Jeanne Stewart long has staked out a position as an independent. During 12 years on the Vancouver City Council, she frequently demonstrated a thoughtful, individualistic approach to the issues. Now, as she takes a new position on the Clark County commissioners, Stewart should show that she is maintaining that independence.
Stewart was elected last month to fill the spot of Ed Barnes, who was appointed in June and chose not to seek election to the position. She was sworn in last week and will participate Tuesday in her first board meeting.
The concern — a valid one — is that Stewart will fall in lockstep with fellow Republican Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke. She lost a bid in 2012 for re-election to the city council after being portrayed as a member of “The Madore 4” — a group of candidates who joined Madore in opposing the proposed Columbia River Crossing. Then, during her campaign for commissioner, she received $89,000 in contributions from the state Republican Party — an amount that greatly exceeded the party’s contributions to any other candidate for local office across the state. The fact that the contribution followed a large donation from Madore to the state party raised eyebrows, and the transactions are being investigated by the state Public Disclosure Commission.
All of which puts Stewart in a tenuous position as she takes her seat next to Madore on the board. During a candidate forum with The Columbian Editorial Board, Stewart said, “I welcome financial support from any source that has no strings attached. I don’t believe anything is expected of me by David Madore.” For the benefit of Clark County citizens, we hope that is the case. For the good of the public trust, we hope that nothing is expected from Stewart other than an honest effort to do what is best for the region.
No one expects Stewart to oppose everything Madore proposes; after all both are conservative Republicans. But hopefully she will see through some of Madore’s antics. Take the fee-waiver program, which has eliminated permit-application and traffic-impact fees for nonresidential construction in the county. The program was adopted in June 2013, and a recent report from the county auditor’s office has concluded that, “The funding mechanism for the Program is not sustainable. The current costs of the Program are supported by fees from residential, government, and other construction projects not eligible for waivers.” In other words, the fees not being paid by commercial developers — a total of $7.8 million through August — are passed along to other groups, not the least of which is taxpayers.
A rebuttal from Madore, the program’s primary supporter, is filled with assertions that confuse correlation with causation. Attributing all job growth in the area to the fee-waiver program, Madore chooses to ignore the fact that the fee waivers are beneficial to developers and costly to the public.
A rejection of the fee-waiver program is unlikely. Madore, demonstrating little regard for the public, certainly will continue to support it. Mielke, who typically votes in line with Madore, likely will, as well. But while she will be outnumbered, it is important that Stewart establish her independent credentials on the commission by opposing a continuation of the program. It is important that she demonstrate concern for taxpayers in the county. It is important that she remember that the public, not Madore, elected her to office — if she believes that to be the case.
Jeanne Stewart wants voters to believe that she is an independent thinker. Now she has a chance to prove it.