Public Comments Shine Light on CWEDA

Monday night's virtual Camas City Council meeting included a pronouncement of the creation of an ask The Mayor Anything (AMA) forum, the unanimous approval of more than $1 million of new projects and consultants fees, and another financial presentation that continues to assume Camas will somehow avoid all negative financial impact from COVID.

But the most interesting of public comments received during this week’s public comment section were those related to CWEDA, the now defunct and disgraced Camas Washougal Economic Development Association. Camas citizen and newly announced State Senatorial candidate John Ley spoke to the Council and asked how they were able to fund and support CWEDA over a nine year period, without without requiring a single financial statement from Paul Dennis' taxpayer paid development operation. Led by a Board of Directors that included Camas Mayor Scott Higgins, Washougal Mayor Sean Guard, and Port CEO Dave Ripp - many of the current sitting Camas City Councilors were an active part of CWEDA and were responsible for providing fiscal oversight of the quasi-public agency tasked with making development deals on behalf of both cities and the port.

CWEDA's CEO is currently under criminal investigation for financial crimes including using the organization's coffers as a private checkbook to enrich himself and a private property development consultancy which he owned. Both cities have quietly distanced themselves from the debacle, and have decided to no longer fund the operation with taxpayer dollars, albeit after the announcement of the criminal investigation had been made. But a quick dismissal and distancing from CWEDA may not be enough, when so many current city officials were involved in the creation, implementation, and ongoing management of this taxpayer funded enterprise.

Citizens who ask questions during public comment of City Council meetings don't actually expect an answer, as Camas City Councilors had voted earlier this year to further restrict public engagement at meetings by specifically prohibiting a 2 way conversation that would allow Councilors to answer the questions posed by their constituents. But without actually removing the public comment period which allows citizens up to 3 minutes to speak, Council must endure listening to the actual comments as they are spoken. At least until Monday night.

Phil Williams, a current City of Camas Parks and Recreation Commissioner and regular commenter at Council meetings, raised his hand to speak and was called on by Camas Zoom Administrator Heather Rowley. Williams began his comments by describing his frustration with the lack of response at the newly formed Questions and Answers website, rolled out by the City shortly after public outcry for information had reached a fever pitch back in March. But soon into his comments, as he began to describe his frustration with the Q & A restrictions enacted earlier this year by Council, Williams began to suddenly experience "technical difficulties".

To the public audience, it appeared Williams had lost his connection to the Zoom meeting, as his audio suddenly dropped out mid sentence. There was silence for at least 15 seconds before the Mayor asked if Williams was still on the call. At that point, Williams' voice reappeared, obviously not knowing that his comments had not been heard. When Williams realized he had been muted, he asked if the city was going to restart his three minutes of public comment as he had been cut off around one minute in as the clock ran. The Mayor stepped in, but instead of allowing him to continue where he left off, McDonnell stopped Williams and dismissively asked, “did you have anything else to add”. From there, the two began an exchange that saw a sitting Mayor arguing with a citizen and volunteer public servant, DURING that citizen's three minute time allotment.

Below is a video recorded by Williams during his presentation submitted to WATCH Camas. Notice how suddenly Williams' microphone was being muted during his speech. This remote muting is not a function available to the participant, and can only be controlled by the meeting Administrator. Why was the Camas City Council trying to mute Mr. Williams during his public comment speech? And why did Mayor McDonnell not allow him to complete his comments during the short three minutes he is provided?

The optics were bad. But optics appear to be low on the priority list for this Council and its Mayor, as they continue new project planning, new consultant contracts, and a relentless spend by the millions - despite the looming long term financial impacts of COVID.

Additional questions about water quality on Lacamas Lake also went unanswered Monday night, as residents wondered aloud about why the broken bio filter owned by the Lacamas Shores subdivision was continuing to allow unmitigated runoff to poison the lake and create fatal toxicity levels. The City of Camas regularly inspects HOA drainage systems, and meets with HOAs to address environmental impacts, yet the Lacamas Shores problem has been left to fester for more than a decade now. $22M has been spent to acquire "Legacy Lands" to protect the lake for future generations, but the actual health of the lake itself remains unaddressed.

As of today, City of Camas has still not updated their Citizen Q & A website to reflect questions or provide answers from the May 4th public comment session. There are also unanswered questions from both April meetings. WATCH Camas has compiled a running spreadsheet which tracks all questions and answers HERE.