He has been a lightning rod, to put it mildly, during his six years on the Washougal City Council. But as Jon Russell, one of Clark County’s most divisive governmental figures, prepares to step down, it remains unclear what his departure will mean for the city’s government.
Russell, the council’s mayor pro-tem, clashed frequently with Washougal Mayor Sean Guard, brought national causes to the city government and backed conservative challengers against veteran council members in the 2011 elections. He did each unapologetically, often to the derision of other city leaders.
Russell, 36, announced last week his plans to resign from the council at the beginning of July to accept a national coordinator position with Students for Life of America, an anti-abortion nonprofit based in Manassas, Va. Russell currently serves as the organization’s regional coordinator.
Russell’s last council meeting will be Monday, June 25. The council will later appoint a city resident to fill Russell’s spot and select a council member as the new mayor pro-tem.
Whether Russell’s departure could be the “turning point” that Guard had hoped last year’s elections would be remains unclear. Prior to the elections, Guard said he had hoped voters would elect candidates who would bring the city’s council back to the political center rather than farther right.
“A lot of this weighs on who steps into the role next,” said Mark Stephan, a political science professor with Washington State University Vancouver.
“In a sense, it becomes less about (Russell) and more about who replaces him.”
Guard did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.
In an email to The Columbian last week, Russell listed his most important accomplishment on the council as “recruiting and training fiscally conservative candidates to run for City Council and winning in 2011.”
Russell endorsed Connie Jo Freeman last fall in her successful challenge against council veteran Molly Coston. He also publicly supported newcomer Caryn Plinski and incumbent Jennifer McDaniel — each of whom won their elections. He supported a fourth candidate, Michael Delavar, who lost his re-election campaign.
McDaniel said she enjoyed working with Russell for four productive years. However, she questioned how much credit Russell should take for how the elections turned out. The winning candidates earned their seats, she reasoned.
“He has always been strongly leaning toward more conservative ideals,” McDaniel said of Russell. “That has pushed some people the wrong way.”
Among those people Russell rubbed the wrong way was Coston.
“I will be glad to see him go,” the former councilwoman said. “I wish the best for him and his family but he’s caused nothing but heartache in Washougal.”
Neither Freeman nor Plinski responded to interview requests.
Russell had no qualms about going toe-to-toe with Guard, he said, because the role of the council was do the will of voters, not the city’s executive branch.
“Hopefully, if I brought anything to the council it was to make the council aware we were our own branch of government,” Russell said. “We were not a mouthpiece for the executive branch.”
Yet, Councilman Paul Greenlee wondered if Russell’s politics sometimes led him to take on issues outside the normal scope of the council that did nothing for Washougal residents. Examples include discussions about immigration or e-verify, an Internet database to determine the eligibility of workers in the U.S.
“Council members should be trustees for the future of the city,” Greenlee said. He added, “The only place it gets contentious (with the council) is really over issues more national or statewide than citywide.”
Russell took pride in his immigration stance. He listed the council’s resolution asking state representatives to pass tougher immigration laws among his list of most important achievements behind the city’s first reduction in property taxes, the deregulation of zoning restrictions for houses to convert to businesses in residential areas, and reducing fines associated with the Trip Reduction Program.
‘Focused on Washougal’
Predicting the council’s post-Russell path is difficult, council members said.
The first reason is the new council has not handled any contentious financial matters yet. The second is interviews to fill Russell’s position won’t be conducted for more than a month.
Russell expressed confidence in the council’s ability to serve the city of Washougal. Freeman and Plinski, whom he supported during last year’s elections, will be fine without him, he said.
“They’ve had about six months to get their feet wet,” he said, adding they would learn a lot from attending the Association of Washington Cities’ annual conference next month.
Greenlee’s wish for Russell’s replacement was that he or she abstain from partisan politics on the council.
“When they come into city hall, they need to be focused on Washougal, not on some agenda,” Greenlee said.