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Lower 58 Musings

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Dean Rea,lower 58 musingsI smiled when I read the above sentence in Gary Carl’s commentary that appeared in Friday’s Highway 58 Herald. He reported that Kathy Holston had resigned as Oakridge mayor following the earlier resignations of Bryan Cutchen as city administrator and Erick Kytola as the city’s finance manager. It was a “catchy” headline.

I also cried aloud, “Oakridge, you are better than that.”

Something is tearing apart a city that I have known and respected for decades, a place where I have fished, have watched ball games, planted trees, viewed art exhibits, eaten yummy meals, heard foot-thumping music, mixed with throngs of mountain bikers, heard sermons, enjoyed picturesque mountains, walked pristine trails, visited with friends.

It seems like only yesterday that I bent over to pull a rainbow trout from the river near the western edge of town not far from Highway 58. As I reached toward the fish, my fishing license dropped from my waders and floated down the river. You don’t forget incidences or places like that.

One of my sons once served as the interim pastor of an Oakridge church. My late wife and I included Oakridge and Westfir in our 50-year exploration of Oregon’s back roads. When I heard that I could be of help in starting the online Highway 58 Herald a year ago, I volunteered to report happenings in the Lower 58 communities of Pleasant Hill and Lowell.

As I began that task, Lowell had just chosen a city administrator, Jeremy Caudle, after a nationwide search by city officials and by Marsha Miller, a Lane Council of Governments representative. Two years earlier, Miller had helped Oakridge recruit Cutchen as its city administrator.

Miller had directed the Lane County Public Works Department before retiring in 2016. In that position, she honed her skills in managing a department of 350 full-time and 200 seasonal employees with diverse challenges, not unlike those faced by city administrators throughout the nation.

Oakridge had thrived during the timber harvesting era but lately faced challenges like those of many communities hard pressed to provide police and fire protection. For example, Lowell, a community a third the size of Oakridge, contracts for part-time police protection with Oakridge. A special district provides Lowell fire protection with the help of a volunteer staff much like other Highway 58 communities.

Oakridge faces a larger challenge, one that Cutchen began to address two years ago and soon discovered was filled with land mines: the ambulance service. It provides timely and professional service that Oakridge residents want and need. The problem: Oakridge cannot afford the service, one largely governed by Lane County.

I vividly recall how complimentary Miller was in describing how Oakridge had gone about recruiting a highly qualified administrator, a man who could easily afford to retire as a rear admiral in the Navy but wanted to continue to serve the public in a more personal role.

Unfortunately, the environment turned sour and City Hall lights began turning off. I am inclined to believe that it is not largely because of a man who passed up spending his time fishing and hiking the Cascade Mountains to serve Oakridge, a man who passed up two pay increases because the city was in financial distress, a man who is rounding up money from outside sources to help finance city projects, a man whose wife was courageous enough to appear before the City Council to defend her husband as an experienced administrator and as a trustworthy person.

I also quickly recognized the leadership qualities of Mayor Holston, who has been much more patient than I would be in leading such a contentious City Council.

I join Highway 58 Herald reporter Gary Carl in wishing Oakridge “good luck.” All of us know, however, that more than good luck is needed to address Oakridge’s financial problems. We can only trust that City Council members who are largely responsible for the leadership exodus eventually will show more interest in keeping the City Hall lights on.

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