B.G., Washougal mull power shifts

Cities looking at changes to mayoral positions

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Forms of government

In Washington, most cities fit into one of two forms of government — mayor-council or council-manager. In Clark County, cities are fairly evenly split on which form of government they use.

In the council-manager form of government, mayors are considered “weak,” while in mayor-council governments, the mayor is considered to be the city’s top administrator.

Washougal: Mayor-council. The city has a city administrator.

Battle Ground: Council-manager. The mayor and deputy mayor are selected by the city council. The city made the switch to the council-manager form of government in 1997.

Ridgefield: Council-manager. Ridgefield made the switch in 2000.

La Center: Mayor-council. The city doesn’t have a city administrator.

Camas: Mayor-council. The city has a city administrator.

Yacolt: Mayor-council. The town doesn’t have a city administrator.

Vancouver: Council-manager. The mayor is elected by voters, not by the council.

Woodland: Mayor-council. The city doesn’t have a city administrator.

While eyes are on a proposal to change Clark County's form of government, two small cities are also investigating ways to revamp how business is conducted at the dais.

Movements are afoot in Washougal and Battle Ground to shift the balance of power away from the mayors.

In Washougal, preliminary talks have hinged on whether to switch to a city manager form of government. Councilors in Battle Ground, meanwhile, have agreed to discuss whether to create term limits for the mayor.

While some have embraced the proposals, saying they're part of a trend toward a less politicized local government, others have had the opposite reaction, saying the proposals' timing, during an election year, is indicative of politics at play.

Washougal Mayor Sean Guard is opposed to changing his city's form of government and questioned the timing of the proposal. Guard is running for a second term as mayor against Earl Scott, a longtime Washougal Fire Department captain. He said misinformation abounds about how much power he wields in the city.

"The mayor is not a king," Guard said. "He can't veto a policy decision. He can veto an ordinance, though."

In Battle Ground, where city councilors select a mayor and deputy mayor from among their ranks, term limits could restrict the mayor to a single two-year term. Under the proposal, the deputy mayor would then replace the mayor.

The city council will discuss the proposal at its July 15 meeting.

Battle Ground Mayor Lisa Walters has embraced the idea of term limits, which were proposed by Deputy Mayor Shane Bowman.

She said the last 15 months, during which she's served as mayor, have been an eye-opening experience.

"I never wanted to be mayor," she said. "It's been an incredibly rough experience."

When the Battle Ground City Council voted 6-1 to continue discussing term limits last week, Councilor Adrian Cortes was the sole dissenting voice, saying the current form of government was "working fine."

He said he didn't necessarily oppose term limits but is concerned about "backroom dealings" that he said would benefit the deputy mayor.

And as Washougal contends with the question of whether to pursue changing the form of government, councilors have looked to Battle Ground and Ridgefield for guidance.

Battle Ground switched to a weak-mayor system in 1997, while Ridgefield followed suit in 2000.

Battle Ground City Councilor Bill Ganley, who was instrumental in his city's shift to a council-manager form of government in the 1990s, has been providing guidance to Washougal councilors.

"This mayor thing has become a lightning rod," he said. "But I think it will bring the council closer together."

While Guard remains critical about the proposal, a number of Washougal city councilors have warmed to the notion.

Councilor Jennifer McDaniel said she was interested in pursuing a more stable form of government, adding she liked "the idea of a professional city manager."

Councilor Brent Boger agreed, saying he "strongly favored" the council-manager form of government.

But while a lousy mayor can be recalled or voted out of office, Guard said, residents have little recourse with a city manager.

He said he's confident the city is being professionally managed by City Administrator David Scott.

Washougal voters will ultimately have the final say. Changing the form of government to a council-manager system would require voter approval. The council will have until Aug. 6 to place a resolution on the ballot. A public town hall is scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Washougal City Hall.

"I think things are moving along perfectly well now," Guard said. "We have a lot of things in the fire, a lot of things we've accomplished. We're clicking along."

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com