As council voted last Monday night (March 16th) to approve an $8 million dollar non-essential project during this difficult time, I commented to councilmember Bonnie Carter about council members not discussing COVID-19 and the economic impact in relation to this spend and she laughed at me.
She did it in council chambers while the microphones were live and you can literally hear it at the end of the city council regular meeting video. (The message I'd sent her in email during the meeting that she's reading while laughing was, "Zero discussion of COVID-19 or economy in present day. You're talking about the past.")
It was ugly, and a horrible realization about how much Bonnie, and I feel the rest of this current city council group at this point, value input from the citizens they represent.
So how did we get here?
I reached out to all of our council members, including Bonnie, early Monday before council meetings were to occur to ask them to reconsider having council meetings, or at least to limit themselves solely to discussion of COVID-19 related issues considering the current atomosphere. I did this for many reasons. To name a few:
Our mayor was not currently in the country
Our schools and restaurants were ordered closed
The governor of Washington declared that no gatherings over 50 were to occur in our state, The library was closed
Parks and Recreation activities were closed
Two clark county residents have died from the virus that same day
And all other board/commission meetings (that take place in that same room at city hall) had been cancelled
So why would we go forward with non-essential work and put people unnecessarily at risk?
And why did we put together the biggest agenda I've seen in months, full of non-essential projects during this worldwide state of emergency?
After sending my email messages, I heard back from Ellen Burton, Steve Hogan, Bonnie Carter and Greg Anderson who sent email responses plainly acknowledging the message was received and saying nothing else really in response.
Shannon Roberts and Don Cheney didn't respond at all
Melissa Smith, absent as she is frequently from city obligations in my experience, said she was not going to the meeting because she was on vacation - but made sure to add that if she had attended, she would have supported the agenda as written.
So council went forward with the meetings with no changes made and, in a rare move, during the regular council meeting at 7pm, they removed the roundabout from the consent agenda vote for further discussion (I'd personally never seen them do this before) which was promising. They then voted through all of the remaining items on the agenda, unanimously and without discussion, as is their habit as a group. Later, when they started to discuss the roundabout, not a single member brought up the context of approving an $8 million dollar spend during a declared national and state emergency that could have serious repercussions on our economy. Instead, the council members individually made cases themselves for why we should approve this spend today and immediately. During their explanations, not a single councilmember mentioned COVID-19 or the potential impact it will have on our economy.
You can see them making their cases individually here.
For clarity, Camas has a "strong-mayor" style of government
That essentially means that the mayor guides staff to fix problems and improve life in our city. Council then approves or denies the funding requests from staff on behalf of the mayor. Staff researches, prepares reports, outlines projects and council comes in the end as a check on the need for the work and the associated cost. Council, acting as our (taxpayer's) representatives, is supposed to hear from staff about the money they need to spend, ask the hard questions if needed and approve or deny that spend. It's staff's job though ultimately to convince council that the need is real, the homework is done and the price is right. So as you watch the video here, you probably find it odd that you council is individually making their own cases to staff member Steve Wall for why we need to spend the money - money that he's asking them for? It's backwards and it's frankly it's strange.
This odd display starts with Shannon Roberts as she stumbles over others to say as quick as she can that she doesn't see anything wrong. Just couldn't say it quick enough.
Next, Steve Hogan says, "what I remember" as if recalling from memory and then he oddly starts reading from prepared materials for some reason? Not sure where those prepared materials came from during this moment that was supposed to be a spontaneous discussion that just came onto the agenda that night and during the progress of the regular meeting, but he says, "what I remember". He then goes on to read line after line of exact statistics about generic roundabouts that have nothing to do with our specific proposed roundabout design (if I say "cars are great on gas" you'd want to know if I was referring to a Prius or a Humvee) or the fact that we're dealing with the evolving reality of COVID-19. Steve also asks how many meetings we've had to try to say that too much work has already been done to deny saying yes NOW, but again, he says nothing about this spend during the current COVID-19 reality and potential coming issues with our economy.
Then Ellen Burton asks for cost comparisons, while giving immediate qualifiers about why the the costs can't be compared. Steve Wall tells her that the other roundabout discussed, built last year, was just $2.2m and this is $8m, Ellen ignores this point entirely and moves on without question. The actual roundabout area for the Lake/Everett proposed design is almost exactly similar to comparable projects in town, the difference in OVERALL project area that they discuss is in landscaping, which comes at a relatively low cost. Again, no discussion of COVID-19 reality or potential pending issues with the economy from Ellen.
Don Chaney then unequivocally supports the idea saying "how long has this been going on" which is the same thing they said about the pool bond before it was defeated by a 90% margin, blindsiding them all. Don mentions that no city project he's seen in years has been as thoroughly vetted as this project - which says more about the city government than it does about the validity of this project Don. He then finishes by saying,
"I can do nothing but support this project"
and finally adds a story about a random interaction that day with a single unidentified person and in his mind that is supposed to solidify this position with the public somehow? Again, Don speaks with no discussion of the evolving COVID-19 reality or potential pending issues with our economy.
Shannon Roberts comes back for a second round and finishes by saying roundabouts in general are "economically wonderful" - not sure what that means? She again doesn't mention our specific design or COVID-19 and potential coming issues with our economy.
Finally Bonnie Carter, who originally asked that this be taken out of the consent agenda for discussion as if she had an objection to make, didn't ask any questions when giving the chance. Bonnie said nothing about the spend as it related to COVID-19 or potential coming economic challenges.
Bonnie then clumsily makes a motion to pass this, as seems to be her unspoken roll on the council. She starts to speak so eagerly in fact, that she has to be corrected by the city's attorney - likely because they've never removed an item from a consent agenda. They are so unfamiliar with the process around it that he needs to literally instruct her verbatim on what to say.
It was as if they were hearing it for the first time, which they very well might have been.
This meeting was a farce and Camas deserves better. Remember the actions of these people, a group that sits too comfortably in their seats, the next time you vote.
If anyone reading this is upset and is considering challenging any of these people for their seats on council in coming elections, please send me a private message and I will personally help you through the process of getting on the ballot when the time comes. The job is not difficult, and it is a part time commitment that does come with a salary. There are 7 chairs in that room for 7 people that care about ALL of their neighbors in Camas and make every effort to hear their voices and do their will in every vote.
We can do better than this.