Change in form of government eyed in Washougal

Hotly debated issue could render race for mayor moot, if Proposition 1 passes

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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The race for Washougal mayor, between incumbent Sean Guard and fire captain Earl Scott, might be for naught Nov. 5 if a controversial proposition passes.

Among the most hotly debated issues in the past decade for the city, Proposition 1 would change the city's government from a mayor-council form, with a strong mayor who sits atop the administrative pecking order, to a council-manager form, in which a council-appointed mayor has a more symbolic role.

In July, the Washougal City Council unanimously voted to place the proposition on the ballot. Many councilmembers say they want to see a change in government, even if it would nullify the Nov. 5 mayoral election. Some spend the days leading up to the election canvassing neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking to residents about the proposition.

Even as councilmembers work to drum up support for the proposition by highlighting their disagreements with Guard, they say the proposal to change Washougal's form of government isn't intended as a personal attack against the mayor.

"I don't think (Guard) has been a bad mayor, but seven people on council voted to put this on the ballot, so that has to tell you something," said Councilwoman Joyce Lindsay, whose Washougal First! political action committee is raising money for the pro-proposition campaign.

Not all of Guard's tenure has been positive, she added.

"He did some good things, but he's also been an embarrassment to the city," she said.

The "embarrassment" stems from Guard's 2011 guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of impersonating a police officer. That happened after Guard supposedly used the "emergency lights" of a city-owned vehicle so he could pass slow-moving traffic on Interstate 5 near Kelso. Though he entered the guilty plea, Guard continues to dispute the facts of the case, saying he simply flashed the high beams of the city-owned 1996 Ford Taurus.

Guard called Lindsay's remarks curious because he considered her an ally on city council.

"It's interesting because up to this point she has said I've been a great mayor," Guard said. "Right now, I'm seeing people on council who are completely different than they've been."

He said councilmembers are using political attacks against him to gain traction for Proposition 1, which he referred to as a "power grab" by city council.

But Lindsay said changing Washougal's form of government would provide the city with more professional oversight. That would come from a licensed city manager, who would answer to city council.

In Clark County, Camas, Washougal and La Center operate under a mayor-council form of government. Vancouver, Battle Ground and Ridgefield work under a council-manager form.

Opponents of the proposition, including Guard, say the city already has professional management in the form of City Administrator David Scott. The city administrator answers directly to the mayor.

Partisan issue

While some councilmembers are choosing to avoid staking a position on the proposition — including Councilman Paul Greenlee, who called it too partisan to publicly endorse — others on council are actively working to foster public support for it.

A committee of councilmembers wrote a statement for the voters' pamphlet last month in favor of the proposition. Councilmembers Lindsay, Brent Boger and Jennifer McDaniel are members of that committee.

Meanwhile, an anti-proposition committee composed of former Mayor Jeff Guard, Marilyn Tyrell and Larry White authored a statement against the proposition. "The Mayor is elected, accountable and accessible to the citizenry," the statement reads. "Having an elected mayor provides a check and balance to council. He or she is the leader of our community."

The No. 1 downside of the proposition, opponents say, is that under the council-manager form of government, residents would no longer directly elect the mayor. "Taking away that ability has not generated a lot of good will," Mayor Sean Guard said.

Proponents of the proposition plan to send out mailers later in the month, Lindsay said. Sides for and against the proposition will also appear at a Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce luncheon Oct. 17 to discuss the issue.

The luncheon will be held at the Fairgate Inn, 2213 N.W. 23rd Ave.