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Nov. 29, 2020

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Washougal to vote on whether to directly elect mayors

Advocates say proposal an upgrade, ‘empowers the will of the people’

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published:

Washougal voters will soon decide whether mayors will be elected directly — an option that has received mixed reviews.

Proposition No. 9 on the Nov. 3 general election ballot asks whether voters would like to designate city councilors elected to Position 1 as mayor for four-year terms beginning in 2021. It requires a simple majority to pass.

The city elected mayors directly prior to 2018, when voters approved a switch from a mayor-council form of government to a council-manager arrangement.

The Washougal City Council on July 13 approved placing the proposition on the November ballot. Councilors voted 6-2 in favor.

In a 2018 resolution before the restructuring proposition passed, the city council noted an intention to eventually designate Position 1 as mayor.

After the proposition passed, the council appointed current Mayor Molly Coston — first elected by voters in 2017 — to a two-year term that expires in 2021. The move represented the default option under state law for council-manager structures.

Coston, who hasn’t announced any decisions on running for re-election, voted in favor of placing this year’s proposition on the ballot, calling the directly elected mayor option “a more democratic and transparent way to operate our local government.”

Councilors Brent Boger, Alexandra Yost and Julie Russell signed the “statement for” the proposition, which was included in the local voters’ pamphlet. The statement notes that the mayor’s duties — having one vote on the council, serving as the chair for meetings and being the face for city government — will remain the same.

“This proposed process empowers the will of the people and is superior to the current method of selection of only four council members picking the mayor,” the statement reads. “The mayor should represent all of the people.”

Councilors Paul Greenlee and Michelle Wagner, along with former Councilor Ray Kutch, signed the “statement against.”

Kutch announced in September that he was resigning from the city council and moving to Idaho. The council earlier this month appointed Coston to the seat, rather than opening a spot for an eighth councilor.

The “statement against” said that, because the mayor’s primary functions wouldn’t change, direct mayoral elections would add, “bureaucracy, and confusion without a useful purpose.” It also says that a system in which the council selects the mayor “allows proper vetting of experience, and qualification.”

The city’s change to a council-manager format transformed the mayor’s position to a legislative role, rather than an administrative one.

The “statement against” said council selections lead to “better legislative function,” saying that previous elected mayors have limited the council’s access to information. It also notes that few council-manager governments in the state have directly elected mayors.

“An elected mayor, even though incompetent or worse, isn’t easily removed, the statement reads. “If needs be, council-chosen mayors are easily and promptly replaced.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter
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