If government officials needed to predict how much milk the people of Clark County will drink 20 years from now, would they trust projections from the Dairy Farmers of Washington? Of course not; being leery of those vested in issues that affect all residents is part of protecting the public interest. With that in mind, a recent decision by the Clark County Council is vexing.
In accepting population predictions from the Building Industry Association of Clark County, councilors have rejected the opinions of experts; have reinforced the perception that developers wield excessive power in this region; and have diminished their offices and their duty to the public.
The decision will not drastically alter the future of the county. But the process tastes like sour milk, smacking of cronyism and a capitulation to a preferred constituency.
Here are the basics: As part of updating the county’s Growth Management Plan, councilors must project how many people will live in Clark County in 2045. That decision helps set policy for long-range housing needs and services.
The state Office of Financial Management — people who do this sort of thing professionally — provided three possible population scenarios, with the midrange number of 698,416 regarded as the most likely. Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle testified before the council: “The mayors of seven major cities in the county are recommending the median forecast” and asserted that OFM projections have been “very accurate for more than 20 years.”
That, apparently, was not good enough for the councilors. Noelle Lovern of the local building industry association claimed that previous forecasts have been inaccurate and recommended adopting an annual growth rate of no less than 1.4 percent.
The councilors ended up unanimously approving the building association’s projection of 718,154 Clark County residents by 2045. The difference from the state’s estimate is about 20,000 people — not a big margin, and well within the range presented by the Office of Financial Management. Yet while the prediction is reasonable, the process that led to it is rife with problems.
First, councilors took the somewhat unusual step of holding public hearings on the growth projection. Whether or not that was solely to allow the building industry to weigh in, it is not a good look for the councilors. Public input can be valuable, but as The Columbian has written editorially: “Unless a commenter is a demographer or economist, the odds are that they will express what they hope the population will be in 20 years, not what it likely will be based upon rational analysis.”
Which brings up the second problem. The Building Industry Association of Clark County can benefit from higher population projections that will lead to more land being set aside for construction. In going along with that, councilors generate questions about where their allegiance lies.
In their most recent campaigns, according to the Public Disclosure Commission, each councilor received contributions from building or real estate interests: Glen Yung — who works as a contractor — received at least $11,675; Chair Karen Bowerman received at least $8,400; Michelle Belkot received at least $7,300; Gary Medvigy received at least $5,300; and Sue Marshall received at least $600.
Of course, a lot of people and businesses contribute to political campaigns. But not many of them then get to influence policy that is outside their area of expertise.
In eschewing the projections of experts, the Clark County Council has left a bad taste in the mouths of its constituents.