La Center City Council picks former Cowlitz fire chief to fill vacancy

By Justin Runquist, Columbian small cities reporter

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La Center city councilors have chosen Joe Valenzuela, a former Cowlitz County fire chief, to fill the city’s open council seat.

The councilors voted 3-2 Wednesday night to pick Valenzuela, 66, from a field that included a longtime casino manager, a retiree who ran for the council and lost in 2009 and Steve Workman, the vice-chair of the city’s planning commission. Workman and Valenzuela each had two votes until Mayor Jim Irish cast the deciding vote for the latter candidate, said Suzanne Levis, the city’s finance director.

Valenzuela spent most of the 1990s as a fire chief in Cowlitz County and Klamath Falls, Ore. Prior to that, he put in seven years with the Yakima Fire Department as a captain and battalion chief and had a brief stint as the chief of the Gresham Fire Department.

In addition to his firefighting career, Valenzuela has experience as a community organizer and a sewer maintenance crew worker, he said. Valenzuela retired in 1998 and he’s lived in La Center for the past decade.

On his resume, Valenzuela said he felt it was time to get more involved with shaping the community’s future direction.

The new councilor replaces Kristine Carmona, who abruptly resigned in late-April. On April 23, Carmona told the city she wanted to step down to contribute to the community in other ways and spend more time with her family.

She joined the council in 2011, beating four other candidates to replace Bill Birdwell Jr., who left for another job. Valenzuela will serve through the November 2015 election, when the community will vote on someone to fill out the rest of Carmona’s term through 2017.