The former small town mayor discusses his first campaign, his tenure, and his legacy.
Michael McCormic Jr.
YACOLT — It has been almost exactly one year since Mayor of Yacolt Jeff Carothers stepped down from his position as the leader of the quiet North Clark County town. Now a year into retirement from public office, Carothers looks back on his time as mayor with contentment, remembering all that has transpired since he threw his hat in the ring of the strangest small-town election ever seen in Clark County.
For over a year leading up to his election as mayor of Yacolt, Carothers had attended all but three of the weekly town council meetings, and was growing increasingly concerned with the way the town was being run. Small town gossip had divided the community, slanderous accusations had been brought against various public figures within the town government, and Carothers claims that a “good ol’ boy” mentality had become prevalent among members of the town council.
When Carothers applied for a vacant town council seat prior to running for mayor, he claims that some candidates were given preferential treatment over others.
“Certain members like myself and a couple others were asked numerous questions about why we should be in office and what we’d seen and what we could do for the town. Someone else would be interviewed and they’d be asked one question, or their application wasn’t even completely filled out,” Carothers explains, noting that those who were given special accommodations were typically the ones appointed to open positions.
At this point, Carothers, along with a few other disenfranchised Yacolt residents who recognized “the writing on the wall,” decided it was time for change in the town of 1,500 people.
Of course, with the desire for change arises volatility, and thus three candidates for mayor of Yacolt emerged during the 2011 election cycle, including Carothers, former Yacolt City Councilman Albert “Skip” Benge, and appointed interim Mayor James Weldon. A primary election narrowed the candidates to Carothers and Benge.
As Carothers remembers, “Early on, it was apparent that there were kind of two sides to who they wanted to get elected. There was the one side of the community that wanted to see things stay the way they were, and then there was the other side of the community that wanted to see change, and that was the side that was giving me support.”
Ask any Yacolt resident who lived in the area during the 2011 election, and they will tell you it was a wild one. While there existed no animosity between Carothers and Benge themselves, their respective camps quickly became vicious.
Nearly $10,000 worth of damage was done to Carothers’ personal property when vandals keyed his cars. Reports emerged of vandalism to Benge’s property, as well. Campaign signs lined yards and public easement along roads. On one memorable occasion, the county sheriff fished nearly a dozen of Carothers’ campaign signs from the Lewis River. Carothers solution? Put the signs back out.
At the same time that Carothers was running for mayor, four of the five city council positions were up for reelection, and every one of those were contested, as well, and everybody in the town knew, whether they supported Carothers or Benge, that this election would decide the direction of the Town of Yacolt for years to come.
“I think one of the biggest things that was at stake was just the integrity of the town,” Carothers recalls. “How the town was perceived not only by its citizens but throughout the county, and that became apparent to me when I did get elected.”
When the ballots rolled in on election night in November of 2011, the people of Yacolt made their voices abundantly clear: it was time for a fresh start.
With 62 percent of the popular vote, Jeff Carothers had decisively claimed victory for the position of mayor. Even more surprising was the result of the town council election.
“All four of those positions that were up for election, those people all got voted out and new people all got voted in, so that shows where we were at, at that time, how the town and its citizens felt about their town government,” says Carothers.
There was no doubt that the town had been crippled; division, small town gossip, and political vitriol had taken its toll, and everybody was ready for the community to come together under the new town leadership.
Mayor Carothers himself faced an uphill battle; in addition to the division in his own backyard, the Town of Yacolt had declined in prestige among surrounding communities, and a controversial audit by the state tax auditor had put the town at odds with the Washington government.
As Carothers remembers, “The main thing that was going through my mind was that the community had seen and had decided that it was a time for change.”
Careful to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors, Carothers claims that he and his town council members emphasized transparency, honesty, and accountability within the town government. They wanted to ensure that they were making decisions that were best for the town.
“I was blessed to have a town council that did their due diligence and prepared for council meetings and did the research,” says Carothers. “When we made decisions, we made decisions based on facts and not agendas, and not what we wanted, but what we thought was best and what was correct for the community.”
Change didn’t come to the Town of Yacolt all at once. Rather, Carothers and the rest of the town council members made it a point to show the people of Yacolt what a unified, civil town government can do for its people, and slowly, even those who had opposed Carothers’ bid for mayor began to take pride in the community that was being rebuilt.
Locally, changes were enacted to make Yacolt “a more livable community.” The town skate park, which had been years of fundraising and planning in the making, was completed under the new town government. The Yacolt Recreational Park, which now features soccer fields, a covered pavilion, a BMX bike track, dog park, and disc golf course, was planned, funded and constructed. New road and informational signs were implemented to further engage the community into town events and on-goings. New street lights made their way into the town, as well. All of this was accomplished through grants and fundraising efforts, and no new taxes were levied to fund these town projects.
One of the accomplishments Carothers was most proud of was promoting civic engagement among Yacolt’s residents, hoping that more involvement in the town’s leadership would help to stem the flow of the “small town gossip” that had caused so much pain in previous years.
Carothers says, “Every opportunity I had to speak during mayor’s comments at the council meetings or at a town event, I reminded and tried to get the citizens involved in the town government. I invited them to council meetings; I wanted them at council meetings.”
Meanwhile, Carothers and the rest of the representatives of the Yacolt government became actively involved throughout Clark County. Given that the town’s publicity had been relatively negative and at some times even comedic leading up to Carothers’ election, the time had come to earn back some respect.
Members of the town council, including Mayor Carothers, were more present in county-wide events, getting to know leadership figures in neighboring towns and communities, even going so far as to advocate for Yacolt at the county and state government level.
“Yacolt had been kind of given a bad name throughout the county for a while,” Carothers explains. “When I first started attending a lot of the different events throughout the county and even going to the state capitol, Yacolt was kind of put on the back burner.”
According to Carothers, however, that changed as he and the council members made a concerted effort to engage their constituents. In many ways, Yacolt began to make a name for itself, not as the squabbling small town torn apart by political conflict, but as a community where people could come together and enjoy the best of small town life.
As Carothers reflects on his tenure as mayor, he claims that there are two parts to the “Carothers Legacy,” the first being the little improvements here and there that amounted to accomplishing one large goal.
From the skate park to new town lighting, flower beds to new informational signs, or road improvements to new soccer fields, Carothers takes pride in the the projects that he claims “made the community more a place where people wanted to live.”
Carothers explains the second pinnacle of his legacy, stating, “Going along with that is the other part that I think I accomplished, which was bringing back that kind of sense of community and pride in the Town of Yacolt.”
After spending five years in office, Mayor Carothers began to feel the toll the job was taking on his mind and body. Even with the worst behind him, the town’s people unified and its name once again respected, being Mayor Carothers was still no walk in the park.
Between his full-time job, mayoral responsibilities, and church leadership position, Carothers struggled to set aside time to rest and care for his own health. Then, over half a decade after taking up the title of mayor, Carothers received a life-altering diagnosis.
“In December of 2016, I got diagnosed with heart failure,” says Carothers. “And, at the same time, I was going through some other medical problems with my kidneys and some of my other organs.”
As his health became an even more urgent matter, doctors insisted on running dozens of tests to better understand how to treat Carothers’ condition. As Carothers recalls, doctors at one point had to draw 12 vials of blood in one sitting. Even now, his doctors are still struggling to get to the root of the problem, though Carothers has his suspicions that many of his health problems are a result of his 21 years in active duty in the Marine Corps during the Gulf War.
“I was just really getting tired; I was really drained, and lacked energy, and lacked focus,” Carothers says. “I was getting to a point where I don’t think I was doing the position of mayor justice.”
Feeling that the combination of his illness and his other commitments were standing in the way of being an effective mayor for the people of Yacolt, Carothers first attempted to lighten the load by stepping away from his church leadership responsibilities.
Four months and few improvements later, after more medical tests, consulting with his wife, doctors, and fellow town government officials, Carothers decided that the most responsible course of action for himself and for the Town of Yacolt was to resign as mayor in June of 2017.
While he regrets having to step away from the position he had fought so hard to achieve five years before, Carothers remains proud of the work he did, and believes that Yacolt is on a better path than it was six years ago, stating, “I thoroughly enjoyed being the mayor. I enjoyed being involved in the community. I enjoyed being involved in the county on numerous boards and getting involved so that the town was recognized.”
Carothers’s resignation was finalized on June 30, 2017, and town councilman Vince Myers assumed mayor responsibilities as the interim mayor.
Carothers says of Mayor Myers, “I have the utmost respect for Vince Myers and the man that he is. He was one of my council members; he was one of those ones who stepped up back in November of 2011 and decided to run for council.”
An emeritus role
In the year that has passed since his resignation, Jeff Carothers still attends town council meetings, now as a member of the growing community under the direction of a new town government. The town is quieter now than it was six years ago; small town gossip no longer plagues the residents as it did before, although the occasional argument does arise over how the North Clark Little League should operate.
Through the transition back to private, civilian life, Carothers says he has remained the same man he was before, albeit with fewer responsibilities.
“I still like to do the same things,” Carothers says. “We’ve got a camper here, we like to camp (my family does), we like to fish, I like to hunt. Those things haven’t changed. Hopefully now, I have more time to do those things.”
In fact, the Carothers household has become somewhat of a social gathering place, where the barbecue is often lit and there’s always an extra mouth at the table. And, as Carothers continues to navigate through a new chapter in his life, he knows he can rely on his faith and his family to sustain him, giving special thanks to his wife, who bore with him through his entire journey as mayor.
“My wife has been just my rock, through everything; my military career, supporting me as the mayor. She was one of those ones that didn’t like being in the limelight.” he says. “If I decided I wanted to do something, we would talk about it, and she would give me 100 percent support.”
Today, free from the responsibilities and the spotlight that come with the title of mayor, Carothers sits on his front porch drinking lemonade, waving at families as they walk by his house, enjoying the company of his family and friends, and resting easy knowing that, for many of his neighbors throughout the town, Yacolt is a better place for having had Jeff Carothers as mayor.