John Laird: First Citizens consistently support transportation projects

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Ever since Meriwether Lewis plopped a paddle onto the banks of the Columbia River 208 years ago near today's Washougal, a segment of our community has dedicated itself to complaining. Fortunately, the naysayers have been more bark than bite. Meanwhile, countless other optimistic and honorable leaders have helped Clark County become the best place in America to live, work and play.

Many of those positive and prominent people are seen on the list of First Citizens, an award that began in 1939 and is announced annually by the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington. The foundation describes a First Citizen as someone who "models exemplary citizenship through …actions and services to the community," but my simple definition is: These people walk the walk. They get it.

Because of the hard work of First Citizens, our hospitals are bigger and better. Our community centers are more inviting and better equipped. Our schools are so consistently supported by voters as to be the envy of surrounding communities in both states. Our higher education is built upon a growing Clark College and a fine, four-year university. Our parks, swimming pools, trails, YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, police and fire departments, social services and judicial systems are more numerous, inclusive and efficient.

As best I can tell, no First Citizen has been selected because of political ideology. Instead, one's record of enhancing the local quality of life is the standard. First Citizens distinguish themselves not by obstructionism but by the issues and projects they embrace. They get things done.

Recently I reviewed the list of First Citizens over the 10 years that I have been blessed to live here. A pattern emerged, manifested most recently in Robert Schaefer, the 2013 honoree who was announced last week. Schaefer is a former legislator whose contributions to local improvements are too numerous to mention here. Among those has been his role in planning transportation projects. Schaefer is an attorney for Thompson Metal Fab, a company that supports the Columbia River Crossing and is involved in mitigation negotiations related to bridge clearance. Three months ago, Schaefer told The Columbian that the CRC is "critical to the environment of this community." So, too, are local jobs, and if Thompson has to relocate part of its operations, the company would seek another site in Clark County.

My research confirmed the pattern of First Citizen support for transportation improvements. Last year's honoree, former Vancouver City Councilor Pat Jollota, told me Friday that she is a strong CRC supporter "although with every big project, you always run up against the naysayers."

Building a consensus

The 2011 First Citizen, the late Hal Dengerink, former chancellor of Washington State University Vancouver, co-chaired the CRC task force that met 23 times over three years and developed the Locally Preferred Alternative that was approved by a 37-2 vote of the task force and later adopted by six agencies in two states.

The 2010 First Citizen, former Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard, remains one of the most vocal CRC supporters. Other First Citizens during the past decade — the late parks activist Florence Wager, local restaurant owner Mark Matthias, land-use consultant John White, former legislator and social services advocate Val Ogden, philanthropists Steve and Jan Oliva, attorney and community supporter Scott Horenstein and accountant Vern Peterson — all have poured countless hours and ample effort into supporting transportation improvements.

First Citizens generally avoid political strife, but I've talked to enough of them to know they are startled that anyone would consider the CRC to be under-researched or ill-planned, or that the project is being shoved down anyone's throat. The opposite has been true for a decade and far longer. As the rancor sadly intensifies over the CRC, many people choose to ignore the complainers and follow the lead of people who walk the walk: our community's First Citizens.