Clark County elections officials say the Fix Camas group spearheading a referendum petition to send the city of Camas’ new 2 percent utility tax to voters did not collect the required number of valid signatures.
“To be considered a sufficient petition, a total (of) 2,730 signatures must be valid, which is 15 percent of the number of registered voters residing within the city of Camas in the last preceding general election,” Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey stated in a March 20 email sent to the Fix Camas group and city of Camas officials.
Of the 3,164 signatures the Fix Camas group sent to the county for signature verification, only 2,639 proved valid, said Cathie Garber, Clark County’s elections director.
“We had our most seasoned team on this signature verification process,” Garber told The Post-Record this week. “We used our best workers to give (the referendum effort) the best chance to be a successful petition.”
According to Garber, the county’s signature-verification team found that the Fix Camas Referendum 1 petitions fell 91 signatures short of the required 2,730 signatures. Of the signatures the county rejected: 29 were from people who signed the petition more than once; 252 were from people who were registered voters but were not Camas voters; 153 were from people who were not registered voters; 87 were signatures that did not match the signature in the voter registration file, including some signatures Garber said her staff believed to be “signed by other people”; three had no signature; and one was illegible.
The somewhat anonymous Fix Camas group, which described itself as “a bi-partisan group of concerned residents” on its fixcamas.com website, kicked off the referendum process in late 2022. It followed the Camas City Council’s 4-3 vote on Nov. 22 to implement a new, 2 percent utility tax on its residential, commercial and industrial water, stormwater, sewer and garbage users.
The council’s vote followed several warnings from city staff that, without increasing and diversifying revenues, the city was facing a structural deficit — when baseline expenditures, including staff salaries and benefit costs, would outpace the amount of money the city takes in.
Though the council ultimately voted in favor of the new utility tax (council members Don Chaney, Tim Hein and Leslie Lewallen cast the three “no” votes), it also set conditions that rebates and exceptions be given to qualifying low-income residents, and the new tax would “sunset” or end either with the creation of a regional fire authority or by Dec. 31, 2024.
The utility tax was expected to add $1,051,119 to the city’s general fund over the 2023-24 biennium.
Camas City Administrator Doug Quinn said Monday the new tax would likely cost the average residential customer an additional $1.48 to $2.33 a month. Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson said in October 2022 the tax would likely cost the average downtown Camas business an additional $22.25 a month, while the average industrial user would pay an extra $1,909 a month.
Fix Camas signature collectors — which included Brian Lewallen, the husband of Camas city council member Leslie Lewallen, who voted against the 2 percent utility tax, as well as Camas city council member Jennifer Senescu, who was appointed to the council more than a month after the signature-collection efforts — turned in 305 pages of petitions with the signatures to the Camas city clerk by the 5 p.m. Jan. 9 deadline.
The city clerk later determined the petitions, which did not include a copy of the city’s ordinance, should be rejected.
The clerk’s decision led Camas resident and Fix Camas member Brian Wiklem to file a civil complaint against the city of Camas and Clark County. Wiklem’s attorney argued that “once petition signature pages are submitted, there is no other duty for the city clerk except the duty to verify signatures, which the clerk refused to do” and that “not having 305 copies of the ordinance on the petition is not fatal to the signatures verification process.”
After Skamania County Superior Court Judge Randall Krog ruled March 2 that the referendum process, including the verification of the 3,164 signatures, should continue, the city of Camas gave the signature pages to the Clark County Auditor’s office March 6 for verification.
Garber said this week the county has done its part in verifying the signatures, and any “next steps” would be up to the city of Camas.
Camas Mayor Steve Hogan said the city is “in no man’s land” this week and unsure if there is an appeal process available to the Fix Camas group. He said city staff have reached out to the Fix Camas group but had not received a response as of Monday evening.