According to certain corners of the internet, Battle Ground has been overrun by socialists or is at risk, but Councilor Philip Johnson doesn’t see it.
He said the city has “six Republican state representatives, two Republican state senators, and a Republican U.S. congresswoman who lives smack dab in the middle of the city.
“If we are running a socialist city here, we are the world’s best in hiding our true intentions from the rest of the county and/or the world,” Johnson said.
The accusations of socialist rule have increased in the lead-up to the November election, in which Johnson is running for re-election to the Position 7 seat against political newcomer Joshua VanGelder, who was partly inspired to get into politics due to his dissatisfaction with gun control measure Initiative 1639, approved by voters statewide last year. VanGelder and Shauna Walters — who is running against Neil Butler for Position 3 on the Battle Ground council — launched their campaigns with heavy pro-Second Amendment messages, and have since spread their attention to other issues facing the city.
Johnson and VanGelder advanced to the November election from the August primary, where Johnson received 45.05 of the vote to VanGelder’s 35 percent. Katrina Negrov finished third with nearly 20 percent of the vote.
VanGelder said the tension surrounding the election is more than he expected for the small city of Battle Ground, but he thinks it has provided positives and negatives.
“It’s good because it gives us the opportunity to interact with people of a different viewpoint,” he said. “It can be bad because some of us don’t seem to be capable of civilized conversation without name-calling and ad-hominem attacks. Conflict gives opportunity for growth, but can have a negative affect if not approached with the right mindset.”
The two offer differing views on plenty of other subjects Battle Ground is facing, as well, including the council’s recent decision to approve pay increases for city councilors. In September, the council bumped up councilors’ pay to $900 a month, the deputy mayor’s salary to $1,000 a month and the mayor’s pay to $1,100 a month. Councilors whose terms end this year make $400 a month, councilors whose term runs through 2021 make $600 a month and the mayor currently receives $750 a month.
VanGelder said that anyone given the ability to choose their own pay will “abuse” the decision.
“I stand against the self-imposed pay raise, and, if elected, I will donate that money back to city programs until passed through either an independent salary commission or a vote of the people,” he said.
Johnson, who voted in favor of the pay increase, said local officials don’t get into politics for the pay.
“No one should make their entire living off legislating,” he said. “Having said that, no one does it to lose money, either. There’s not a person in this community who doesn’t value their time, and we’re no different.”
Another issue where the two see things differently is the county’s effort to develop more than 2,000 acres north of Vancouver.
“I believe the development near 179th and (Interstate 5) could greatly benefit the area,” VanGelder said. “While I have concerns about how this may affect property taxes, I believe that it is an important first step in the process. I find it troublesome that people own property they aren’t allowed to use as they see fit.”
At a recent council meeting, Johnson called it “Hazel Dellization.”
“The county wants all the benefits of urbanization, without having to give away all the revenue to a future city,” Johnson said. “For us in Battle Ground, along with, I think, the cities of Ridgefield and La Center, this is a frontal assault on us as commercial districts. For who’ll want to come 10 miles to the east when you can just pull off on the 179th exit and get what you need? If the county wants to be in the city business, they should make a better argument on why they feel that way. This also smacks of being more developer friendly than citizen friendly.”
Two state highways run through the city, and traffic can be troublesome for those leaving or returning to the city, or just passing through. The city has done some work on its state Highway 502 and state Highway 503 congestion relief project, and Johnson is hopeful the $2 million in grants the city recently received to build additional turn lanes and pedestrian islands will help.
Part of the issue on the highways, Johnson said, is that they are owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“The state’s goal is the efficient movement of people from A to B,” he said. “Our goal is that, plus having people stop and smell the roses and perhaps drop a dime or two into some local business coffers. So far, our goals and theirs don’t seem to be jibing.”
VanGelder said councilors don’t care about residents near those projects and how they affect property values or the safety of children.
“The change with the traffic patterns at the intersection of 502 and Northwest 12th Avenue was poorly thought out and largely a waste of money,” he said. “It limits the ability of drivers to access the roadway in an efficient way. The roadway project that has been proposed to connect 503 to Parkway is a foolish plan that disregards the desires of the neighbors it would affect the most.”
Both said they favor the city’s potential annexation into Fire District 3, which will most likely go before voters in February. The city currently contracts with the fire district for service; annexation would mean taxpayers would pay directly through a fire levy. To partly offset the tax increase, councilors voted this summer to reduce the city’s utility tax rate by 10 percent if the annexation vote is approved.
“The reduction of the utility tax does not adequately adjust for the loss of services,” VanGelder said. “More tax cuts should be put into place if the annexation passes the vote.”
Johnson said it’s a good idea to leave fire safety to the agencies that work in the field instead of have the city run a fire department.
“Annexation means higher costs for most in the city, but it should also mean better protection, possibly lower homeowners insurance rates and the surety of having a top-notch fire district offering service for perpetuity,” he said. “For taking on the annexation, the city should realize a bit more money in its coffers, which should go a long way in fixing roads, better park services and a slew of other citywide upgrades making the community a much better place to live.”