Mayor Jack Wells Oral Interview
La Center Historical Museum
Clark County Stories
Interviewer: Suzi Terrell
Narrator Name: JACK WELLS
Interview date and time: 5/10/18 11:00am
Interview Address: 320 W 7th St., La Center, WA
Transcriber: Sharron Sunny Cathcart January 2021
Suzi: I am Suzi Terrell with the La Center Historical Museum. And today is May 10th and I'm chatting with Jack Wells who will be telling us a little bit about his time as Mayor.
Jack: In 1991 I decided to run for mayor of La Center. There was a gentleman named Chuck Smith who was running. He and I battled it out for the privilege of being the La Center Mayor. I had not been involved in La Center politics at all. My initial motivation was that Chuck was running unopposed. And I have a thought process that when people run unopposed they have a tendency to develop their own agenda, because they are not threatened by competition. So they think that they can do whatever they want whatever it is within reason. So there were a couple of issues that were important to me as I got into the campaign. One thing that I found out was that La Center was never in the running for any grant money. There was the community development block grant program. It is a federal program that gave money to small cities that was funneled through Clark County. For some reason, I didn't start going to council meetings until I decided to run for Mayor. And so I would go to the Council meetings and I would hear this stuff that the then Mayor Ed Siegler would tell the Council, saying that we were really close this time, but we just didn't get the money. And it could be for a street or sidewalk or whatever but there was never an explanation as to why La Center wasn't getting our share of this money. So those things interested me.
Suzi: So Ed Siegler was right before you as mayor?
Jack: Yes, those types of issues interested me and I felt that it wasn't right that we deserved our fair share. We had a couple of candidate nights. The league of women voters put up a night at the middle school and there were a couple of other opportunities that we had to give our spiels and that was one of the things that I focused on. That La Center wasn't getting our fair share and that I think we should. I didn't really know what I was talking about - but I was willing to learn. I ended up getting 60% of the vote. I thought it was a landslide. And then when I won the election I thought, what do I do now. I learned. All the mayors in the county are on the board of directors and I learned very quickly that success or failure in those grounds is what your matching funds are. And that can be money or staff time or all kinds of different things. That they are matching funds and La Center wasn't coming up with enough match. Whether it was the value of the land or a park or that type of thing. At that point in time all the card revenue was being put into a local government investment pool for projects. But there were never any projects because we never got any matching money, and we couldn't afford to do it all ourselves. When I finally figured that out, we started getting grant money because we would up our match. Sometimes we would match 50% because 50% of redoing Aspen Avenue was a lot of money but the other 50% was free. We're not going to pay for the whole thing. So we started getting money for sidewalks and road improvements and those things. And we had sidewalks going everywhere. This little city didn't have many sidewalks for many years. We started getting grant money so that we could do some projects. And I was very focused on sidewalks. I thought any street that a child has to walk on for school should have a sidewalk. So we built a lot of sidewalks during my time as Mayor.
And one of the big issues that faced our community when I was elected was that we didn't have any water. I think at that time we had three wells, and two were not working. And we were pulling so much water out of it that we were mining the aquifer which meant that we were pulling water out faster than the aquifer could replenish the well. We did not have enough water in our reservoir. We had a big wooden reservoir where the water tanks are. There was a big wooden reservoir up there and we did not have enough water to fight a house fire. And that's critical. The prior Mayor and council had established an agreement with Clark Public Utilities to bring a water line from the Cherry Grove area in Battle Ground to the city limits of La Center as an interior, that they would tie into our system and then we could get water from CPU and then our system would be a backup system to that. In the meantime, when I was told we do not have enough water to fight a fire, I and fire district 14, and the workers from CPU, hand glued 3800 feet of two inch plastic water pipe and ran it from the reservoir. The old reservoir up the hill past Southview. A lady had an irrigation well, and CPU tested the well water and she agreed to let the city tap into her well. And once we got that hand glued pipe and hooked in, we began to start getting water from her well, until the interior line was done. That was the first crisis, I guess it could've been a crisis. With one fire we would've been out of water!
I had a wonderful City Council and we worked together very well. We didn't always agree, but I think we did some very good things for the city. We built Holley Park. I went up to Olympia and testified before the inter-agency for outdoor recreation, and we got a half a million grant from them to develop Holley Park in the ballfields. And we worked together on that and the CPU helped us.
Suzi: Was that land donated? Or did you have to buy that?
Jack: The city-owned 7.5 acres, and then we purchased five additional acres. I cannot remember Mr. Holley's first name. He gave us a good deal on those five acres which gave us 12.5 acres for the park. And in the meantime, Clark County saddle club had a corral, and their horse stuff wasn't really compatible with what we wanted for the park. We wanted ballfields for the kids and so we had a terrible time with the saddle club because they did not want to leave. We finally had to buy them out. They put a price on what they had developed for their fences and corrals and stuff like that. So we bought them out so that we could have the park for the community. Not that they were not important. It just wasn't part of the plan. That was a contentious time for this small community. And when I took office La Center was a town and not a city, and I wanted it to be a city. Town is okay. A city in my mind has a more professional connotation. And I wanted to make us more attractive to people who wanted to live here or have a business here and that type of thing. In order to do that we had to have all of the ordinances codified into laws. We did that and we were designated as the city of La Center. And that was a fun time for me. I felt that it was important.
Another big issue that we had in 1992 was that the state legislature had just passed the growth management act which required all cities in Clark County to develop a 20-year plan for growth. We did not have the money to hire a city planner to do that work so we had to contract with the county. We got a part-time planner from the County which was a conflict because it was like the county fought us every step of the way. We wanted the La Center junction in the growth plan. And the Clark County Commissioner fought me every step of the way. And I remember sometime prior to that not long before I was Mayor, the city of La Center was considering and incorporating and becoming part of Clark County because they had no money and no ability to take care of themselves. And I remember arguing with the county commissioner saying we need the junction - that's the future out there … and them saying that you didn't even want your community not long ago and now you expect us to give you something like that.
That was the battle that I had. It was many years later that they finally did give it to us in the 50-year plan. They gave Ridgefield land that Ridgefield didn't even ask for. They couldn't do enough for Ridgefield. The other two county commissioners lived in Ridgefield, so they got everything. And that is why Ridgefield is set up the way it is today. Because they were helped big time. And they fought La Center every step of the way. And it was only after many years later that we were able to get half of the junction into our urban growth boundaries. At the time that I was Mayor I was assigned to the internal affairs unit of the Sheriff's office and I would do internal investigations on employees. And that's how I functioned as the Mayor, because I had a flexible schedule. I had to get permission from the Sheriff to run as Mayor. He gave me permission and if I had meetings during the day I could modify my schedule. I would work early hours at the Sheriff's office typing reports, but I was able to function as the Mayor and keep my job as the internal affairs investigator. I wanted out of IA. I was tired of being an adversary towards coworkers and whatnot. And you know I did it for five and half years. I wanted out. And the only way I could get out was to go back into the jail. And if I went back into the jail, I would be on a set schedule with 12 hour shifts. And my four years as Mayor came up and I was finishing my fourth year. And I decided I wouldn't run again. I went back into the jail. And if I remember correctly Chuck Smith was elected the mayor after that and then his wife became ill and I think he had to pull the plug. And asked Liz if she would consider that. And for a short time after I was Mayor and I chose not to run they had an opening on the City Council and I applied for that opening. And the City Council selected me. So I sat on the Council for maybe close to a year. And during that time Chuck felt he had to leave. So I was on the Council and I asked Liz if she would consider applying for the Mayor's position. She did and we selected her. And that's how she got to be the mayor the first time. She was re-elected.
Suzi: You stayed on the Council for a short time?
Jack: Nothing more than one year. I think I went from day shift to night shift and with rotating days off. I had to miss a lot of meetings and stuff like that. I couldn't participate in anything Counsel wise that they may need someone to be on a committee. I just couldn't do it because I couldn't commit the time due to my schedule. So I resigned from the Council when I went on night shift. And then for many years I attended the Council meetings. And then as the new hierarchy has taken over I do not participate in the meetings. I realized having been in those chairs that it's not always an easy job to have. And I try not to be overly critical. Whether I agree or disagree. And unfortunately I find myself disagreeing more than I agree. I don't know if my opinion is the right opinion. I am sure there are others who feel differently. I don't always like hearing well the Mayor said no. Or the Mayor says we don't have the money, the Mayor says, the Mayor says. When the Mayor spends money on what he wants to spend money on I look at it as community enhancement issues and things like that that bring the community together and develop a sense of community - when those things are not a top priority, that bothers me. To that extent I am not pleased with what is going on in our community at this point. Not to say that everybody was always pleased with what we were doing.
Another little sidelight that I will tell you, as I am rambling on. You notice when you walk into Fourth Street Bar and Grill all the little squares on the step that have people's names on them and whatnot? That was because of me. I got a little upset over it. We replaced all the sidewalks in front of the stores and the Tavern and whatnot and the city paid for it. We didn't charge the business - we didn't do a local improvement district that would charge the businesses a certain amount of money based on their frontage. We paid for it. The citizens paid for it. And when we poured that new cement, a bunch of those yahoos at the Tavern scratched and wrote and scribbled their names on our brand-new cement. And I did not appreciate that. I don't remember how we dealt with that. The Tavern wound up selling those little bricks for people to put their names or whatever they wanted on them. To cover up the damage that they had done to the brand-new cement. And that is why that is there.
Suzi: That's interesting.
Jack: My life is what it is at this point. I retired in 2006. We are lucky enough to have a home on one of the Hawaiian Islands that we go to in the winter, and we spend the cold season there. My sweet wife is retired and is able to go and do. She volunteers at Meals on Wheels and things like that and is interested in our community. I remember when she first moved out here, I was living in the little house and she called it a shack out in the sticks. I couldn't get her out of La Center now even if I tried. She just loves it here. It is our home. And we have good friends. And it is a good place to be, and a good place to live. That is it for me unless you can think of any other questions?
Suzi: I really appreciate your time and stories. And as I do these interviews I am learning so much about our town. This is great. I really appreciate you.
Jack: Thank you for asking me.