Gresham election pits newcomer against incumbent

by Robin Franzen, The Oregonian
Thursday October 16, 2008
Original story here

GRESHAM -- Jenni Simonis says her main reason for wanting to unseat David Widmark from the Gresham City Council is demographic -- not a worry that he's wrong on the issues.

The current council, Simonis says, is too heavily weighted with retired or semiretired homeowners like Widmark living in the southern half of the city. As a renter living in the northern part of the city, Simonis says, electing her in place of Widmark in Position 1 would broaden the council's point of view.

"I represent a whole community of people who feel completely unrepresented on the council," says Simonis, a 30-year-old part-time Web designer who moved to Gresham in 2000. "Almost 45 percent of our town is renters and young families. There's no one like that on the council -- a huge part of the council has been retired."

Yet the semiretired Widmark, 60, who has served on three separate councils since 1996, questions why anyone would want to disrupt the makeup of a council that -- after years of dysfunction under different membership -- is working so well together now.

"She needs more experience," says Widmark, who has claimed most of the key election endorsements, including those of fellow council members. "She has the potential, but she doesn't have the experience or the connections that you need to have to make decisions and provide leadership in a community."

City Councilor Paul Warr-King, 70, and Councilor Shirley Craddick, 60, are running unopposed for Positions 3 and 5 in the Nov. 4 election.

Widmark, a 20-year city volunteer, was the victor last year when he, Simonis and others vied to fill Position 1 after former councilor Karylinn Echols resigned before her term was up, in December 2008.

Before that, Widmark was elected to the council, serving from 1996 to 1998, and served again when Position 4 became vacant in July 2005 because of another resignation.

If re-elected to a new four-year term, Widmark says, he will push forward on the next phases of the Center for the Arts plaza and the Gradin Community Sports Park, two public-private projects that broke ground this past summer. Both struggled for years to gain traction until Widmark and other council members agreed to take out a $4.5 million line of credit to jump-start the first phases. Like Simonis, he says he'll put public safety and job creation at the top of his priority list.

Widmark says he's concerned about the city's track record of losing potential major new employers to other communities and would push to replace some of the city's warehouse zoning with other zoning types with greater jobs potential. On the crime front, he wants to resurrect an idea he floated years ago: creating neighborhood citizen patrols to help police detect nuisance activity and crime.

Simonis says two of the reasons companies don't come to Gresham are the poor condition of many roads and because, as she puts it, "crime is bad." The first critical step in attacking those issues, she says, is to better educate the public about the city's funding constraints, including at town hall meetings. That way, she says, residents will be more likely to support tax increases if and when the City Council asks for them.

"I'm always surprised how much people don't know about the city," she says. "When I tell them the city's (general fund) budget is just over $40 million, their jaws drop." Even if it's unpopular, Simonis says, the city needs to fight at the state level to raise its permanent tax rate, which is among the lowest for Oregon cities.

Widmark says he'd consider new local fees and taxes "as a last resort, and then only for health and safety-related issues."

Robin Franzen: robinfranzen@news.oregonian.com