Assessing Wilsonville City Council election results
As votes were counted at a turtle's pace over the course of 10 days, a haze of uncertainty wafted over the Wilsonville City Council race.
But with nearly all votes counted Nov. 13, the fog has mostly lifted — Julie Fitzgerald will be the next mayor while Kristin Akervall and Joann Linville will almost certinly retain their seats behind the dais. Akervall's seat is essentially secure while Linville appears to have too big of a lead for John Budiao to catch up.
But what does this election mean for Wilsonville's future? Here are a few takeaways.
Residents content with city's direction
In May, when voters passed a ballot measure that imposed term limits on councilors and thus prevented longtime Mayor Tim Knapp from running for reelection, some wondered whether the result was a rejection of the current council leadership.
This election, however, showed that Wilsonville residents generally favor the existing council direction.
Fitzgerald was endorsed by Knapp and has similar policy views to the current mayor, whereas opponent Ben West has a tenuous relationship with the mayor and disagrees with him on a number of policy issues. Knapp also endorsed Akervall and Linville in their races against Budiao and Imran Haider.
"Some of the backers of the terms limits measure were almost projecting or hoping this would be a repudiation of the status quo or of the political establishment that Tim Knapp represented, and voters gave a pretty resounding 'no' to that with the election of Fitzgerald, Akervall and Linville," said Garet Prior, a Wilsonville resident and city of Tualatin planner.
Dina Ochs, who supported term limits and West for mayor, found the duality of voters both favoring term limits and the current council status quo to be somewhat perplexing.
"I am leaning toward it (term limits passage) wasn't a referendum on the current establishment and, generally, people like term limits," she said.
Knapp and Councilor Charlotte Lehan figured all along that people were satisfied by Wilsonville governance, as evidenced by how highly the city scores on community surveys.
"I think that the results corroborate the scientific survey we do every other year that says very large majorities of our people in Wilsonville think that we're on the right track and are doing things that they want us to do at the local government level," Knapp said. "That's not to say there aren't things that need working on. There certainly are."
Prior noted that unseating incumbents or being a "change" candidate can prove challenging.
"People, in general, fear change and what that might bring. If you're running as a change candidate as councilor West was, it's got to land with people," he said.
Big money arrives in Wilsonville
An unprecedented avalanche of cash flooded the council campaign this year, with West's political action committee collecting over $50,000 in contributions. Fitzgerald also raised more money ($21,000) than what is typically seen in a Wilsonville council race, but that was still not even half of West's allotment.
While it's impossible to say that money played no role at all, it didn't deliver the result West and his supporters were looking for.
"This was a lot of money historically. In the past, the most Tim (Knapp) ever spent was $10,000, and the most I ever spent was $2,000. This was climbing pretty fast into territory Wilsonville doesn't usually reside in," Lehan said. "It indicates it's not necessarily effective, and at some level it backfires on you. It looks like you're trying to buy it. Especially when the money is coming from outside of Wilsonville, it makes it look more suspicious."
Former Wilsonville City Councilor Michelle Labrie Ripple agreed that the money raised may have backfired on West.
"If he had stuck to small donations from residents he probably would have won," she said. "I really think him accepting all that money from outside interests, I know it swayed a few people I know."
Along with the money, Labrie Ripple and Lehan also thought that some of the negative anti-Fitzgerald campaigning, such as framing Fitzgerald as trying to make Wilsonville more like Portland or being in cahoots with the Metro regional government, was off-putting to voters.
"I think that people chose the more positive outlook rather than the negative fearful one that Portland was taking us over, Metro was taking us over," Lehan said.
Was there a blue wave?
West, who is conservative politically, remarked following the election results that partisanship and the nationalization of local politics could have played a role in his loss. And there is evidence to suggest Wilsonville is becoming more blue over time.
State Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville, who pulled off a major upset in 2018 and turned House District 26 blue for the first time in many years, won her race against conservative candidate Peggy Stevens comfortably this year.
State Rep. Rachel Prusak, who represents West Linn and Tualatin, mirrored Neron's success the last two elections. The map turns redder once you venture farther south, as evidenced by Charbonneau representative Christine Drazan, R-Canby, and her decisive victory this cycle.
"I think, nationally, we very much represent (that) these suburban areas, as they diversify and population gains, lean more toward the left," Prior said.
City to have female-led council
Like Wilsonville's counterparts in West Linn, Beaverton and Tualatin, Wilsonville voters chose women to represent their interests.
In fact, 2021 will mark the first time Wilsonville has four female councilors at once and Fitzgerald will be the second female mayor in the city's 52-year history (Lehan was the first).
In what may be another sign of progress, Lehan and others the Spokesman chatted with didn't see much significance in this point.
However, Labrie Ripple said: "I think it's just because maybe sexism is starting to die out and people are starting to realize women are just as qualified or competent as men, and in this election the women were more competent and qualified and that's why they won."
Knapp simply said three women defeated three men because Fitzgerald, Akervall and Linville were the most qualified candidates.
"I think the fact that we have these ladies at this point is because they have been the ones doing the work. They have put in time in other venues, participated at different levels, the Development Review Board," Knapp said. "That kind of work helps a person gain the understanding to be then qualified to start talking about long-range policy. If it's only the women doing the work, I guess we're going to have the women in the policy roles they've aspired to. The men can do it too. They just have to be willing to participate in the same way."
What are policy implications?
With a West victory and an altered council, Ochs was hoping for the city to deprioritize bridge projects over I-5 and the Willamette River and to be more cautious about increasing population density.
However, those two wishes likely will not come to pass with the current election results.
"I feel like the status quo hasn't really listened to the people," Ochs added. "I saw more potential for them (losing candidates) to listen to more viewpoints."
West, for his part, has criticized Metro for its land-use policies regarding urban growth and the City Council for cooperating with the regional government. Knapp said working well with Metro and other regional players brings investment to Wilsonville, pointing out that the city has received many grants from the regional government and that Graham Oaks Nature Park was developed by Metro.
"There are competing interests across the region that can easily use the funding (from Metro) as well as Wilsonville can. If we were to be in an adversarial position every time things come up, it's realistic to think that funding could be allocated to other places, not Wilsonville," he said.
Another implication of the election is that the city's current tact of pursuing litigation related to the Aurora Airport, advocating for master planning to be redone and raising concerns about the potential for airport expansion will likely continue.
Unhappy with the city's viewpoint and strategy, airport interests invested heavily in West, Budiao and Haider's campaign, while the Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce also endorsed those candidates.
"I think the decisiveness of Julie's win pretty clearly shows people don't support expanding the Aurora Airport," Labrie Ripple said.
Prior, who is a member of the Wilsonville Alliance for Inclusive Communities, felt fairly confident that most of the candidates would have made an effort to address issues like a citizen-led police task force, encouraging minority voices to have a say in local decisions and creating more housing affordability. He is hopeful these initiatives will progress soon.
"I think it's a really friendly audience, and I think the city government wants to do the right thing. I will be interested to see how quickly we move. I'd like us to move a little bit quicker. I can understand they (the city) were waiting to see how this election went," Prior said.
Lehan felt that the most likely factor to impact the current council direction is the COVID-19 pandemic. Other than that, she thinks the city's trajectory will remain steady.
"Everyone is struggling with how best to address the COVID issues. It's hit everybody. And things change on a daily basis," she said. "How that's going to affect council goals … that's the unknown."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.