svara said of situations such as Ridgefield's council makeup.

The under-40 crowd

Battle Ground Councilman Adrian Cortes, a 36-year-old father of two, estimates he spends up to 28 hours a month on council matters, whether attending meetings or events, researching agenda items, or speaking with residents. Regardless of how much time he puts in, he still receives $400 per month from the city -- a fact that means, "I'm paying into it rather than receiving a paycheck," Cortes said. Council members also receive reimbursement for registration and lodging associated with conferences.

Cortes realizes the seat's relative lack of compensation fails to appeal to most people his age, but for him there is a different allure.

"At the end of the day, you want to make a positive impact on the community you grew up in," Cortes said. There is also the potential of it being a launching pad for bigger things. Cortes is running this year for the 18th District State House seat.

Cortes is among a handful of Clark County residents younger than 40 who have not only sought a council seat but won. The list also includes his fellow Battle Ground Councilman Shane Bowman, Vancouver's Bart Hansen, Washougal's Caryn Plinski and Woodland's Benjamin Fredricks.

It's not just the need to earn a living and raise a family that is stopping Generation X and its descendents, the Millenials, from getting involved, city council members and those who study local government agreed. Council service pays little, requires part-time hours (if you're going to do a good job) and inspires criticism on a regular basis.

"What I have found is not a lot of people are willing to do it for the amount of money and sacrifice that it takes to do this job," said the 38-year-old Fredricks, who works in Portland, a 30-mile drive north on Interstate 5 to Woodland. For those younger members who do accept the challenge, the items they seek to address are not markedly different than their older peers.

Plinski, for instance, has her eye on parks and recreation, partnerships with schools and sidewalks around schools. While those items interest her as a young mother, her primary focus is on serving the city's population as a whole. Thus, an issue such as public transportation for Washougal's aging population is also on her radar, she noted.

Being younger, Cortes added, allows him to understand the concerns of Battle Ground's young adults such as the ability to afford to rent or own homes; quality of life; and providing food, clothing and other items for children.

Getting young people to show up — whether to meetings or community events — is the biggest hurdle to having them on council, Cortes said.

Or, as in Ridgefield's case, getting them to run for elected office.

In the next six weeks, the council will add two new members, in accordance with a state law that requires cities to expand to seven members once they surpass 5,000 residents. Therein lies a unique opportunity for the city council to better reflect its community's relative youth. That, of course, is dependent on who applies and what their qualifications are.

City government should do its best to reach out to younger leaders, former Ridgefield Mayor Tevis Laspa said.

"I would hope," Laspa said, "the Ridgefield City Council would say, 'we're looking for young blood because we're not going to be around for years to come.'"

The future

The relative lack of council members younger than 40 comes as no surprise to Washougal Councilman Dave Shoemaker, 71. People younger than 40 are not serving on nonprofits or volunteering, in general, he said. In this way, Shoemaker disagreed with Svara, who reasoned young adults had turned their service to pursuits other than councils.

La Center Mayor Pro-Tem Al Luiz, 66, also sees his age as a plus. However, he differs from Shoemaker in his view of younger adults.

"I don't think this generation is any different" than baby boomers, Luiz said, noting people are increasingly asked to do more at their jobs, and thus have less free time. "It's all about time and energy. Where are you going to put it? Put it on family or going to do public service?"

Still, there is "not a good mechanism" to ensure city councils resemble their populace, Svara said.

Failure to reach younger residents could have major short-term and long-term implications.

"It loses an important viewpoint and loses the next generation of leaders," Vancouver Councilman Jack Burkman, 58, warned.

Barring a "cataclysmic event," the trend toward fewer young council members will continue, Shoemaker predicted.

"What's going to happen 20 years down the road?" Shoemaker asked. "The older people are not going to be there. Who's going to step forward?"