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Washougal puts forward proposition for form of government change

Proposition 8 would convert Washougal to a Council-Manager system from a Mayor-Council system

WASHOUGAL — Residents of Washougal will vote whether to change their form of government, come Nov. 6.

Proposition 8 will give voters a choice: keep the current Mayor-Council form of government, or change to more common Council-Manager system.

Washougal City Council has approved Proposition 8, which allows voters to decide whether they want to change their city’s form of government. Photo by Jacob Granneman
Washougal City Council has approved Proposition 8, which allows voters to decide whether they want to change their city’s form of government. Photo by Jacob Granneman

“I think voters would say, ‘Why should we change, there’s no reason to do it right now,’” said Molly Coston, current mayor of Washougal. “If people ask me, I would say, ‘Well, because in the future … you never know who is going to run for [mayor] that position.”       

The current form of government, Mayor-Council, is also referred to as a “strong mayor” system. The mayor is ultimately the executive and directly manages city employees and, in the case of Washougal, assets of roughly $35 million.

“Strong mayor” systems can be found in smaller Washington cities, but are typically characteristic of large cities, like Seattle and Tacoma. In those cases, the mayor is more than a local community member elected by the citizens. They are often trained in executive management and earn six-figure salaries.

The proposed system of government, Council-Manager, also known as “weak mayor,” is far more common among small to midsize cities. The way this system operates is through a seven-member elected council, of which the mayor is a part.

Washougal City Council Member Paul Greenlee is shown here at a city council workshop on Oct. 8. Photo by Jacob Granneman
Washougal City Council Member Paul Greenlee is shown here at a city council workshop on Oct. 8. Photo by Jacob Granneman

The council members serve four-year terms, creating policy and adopting the budget. The mayor retains no executive power, but does preside over meetings and represent the community.

The real heavy lifting is done by a professional city manager who is hired by the council. It is they who manage the city on a daily basis, and deal directly with employees.

“Weak mayor” systems are common in Clark County, with Ridgefield, Battle Ground and Vancouver all operating under the Council-Manager form.

“There is no way to remove a mayor, [currently] there’s no impeachment process. The only thing you can do would be a recall election … and that’s one of the weaknesses of the Strong-Mayor system,“ said Paul Greenlee, a member of the Washougal City Council. “If Proposition 8 passes, we’d become a council of eight instead of seven, and we’d choose a mayor from amongst our eight.”         

The proposition was originally put forth by the city’s council five years ago, but failed to gain any traction among voters. The current council is optimistic about it this time, in part because the current mayor is in favor of bringing the proposition to voters, unlike her predecessor.  

“This is a pretty heavy lift for voters; to vote to change the form of government,” Coston said. “It’s the best time to change the form of government from a political standpoint.”

Washougal Mayor Molly Coston presides over a city council workshop on Oct. 8. Photo by Jacob Granneman
Washougal Mayor Molly Coston presides over a city council workshop on Oct. 8. Photo by Jacob Granneman

Coston pushed for the creation of a nine-person committee that advised on the viability of the proposition at this time.

The committee concluded that the proposition was indeed, an option for Washougal, with one caveat: should voters decide to transition to a Council-Manager system, the mayor would still have to be directly elected to Position 1 on the council.

“We were almost unanimous in wanting to change to the Council-Manager form,” said Chuck Carpenter, chair of the committee. “The most telling argument for me, is that as our city has tripled in size … it’s become apparent that we really need a knowledgeable person in charge of the day-to-day administration of the city.”

Carpenter also drafted information on Proposition 8 that has been added to this year’s voters’ pamphlet. He said he is very much in favor of transitioning to Council-Manager, after the committee concluded its report.

Of the nine-person committee, only one member initially held a dissenting viewpoint on a transition in the form of government. That member later agreed with the majority consensus, but still relayed a strong caveat regarding separation of powers, should a form change pass, Carpenter said.

For more information regarding Proposition 8, visit the city of Washougal’s web page or take a look at the Clark County Voters Pamphlet section devoted to the proposition.

Community members and members of the Washougal City Council are shown here after a workshop in City Hall on Oct. 8. Washougal community members will be able to vote to change or maintain their Mayor-Council form of government to a Council-Manager form on Nov. 6. Photo by Jacob Granneman
Community members and members of the Washougal City Council are shown here after a workshop in City Hall on Oct. 8. Washougal community members will be able to vote to change or maintain their Mayor-Council form of government to a Council-Manager form on Nov. 6. Photo by Jacob Granneman
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About The Author

Jacob Granneman is a filmmaker and writer from Clark County. He is a recent graduate of Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College, where he studied media production. He has produced documentary stories all over the Pacific Northwest and in Argentina. His passions range from loving people, to cinematography, to going on adventures in the most beautiful place on earth, i.e. his backyard. He lives with his wife in Vancouver, WA.

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