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Battle Ground council candidates address divisiveness around city

It’s been a tense few months on the campaign trail for Battle Ground City Council, with accusations lobbed over social media by candidates, toward candidates, toward the mayor and toward people coming to the city to stage demonstrations.

The actual election is coming up on Nov. 5, and Position No. 3 will have a newcomer, as Neil Butler faces off against Shauna Walters for Steven Phelps’ seat. Phelps isn’t seeking re-election. Walters finished ahead in the August primary, pulling in 49.26 percent of the vote compared with Butler’s 32.96 percent. They advanced to the November election by getting more support in the primary than Candy Bonneville.

Both candidates for the seat spoke about the divisiveness around the city when responding via email to a questionnaire sent to them by The Columbian.

Walters said she recently sat down for coffee with a few women who have been vocal in their opposition to her, and they had a productive conversation. It’s something she wants to happen more.

“Shutting down speech is not the answer, and neither is slinging accusations at one another via social media,” Walters said. “I feel that the country’s political climate has added to much of the division we are feeling even down at the local level. I just want to encourage healthy dialogue and face-to-face conversations.”

Butler called falsely labeling others and name calling a sign of weakness, and also thought the political climate of the country has played a role in Battle Ground’s tense time.

“Although there may be interest in state and national issues, the city can only operate within its legal scope,” he said. “I’ll keep it focused on the real issues facing Battle Ground.”

The two gave differing answers when asked about Battle Ground council’s recent decision to approve pay increases for city councilors. In September, the council bumped up councilors’ pay to $900 a month, the deputy mayor’s salary to $1,000 a month and the mayor’s pay to $1,100 a month. Councilors whose terms end this year make $400 a month, councilors whose term runs through 2021 make $600 a month and the mayor currently receives $750 a month.

Butler didn’t give his personal feelings on the matter, but understood where the councilors were coming from in their decision.

“Participation in the political process has many barriers to entry,” Butler said. “The financial burden incurred by council members can discourage a true representative government. Battle Ground needs to have a diversity of thought and experience that represents those who live here. It is easy to second guess the actions of others without feeling the consequences of those actions.”

Walters said she is “adamantly against” it.

“I feel that if increases are warranted, they should be decided on by an independent salary commission and not the council,” she said. “I also know, based on conversations with other citizens, that this decision by the council was not well received by much of the community and I feel that this will hurt our chances of getting the fire annexation to pass when it goes to a vote.”

City officials are hoping to turn to the public in February to vote on whether Battle Ground should be annexed into Fire District 3. Currently, the city contracts with the agency for coverage. The annexation would mean fire and emergency services would be paid by taxpayers through a fire levy. To combat that, councilors voted this summer to reduce the city’s utility tax rate by 10 percent if the annexation vote is approved. Walters said the annexation will help with Battle Ground’s growing population.

“Public safety is high on the priority list for our residents and the addition of a second facility is desperately needed due to structural problems with the existing building,” Walters said. “If the annexation does not pass, we will be forced to sacrifice our safety in not only response times to fires, but also in our police force.”

Butler also thinks annexation is the right move for the city.

“The fire annexation is the next logical step in the progression of our city,” he said. “It will allow the city to move forward with making capital improvements and investments in the community.”

There was some negative talk at a recent council meeting on the county’s move toward developing more than 2,000 acres north of Vancouver. Butler said it could negatively impact the city and Battle Ground Public Schools.

“The infrastructure needed to support this unbridled growth will hurt the efforts of the city and hurt the already fragile commercial/residential balance for zoning,” he said. “Without the jobs, parks and infrastructure needed to support this growth, Battle Ground and its values will suffer at the hands of the county council.”

Walters also wants to see infrastructure improvements in the city.

“I do not like to see our farmland being used for high-density housing when our current infrastructure is not keeping up with the growth we have experienced over the last 15 years,” Walters said. “I would like to see more proposed solutions for traffic control, streets with sidewalks and interconnected trail systems before adding to the current density of housing.”


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