Residents in Washougal have the opportunity to change the city’s form of government in the Nov. 6 election.
Proposition 8 asks residents if they want to change the city from a mayor-council setup to a council-manager arrangement. The vote requires a simple majority of 50 percent plus one vote to make the change.
In the current mayor-council form, the mayor is elected at-large and serves as Washougal’s chief administrative officer. There’s a seven-member city council that is elected to serve as the legislative body of the city. The council formulates and adopts city policies and the budget, and the mayor is responsible for carrying them out. The mayor presides over council meetings but doesn’t vote.
The council-manager form shares power among a seven-member council, all elected by residents. The council is responsible for making policy and adopting the budget, and would appoint a city manager to handle daily operations of city government, personnel functions and preparation of the budget for submission to the council for their review and approval. The city manager is directly accountable to and can be removed by a majority vote of the council at any time.
Currently, Ridgefield and Battle Ground operate under the council-manager form of government. Camas has a mayor-council form and was working toward putting a similar ordinance on the ballot this year, but it has tabled the discussion for now.
If the Washougal change is approved, Mayor Molly Coston would become an eighth city councilor and serve on the council until her current term is up at the end of 2021. Immediately upon her no longer being a councilor, either due to her term ending or her resignation, the eighth council seat would be eliminated.
With a council-manager form of government, city councilors pick the mayor, and would do so in Washougal at their Dec. 4 meeting, if the change is approved by voters.
Coston, who was elected mayor in November 2017, said she is neutral on the change in government, although she wants to remain mayor. She said she thinks she is the most qualified person to hold the position for the remainder of her term.
“I would, of course, be pleased to continue to serve in whichever capacity,” she said. “I love Washougal and will continue to provide solid leadership regardless of the outcome of the election.”
In March, Coston appointed the Citizens Government Advisory Committee, who was tasked with making a recommendation on the future of the city’s form of government. The committee — made up of seven local officials and city residents — unanimously recommended putting the change in government up to vote on the November ballot.
According to the committee’s work, the change in government would save an estimated $19,260 annually; the mayor receives $2,350 per month, and is reimbursed for mileage for driving for city business. Councilors receive $575 per month.
One of the residents named to the committee was Alex Yost, co-owner of Our Bar, who was appointed to the city council in June. When discussing the issue, Yost said she looked at it as a resident of the city and not as a representative of the council.
“I am strongly in favor of switching to a council-manger form of government,” she said. “One of my biggest concerns with making the switch was that voters would feel they were losing the right to directly elect their mayor. I believe it is important for citizens to have a connection to their local leadership and the ability to have a say in who serves as mayor is a big part of that.”
The committee and council also discussed a second part of the ordinance, which isn’t up for vote in November. That follow-up says the council intends to put another ordinance up for vote in the future transforming Position No. 1 into a mayoral seat, once again giving residents the ability to directly vote for their mayor. The only councilor to vote against the second section was Councilor Paul Greenlee.
“It has all the disadvantages of the strong mayor, and none of the advantages,” Greenlee said.
Greenlee, who was appointed to council in 2007, sees positives in changing the form of government and keeping it. One issue he has with the current system is that it’s hard to get someone out of office if the council or residents don’t think that person is doing a good job. Another issue Greenlee has with the change is the timing. He’d like to see Coston get at least four years as mayor before making a change.
“We have a great mayor,” he said. “I understand that ultimately we will need to go to a manager form. I’m not in a hurry to do it. Every big mistake the city has made in decades has been made because we were in a hurry. When you’re trying to plan for an organization that has a time horizon of decades and not a fiscal year, you need to sit back and really think about what you’re doing.”
Greenlee said the change will have to be made due to Washougal’s growing population. Washougal has roughly 15,700 residents, according to the most recent U.S. Census data, roughly 1,600 more than in the 2010 Census.
Councilor Brent Boger, who is in favor of the change, agreed.
“The mayor-council system works best in very large cities where the council can have its own professional staff that can assist it in providing oversight of the mayor’s administration,” he said. “By necessity, mayor-council is also appropriate in very small cities where the city cannot afford a professional administrator. Cities of a size between very large and very small are best run under the council-manager form.”
Boger thinks the mayor should also be directly elected by residents.
“While the job under the council-manager form becomes legislative — first among equals on the council — I think there is a symbolic/ceremonial/community leadership function that is enhanced when the mayor is directly elected,” he said, adding that he hopes Coston remains mayor even if residents vote in favor of the change.
Councilors Ernie Suggs and Michelle Wagner were both in favor of the change. Suggs said it “should provide the city with a more stable form of operation.” Wagner said the change would “add the advantages of consistency, expertise and historical knowledge in a small city, such as Washougal.”
Councilors Ray Kutch and Julie Russell did not return requests for comment.