The candidates running for Vancouver mayor fundamentally disagree about what the job is and what it should entail.
The incumbent, Anne McEnerny-Ogle, emphasizes that her role is to represent the city council, not to champion her own personal opinions on any given issue. That’s the deliberate structure of Vancouver’s government, she pointed out, laid out in the city’s founding document.
“In our charter, the mayor speaks for the council. If I step over that boundary, the council has every right to say, ‘No, you can’t do that,’” McEnerny-Ogle said. “Don’t confuse our form of government with Portland. They’re two different forms of government.”
Her challenger, Earl Bowerman, said he’d like to change that, and adopt a form of local government that redistributes power from professional staff to elected officials. Vancouver appoints a committee to review its charter every five years and recommend changes; the next review will take place in 2024.
“In terms of the structure of the city council, I think that we need a strong mayor program, very much like the state is organized, where the mayor can make decisions that will have an effect,” Bowerman said. “I don’t know how I benefit from a city manager that makes almost $300,000 a year.”
The foundational disagreement of what Vancouver’s mayor should do reflects a broader dynamic of the election. Despite their comparable professional histories — both are retired educators — it would be difficult to conceive of two more dissimilar candidates.
Bowerman, who served as chair of the Clark County Republican Party from 2018 to 2020, tends to express his views on the issues facing Vancouver through a lens of absolutes, offering strong, categorical opinions on topics. McEnerny-Ogle, whose election in 2017 made her the first female mayor in the city’s history, prefers to dive into the details.
The contrasting styles between the two candidates is on display in one-on-one conversations, as well as public political forums.
“To talk about controlling global climate is absurd, and to spend taxpayers’ money on this program is absurd,” Bowerman said at one point, in response to a question about the city’s ongoing effort to draft a Climate Action Plan. “You and I expel carbon dioxide. We’re all made of carbon.”
Asked about the same plan, McEnerny-Ogle didn’t offer her opinion on its merits or drawbacks, but explained how the overlapping interests of the city, Clark Public Utilities, the Port of Vancouver and individuals at large could complicate a shift away from a reliance on greenhouse gases.
“I have a fireplace insert that meets code, and I’m burning wood — is that something we want to continue allowing? Or do we want to change that process?” she mused. “We are working with the culture of the entire community.”
Bowerman’s top priority is clear-cut. If elected mayor, he said, he’ll seek to provide more funding for law enforcement.
“I believe that there’s nothing more important for the government to do than provide for public safety. I believe that the police department is woefully underfunded, and money is being spent that is not nearly as important,” Bowerman said.
He added that he had a “very good source that’s well connected within the police department” who claims that the police force should have 290 officers, but the city employs fewer than half of that. (In an August report to the city council, Police Chief James McElvain reported that the department has 234 officers.)
According to McEnerny-Ogle, increasing the ranks of police is more complicated than just boosting funding. Finding good officers is difficult. The department has failed to fill its capacity of budgeted officers since McElvain was hired nearly a decade ago, she said. Staffing struggles have only grown more dire during the pandemic, as well as a broader overhaul of policing norms and policies.
“We gave the chief and the department permission to hire whatever they needed to build up to that plan. They’ve never been able to do that,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “They were authorized to have additional officers — they’ve never met the maximum, try as they may. They were always nine, 10, 11, 12 short.”
There’s no single solution to improve recruitment and officer retention, she added.
By the end of this year, Vancouver councilors and staff aim to have three supported campsites for unhoused residents operating around the city. Bowerman said he strongly disagrees with the plan.
“I don’t believe that taxpayer money should be spent on people that are on drugs,” Bowerman said. “I don’t support the city being involved in supporting all of that. It’s an eyesore, and it’s dangerous.”
He added that he doesn’t think homelessness programs should fall under the purview of the city. It should be up to individuals to change their own circumstances.
“I think that other programs should be fully funded before homelessness,” Bowerman said. “I would say that homelessness is a much lower priority than the police department.”
McEnerny-Ogle fully supports the new program, she said.
“So does the entire council, because we’ve seen its success at the transit center,” she said, citing the Safe Parking Zone program that’s been operating at the Evergreen Transit Center for more than a year. “Having a supportive campsite — organized, toilets, water, dumpsters, social services — it’s been very successful.”
Vancouver voters will choose between McEnerny-Ogle and Bowerman on Nov. 2, when both candidates appear on the general election ballot.