In La Center, voters will choose between three incumbents and three challengers for seats on the city council. Whether the city should continue to operate its own police force or contract with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office for services is a top issue.
Justin Keeler, a librarian with FVRLibraries, was recently appointed to the vacant Position 1 seat, making him the incumbent against challenger Melissa Fox, who owns a tutoring business.
The candidates disagree somewhat on police services. Keeler wrote in response to a Columbian questionnaire that although it would be ideal for La Center to continue to fund its own police department, contracting with the sheriff could allow the city to quickly restore a visible law enforcement presence. If the city eventually is able to recoup the revenue lost due to declining cardroom tax receipts, then he thinks it should bring back its own police force.
Fox said she thinks the city can continue to fund its own police if the council would prioritize it and quit spending money on development consultants and other projects, such as buying the old TDS Telecom building for a new City Hall. “I do not believe we should be using the limited capacity of the CCSO to support our community policing needs,” she wrote. “I do not believe they have the resources to support La Center effectively.”
Keeler sees growth at the La Center junction with Interstate 5 as helping bolster the city’s tax revenue, which has tanked as business at the two remaining cardrooms diminished due to the pandemic and the growth of the Cowlitz Tribe’s ilani. He also wants to improve the city’s relationship with the Cowlitz Tribe and see if there are ways to coordinate development on both sides of the freeway.
Fox agrees that the junction is La Center’s best economic opportunity and thinks a small grocery store could be added to the slate of projects, which already includes a hotel, fast-food restaurants and a convenience store. “Our council needs to focus on fostering the relationship with the Cowlitz Tribe, as it is to our advantage,” she wrote.
Dennis Hill, a businessman and former La Center planning commissioner, was appointed to the Position 2 seat last year and is being challenged by KC Kasberg, a member of the leadership team at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
“Keeping our city safe is high on my list of priorities. I also want to be sure that our city infrastructure is kept up and that city services are also in alignment with our growing community,” Hill wrote.
Kasberg wrote: “Citizens are not happy with the leadership of the city. Someone has to run for these positions or nothing will change. I can help make that change.”
Neither candidate sees a standalone police department as a viable option for La Center, at least for the near future. “With all of the latest bills that were passed in the state Legislature regarding policing, the cost of having your own police force with our limited budget is really not workable,” Hill wrote.
“I don’t think there is any other option” but to contract with the sheriff’s office, Kasberg wrote.
Both candidates favor development at the junction, with Hill writing that he “sees no downside.”
T.R. “Randy” Williams has served on the city council since 2010 and sees his experience and institutional knowledge as a strong suit. “La Center City Council needs members that have experienced the issues that the city has faced over the years and understands the direction the city is going and how to keep that momentum,” he wrote.
Challenger Sean Boyle disagrees, writing that “the status quo is no longer acceptable” in city government.
Boyle argues that the city needs to cut other spending and maintain its own police department. “We cannot expect a high level of public safety within our city without one,” he wrote.
Williams wrote that residents want a police presence, whether from the sheriff or an increased La Center police force. “The CCSO option would be faster,” he wrote. “Another option would be a hybrid plan with LCPD patrolling during the day and CCSO or another agency patrolling in the off-hours.”
While both candidates favor development at the junction, Williams would like to see the area south of La Center Road developed into campus-type business parks. He also noted the lodging tax charged to guests at the planned hotel creates a dedicated tourism promotion fund, which is something La Center has never had. He thinks tourism revenue could help grow the city.
Hope Martinez of The Columbian provided research assistance for this report.