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The City of Camas, located in Southwest Washington State, just a few miles east of Vancouver, had a serious voter revolt on election night. A major $78 million bloated aquatics center, park, community center, and general empire building project was completely crushed -losing by a margin of 89% to 10% right now. To cap off this humiliating defeat, Camas Mayor Shannon Turk (who championed this tax scheme) was running uncontested for re-election, yet has only scraped together 40% of the voters, with the rest of the voters supporting write-in candidates. According to the Clark County Auditor’s office, there were three write-in candidates, so they have to conduct a hand recount. However, the primary write-in candidate was Barry McDonnell who led the local campaign in opposition to the $78 million pool bond measure.
To say the local voters were not impressed with this property tax plan is an understatement, and if the final hand recount does indeed confirm Mayor Turk’s defeat by a write-in candidate, it is possible even the tone deaf politicians filling the rest of this council might start to take notice.
It all started with the best of intentions and the need for a new local pool after the City of Camas permanently closed down their old community pool a few years ago. In the beginning, it was a just a plan to build a new pool and replace the community asset many people felt they had lost, but when a good idea is handed to a committee, and that committee is influenced by an insular bureaucracy, then the inevitable grandiose dreams and schemes to expand the plan are fertilized. Mission creep sets in. Next thing you know, a small community pool replacement grows into a multi-acre destination park, community center, and aquatics center of epic proportions. Of course, tourists will flock from miles around just to gaze in wonder at what the City of Camas has built. This pool of dreams was glorious, and it would endure and be admired for generations to come.
Then came the pesky problem of needing to borrow a lot of money to make this dream a reality, but what the heck? It wasn’t their money. The taxpayers could foot the bill for a generation or two, and maybe the politicians could get their names on the entrance plaque as they move on to higher offices. $78 million was a small price to pay for that. The plan continued to gestate and bloat over a few years as the staff infection at the City of Camas spread and the plans expanded. As election filing week rolled around in May (they approved the site itself in April, but many people were not aware) and it looked like the incumbent politicians would be safe from immediate electoral consequences, they launched the plan for real. It was time to strike.
In lieu of public hearings, they held a few “town halls” mostly in the late spring early summer, which, conveniently for the supporters, many community members couldn’t attend, nobody could really comment, and questions were limited. Typical Delphi Method techniques were used to suppress dissent and convince the handful of attendees that they really wanted this tax plan and to squelch dissent. After dispensing with the pesky public, the tax plan was approved by the council July 15th, a consultant was hired for $69,000 to promote and sell the plan to the public (a contract signed the same day), and they were off to the races.
The only real political downside was the fact that this plan required significant debt bonding of $78 million and, due to Washington State’s constitutional requirements and because of state law, the voters must vote to approve with a 60% majority. The vote was scheduled for November when the turn out would be highest.
Obviously, many mistakes were made. Let’s review the most obvious:
- The council unanimously approved a tax scheme which 90% of the voters didn’t support.
- The council violated RCW 42.17A.555 by misusing public resources to promote a ballot initiative (which is why I filed a complaint against them, still under investigation – see here)
- The council obviously rushed this scheme through long after anyone could legally challenge them in an election this year, presuming there would be no electoral consequences.
- The council probably violated a variety of other laws by not having a public hearing and substituting that with these goofy, deceptive and biased Delphi-Method “open houses.”
- The public became convinced, understandably, that something was really wrong in the city, and the elected officials didn’t care about their concerns.
- The council and bureaucrats never expected the citizens would rebel against the scheme
Now the stench of spectacular failure hangs over the Camas City Council and the defeat of this bond measure by such an overwhelming margin can’t be spun in a positive way, no matter how much they squander tax payer dollars on outside consultants. The mayor didn’t expect she would receive 40% of the vote in an uncontested election, and while the true winner of this race might not be known for a few weeks (due in part to Washington State’s delayed mail-in ballot program), nobody can be impressed by her leadership. The City of Camas stacked the deck in favor of their plan at every turn and the final stumbling block of those annoying voters appears to have been the one obstacle they couldn’t easily crush or overcome. Even if the mail in ballots are split between the three mail in challengers who were clamoring to remove her from office, it is hardly an electoral success story to survive this scrum with so few voters supporting her.
I love pools. I wish we had more in our state. My kids like to swim in pools. So do I. Pools are expensive. They are expensive to build, to maintain, and eventually they all require major, costly repairs. It is nearly impossible to run a public community pool of any size at a profit. A community, a city, or a county which decides to build a pool does so because it is a community good. The pool will lose money, but if you manage it well, the losses can be mitigated to an acceptable level which the community will support. If you budget wisely and frugally, you can even plan adequately for future costly repairs, upgrades, and eventually a replacement. There is no need to build an empire or create a a monument to the politicians. This is difficult for the modern bureaucracy to conceive because they always want to bloat themselves into empire building. Bureaucrats can’t seem to resist the siren song of marble palaces and majestic (and costly) community centers, and it isn’t hard to inflate the egos of politicians to ride the train.
This leads to an insular, self-promoting feedback loop which inevitably results in the vision conceived by all who have been caught up in the dream. Since most of the creators of this dream were either paid to do so, expect to profit from the implementation, or just hope to enjoy it for themselves someday – almost nobody seriously considers who will pay the final price. Regardless of the lip service they might give to the taxpayers, these insiders working so hard to flesh out this dream are rarely in touch with “normal” or “average” voters and taxpayers. Insiders become fanatical supporters of the vision, and achieving the dream at any cost becomes the priority.
This is how we get to a tax scheme that fails with a 90% rejection at the voting booth despite having unanimous insider support. It began with good intentions, but this 90% blowout defeat is the hell to which those intentions and other bad choices have paved the road. Sometimes these schemes succeed, and they create costly boondoggles which haunt the community for generations with unrealized dreams and unfulfilled promises or a costly white elephant that sucks all the financial oxygen out of the room causing the city or county to cut their public safety budget and other essential services while they try to pay down the debt on the backs of those who can least afford it. Often, this is long after the politicians and bureaucrats who made the mess have moved on to their next community to trash. Fortunately, that fate was avoided, for now, in the City of Camas.
Sure, there will be great disappointment and anger from those who supported the dream. Obviously, there will be political careers that come to a sudden unexpected end, but the taxpayers of the City of Camas owe at least a thank you to the ragtag group of unorganized opponents of this fiasco. The results clearly indicate a multi-partisan common cause in opposition. Once the dust settles from this political train wreck, perhaps more practical folk can revisit the need for a community pool and find something that the community can actually afford and support and not shove it down their throats.
There are lessons from the City of Camas which all politicians and bureaucrats should learn, and it starts with taking a far more conservative approach to tax payer funded projects. It includes trying to find out if the community can be adequately served by the private sector at no taxpayer expense, and it should include the ability to question everything, challenge the dreams and schemes of the bureaucrats, and to consider the cost (the real cost, not the phony numbers that always create a budget that gets blown). If it becomes too costly or absurd, it is probably time to rethink the plan.
Or, you can just get sneaky, rush it through a half-baked process, break the law, ignore the will of the people, and presume you know best. However, that approach didn’t work too well in the City of Camas, and sometimes you get caught.
OUR CONSTITUTION BEGINS WITH THE PHRASE “WE THE PEOPLE.” IT WAS THE FOUNDER’S INTENT THAT GOVERNMENT BE CREATED BY THE PEOPLE, TO SERVE THE PEOPLE. IT WASN’T THEIR INTENTION FOR THE PEOPLE TO SERVE THE GOVERNMENT. IT WAS ALWAYS INTENDED THAT GOVERNMENT WHICH FAILED TO SERVE THE PEOPLE SHOULD BE “ALTERED OR ABOLISHED.” UNTIL WE RETURN TO THE FOUNDER’S INTENT, WE REMAIN WE THE GOVERNED…