Rural communities struggling to fill positions in local governments
The longest-serving city councilmember in Lamont, Washington’s second smallest town, worries the town could face disincorporation if she retires.
BY NWPB Student Reporter Nick Gibson
Catherine Ulrich said she would leave town tomorrow, if she could.
The Lamont City Councilmember said it has been a nightmare to keep up with her 10-acre property since her husband died three years ago. Their three children have all moved away and started having children of their own recently.
After 16 years on the city council, Ulrich wants to focus on being a grandmother, she said. She worries that if she leaves, the town may cease to exist.
“It’s been hard,” Ulrich said. “I really don’t know what we’re going to do.”
While voters across the state cast their vote for the candidates of their choosing Tuesday, there are five positions in Lamont that failed to draw a candidate this election cycle: two seats on the city council, two seats on the fire district and a seat on the school board.
Lamont is not the only rural municipality that struggled to attract candidates this year. More than 28 positions around Whitman County failed to have a single candidate file for the position before the November election, according to county records. Lamont and Tekoa lead Whitman County with the most vacant positions at five, followed by Farmington and Endicott, each with three.
Travis Ridout, a government and public policy researcher and professor at Washington State University, said rural areas often have a hard time filling positions because there are not enough people interested in running. More than 80 percent of elections in Whitman County from 2008 to 2019 were uncontested, according to Whitman County Watch, a nonprofit news site in Pullman.
Getting people interested in those positions has become a challenge in recent years due to the country’s contentious political climate, Ridout said.
“You see things in the news about people being mad at the school board or the library board, and try and demand books taken out, and a lot of people just want to run to serve their community and to help kids learn,” Ridout said. “They didn’t necessarily sign up for a big fight about some cultural issue.”
Lamont is home to just 71 people, making it the second-smallest town in the state.
For nearly a decade, the city council has been operating with three sitting members, the legal minimum for a quorum. Ulrich said that she is doubtful another resident would step up for the position if she retired, then the town could face disincorporation.
Lack of interest over the years has led Ulrich and other local officials to long consider the option to become unincorporated territory, as first reported by the Whitman County Gazette in 2018.
Whitman County Auditor Sandy Jamison said those unfilled positions may not seem glamorous, but they are vital to the health of local governments. The vacancies are sprinkled throughout cemetery boards, fire districts, city councils and school boards in towns across the county, according to candidate filing records.
The work often goes unnoticed, Jamison said.
“They’re not in it for the recognition,” Jamison said. “They’re in it because that work is important and needs done.”
While other municipalities have struggled to fill positions this year, the town of Garfield – population 563 – has only one vacancy, in the local fire district. Mayor Jarrod Pfaff said that is mostly a stroke of luck. He said the city has struggled to fill positions in years past and have seen a lot of turnover.
“It’s just like turnover in the workplace,” Pfaff said. “Sometimes your employees retire or leave and all your knowledge goes out the door and it’s like, who are we going to find?”
Pfaff said local government work is a thankless job, so he said he is not surprised to see the lack of interest in other towns. Elected in 2017, Pfaff is in his second stint in the role after serving as mayor from 2006 to 2013.
Despite the challenges, Pfaff said he decided to step up again because he cares deeply for the town and is well-trained to deal with its issues, like balancing a local government’s budget.
“I enjoy it,” Pfaff said. “I mean, we fixed the budget. We got everything back in there in the black. We raised taxes, unfortunately, but we also cut expenses and when we did all that, myself and the entire council, was up for election and not a single person ran against us. So I figured we’re doing something right.”
Steven Ulrich died unexpectedly while out for a morning run in November 2020. He was 58 years old. He left behind his wife Catherine, their three children and two grandchildren.
Steven Ulrich had just started his third term as mayor of Lamont when he died.
His transition into politics came after years of teaching at schools around the Northwest. Prior to his death, he spent more than a decade working with intellectually and physically disabled residents of Lakeland Village, the assisted living facility in Medical Lake.
Ulrich said her service to the town, and that of her husband’s, sprang from a love of the area. She said the monthly meetings were never a hassle for them, especially when they could walk to the town hall together from the four-bedroom house where they raised their children. The two met in Roseburg, Oregon and quickly fell in love, eventually relocating to his hometown of St. John, Washington, in 1996.
Ulrich said the move to Lamont came a few years later, and they enjoyed the access to the great outdoors their new location brought. She said it was a wonderful place to raise a family, so when they heard the city council needed help, they stepped up.
But after her husband’s death, Ulrich is ready to move on. She said her daughters and grandchildren live across the state, and she would like to join them, once she can get the house fixed up enough to sell it. She has let her neighbors and fellow councilmembers know she is planning on leaving soon, but she worries her absence could have lasting effects on the community she loves.
Several of Lamont’s residents have either served on the city council already, or just have no interest in it. Ulrich said she thinks people just don’t want to deal with the conflict that sometimes comes with the role, or don’t realize the importance of being able to weigh in on issues specific to Lamont during elections, which would be lost if the town becomes unincorporated territory.
A ballot measure would need to be passed by the majority of Lamont residents for the area to disincorporate, but failing to meet a quorum could stick the town’s local government in limbo, unable to vote on issues without a crucial third member, according to Washington law.
“Being incorporated is important because the town members have a voice that way and it’s not a trouble to serve,” Ulrich said. “Like I say, it’s only once a month. Sometimes we’ve had record time city council meetings that were 20 minutes long or something.”
Maintaining the local government in Lamont also allows the town to have some agency over the unique issues it struggles with, like vagrant dogs that have outnumbered residents in past years, Ulrich said. Her work on the council to pass and find ways to enforce ordinances on improperly kept dogs has been vital to addressing that issue, she said.
Ulrich is eyeing the Portland-Vancouver area, where her daughters and grandchildren live, for her eventual relocation. She said she looks forward to spending more time with her family in her eventual retirement, “being closer to civilization.”
“I’m ready to move somewhere,” Ulrich said. “I was thinking of maybe even moving to Roseburg, and everything is 15 minutes away or less.”