Should the city of Camas buy “Made in America” goods over those produced outside the United States? That was the question Camas City Council members tossed around during the council’s first workshop of 2022, on Jan. 3.
Camas’ interim city administrator, Jeff Swanson, said city staff had researched the pros and cons of legislating a “buy American” policy for city goods at the request of Councilwoman Shannon Roberts and “with the support of” Councilman Don Chaney.
“I’m putting this out there because buying American-made products increases the demand and encourages more exports,” Roberts said. “The main reason is to keep American jobs in America but, second most, we know these products follow labor laws of the United States. … We don’t use child labor here, pay people wages they deserve, and (I) think the city should be able to buy American.”
Newly elected Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen agreed.
“I think (over) the past couple years so many people have lost jobs and livelihoods, so I support anything that helps people get back on their feet,” Lewallen said.
Councilman Greg Anderson said he thought legislating a “buy American” policy would be complicated on a city level.
“We are resource-constrained. The money we have is constrained by what we get from taxpayers,” Anderson said. “If there is a sizable difference in cost, we have to be able to explain that, to (show) there is a value that taxpayers can understand. Trying to legislate that is tricky. Trying to communicate it is even trickier. I’m not upset that we want to do it, but we should do it with our eyes wide open and look around for unintended consequences.”
Councilwoman Bonnie Carter said that, while she believes “keeping things local is ideal,” she would hesitate to support something requiring the city to only buy goods made in the United States.
“I think ‘preferred’ is a good word to use,” Carter said. “Mandating might get sticky with pricing and availability, so I’m more partial to the word, ‘preferred.’ ”
Camas Mayor Steve Hogan said he would urge the council members to consider setting perimeters for staff if they choose to mandate a “made in America” policy.
The city’s finance director, Cathy Huber Nickerson, said there were three main things to consider if the council decided it wanted to mandate a “buy American” policy.
“There are audit issues,” Huber Nickerson said. “State auditors will look to make sure we’re compliant … and that’s where it becomes tricky. For a lot of suppliers, it’s hard for them to distinguish what is ‘made in America.’ Does ‘assembled in America’ qualify?”
Huber Nickerson also said a “buy American” mandate on a city level could possibly jeopardize Camas’ chances of qualifying for federal grants if a federal audit showed a contractor working with the city had not, for example, differentiated between “made in America” goods and those produced outside the country during the course of their work for Camas.
One other thing to consider, Huber Nickerson said, is the additional work a “buy American” policy would place on Camas staff.
“We would have to have someone go through every contract to make sure they were all American-made (products),” Huber Nickerson said. “I understand the intent, but putting it in place, for a small city, is going to be really challenging.”
Swanson said he would ask the city attorney, Shawn MacPherson, to draft a proposal that is “preferential toward American-made products” and bring that language back to council to discuss at a later date.