Column reveals divide on Battle Ground council

Pair of councilors accuse colleagues of sidestepping procedure on ordinance

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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A war of words has broken out in Battle Ground, following the publication of an opinion column by two city councilors.

Battle Ground audio

In the column, published last week in the Camas-Washougal Post-Record and in this week's issue of The Reflector, Councilors Mike Ciraulo and Adrian Cortes accuse their colleagues of sidestepping a public and transparent process when drafting an ordinance in July changing the city's government structure.

The ordinance changes how councilors choose the mayor. The deputy mayor, elected among councilmembers, would automatically slip into the mayor's position after two years.

Ciraulo was absent from the July meeting because he was hiking the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Cortes was at the vote and was the lone councilor voice against it.

In the duo's column, Cortes and Ciraulo write that their colleagues "arbitrarily changed our form of government," in Ciraulo's absence, and met in private to discuss the matter beforehand, a potential violation of Washington state's Open Meetings Act. The column is also critical of a Washougal voter initiative that would enact a city manager/weak mayor form of government, arguing that it wouldn't make that council run more smoothly.

Cortes and Ciraulo's remarks unearthed deep fissures behind the Battle Ground dais. Councilors engaged in a heated back-and-forth volley of personal attacks at Monday's city council meeting.

At the meeting, Councilman Alex Reinhold said Cortes and Ciraulo's allegations were baseless, adding he looked forward to defending himself in a more formal setting.

"I welcome the opportunity to stand in a court of law — before God and my country, a judge and citizens — and prove these charges are without merit," Reinhold said.

Several councilmembers also loudly criticized Cortes and Ciraulo's handling of how they aired the city's "dirty laundry," saying the two should have first asked permission from council before going to the media.

Ciraulo apologized for not talking to councilors before co-authoring the column.

Councilman Philip Johnson had harsh and colorful words for his colleagues, saying they should "put up or shut up" with their accusations, and said Cortes and Ciraulo's remarks bordered on "psychotic."

"When you're running down my character, you're walking on the fighting side of me," Johnson said, paraphrasing country singer Merle Haggard.

Cortes said that was "the height of hypocrisy," considering councilors, including Johnson, regularly write to the media endorsing candidates. He maintained he didn't "call anyone out" by name in the column.

While that was technically true, Johnson said, the column was filled with inferences and "character assaults."

"You don't have the testosterone to call anyone out," Johnson said, directing his remarks at Cortes. "I'm pretty much done with you two."

One result of the meeting: City administrators are looking into whether councilors violated open meetings and ethics rules.

City Manager John Williams this week directed city attorney Brian Wolfe to look into the matter, a process that will require reviewing audio recordings of past city council meetings and interviewing councilmembers.

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