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The man with the plan

After one year as Fairview's city administrator Joe Gall relishes his diverse role
by: Shanda Tice, Joe Gall stands in front of Fairview City Hall. He is entering his second year as the city administrator.

In the space of a few hours, Joe Gall talked in his office with a local library official, met with city officials about improvements to a park, checked in with city department heads and fielded various calls and e-mails.

It may not be New York City, but a recent afternoon at Fairview City Hall sees a healthy hum of activity. Gall comes across as calm - unflappable, even. His tone of voice and movements remain steady, with no discernable fluctuations. Still, the city administrator recognizes a demanding agenda when it arises.

'It is a busy day,' he said.

May Dea, supervisor of the Fairview-Columbia branch of Multnomah County Libraries, wanted to chat with Gall about programs in which the library and city could collaborate. As a former Beaverton city official, Gall worked closely with that city's library. The topic is close to his heart.

'That's why (the library) gets a whole page on our city newsletter,' he said. 'It's one of the busiest parts of our community.'

Gall came to Fairview in January 2007 after serving municipal roles in Washington County, Beaverton, Southwest Washington and Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was a city planner. Through the Peace Corps, he was a planning adviser in Lamu Island, Kenya.

Now working down the street from his Fairview Village residence, the married father of one feels like he's arrived.

'This is a great job,' he said. 'I've been aspiring to do this since 1993. It's a tough job, but a very interesting job. I get to deal with a whole range of diverse issues. I enjoy that aspect of it.'

Citing Gall's initiation of community events like Flicks in the Park and Big Truck Day, Mayor Mike Weatherby is pleased with the administrator's drive and fresh enthusiasm.

'He always steps up with issues,' Weatherby said. 'If there's a problem, he's there to deal with it. He works all the time. He's almost always on duty.'

Delicate dance

As soon as Dea leaves, Gall puts in a call to the new host for Fairview's civic agenda show on public access television. He's been searching for a replacement for months since the previous host's schedule got too demanding.

'We want the show to have a good, consistent flow and identity,' he said.

Gall, 42, strives for the same qualities in his administrative role. He likes to be proactive and anticipate things that need attention down the road. To that end, he engages city department heads and delegates responsibility where he can.

That doesn't mean he's across-the-board omniscient. Surprises do occur.

'I would prefer not to put out fires,' he said. 'The thing I try to do is identify those fires before they're raging. That's a quality I encourage my department heads to practice. When the fires get raging, it's harder to put 'em out.'

That proactivity is exemplified by the City Council agenda. His Jan. 17 schedule has agenda and meeting details mapped out through Feb. 20. A council goal-setting retreat, hiring a replacement for outgoing Finance Director Laura Zentner, an intergovernmental agreement to fund a new Sellwood Bridge and his own annual review are some of the upcoming items.

'This is a rhythm, moving two months ahead,' Gall said. 'We like to keep things moving to council, so they don't drag on.'

Gall acknowledges friendly relations with Mayor Weatherby, Police Chief Ken Johnson and the seven members of council, but is well aware of his role as an employee.

'I'm hired to run the day-to-day operations of the city,' he said. 'The mayor is the chairman of the board. I'm the equivalent of a CEO hired by the board to run operations. I work for them. They have expectations of me to get things done.'

He describes the inherent relationship between mayor and city administrator as a 'dance.'

'The mayor and I have worked closely together,' he said. 'We make sure we're not stepping on each other's toes while we're dancing. He tries to stay out of day-to-day operations, and I try to stay out of policy decisions.

'We bump up against each other from time to time.'

View from above

When the mayor and council interviewed Gall in late 2006, they were impressed with Gall's litany of community-minded accomplishments, particularly west of the Willamette. In five years in the community programs section of the Beaverton mayor's office, he led a 15-member team to improve code services, solid waste and recycling programs, community gardens and graphic services.

He managed numerous special projects, including a proposed $15 million community health clinic and housing project for downtown Beaverton.

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, Gall earned a master's in business administration from Boston University. He worked four years in community development for Clark County, Wash., before his stint in Beaverton. Fairview Councilors chose Gall among 54 other candidates.

Gall's appointment followed a period of instability in the administrator chair. In May 2004, Mary Jo Briggs departed after three years to a similar position in Bainbridge Island, Wash.

She was replaced by Jan Wellman, who served until early July, when he was placed on administrative leave. Fairview officials didn't elaborate on the reasons, except to say Wellman's vision was incompatible with the city's. Despite the departure of Zentner, Mayor Weatherby sees Gall's success as a sign of calmer waters ahead.

'We have a director that's leaving,' he said. 'So I think we're still in a stabilization period. But I think we're well on our way to stabilization.'

While acknowledging Gall's dynamic track record, Weatherby admits it takes a while to properly season a city administrator.

'He's still in the learning stages, still learning his role,' the mayor said. 'He's learning what his relationship is with department heads and staff. And we're still learning about Joe and what he can do. It's an ongoing process.'

Gall prides himself on working closely with his fellow city officials, as well as those of neighboring jurisdictions. As awareness of public safety issues in East County has increased, Gall has forged a particularly productive relationship with Police Chief Johnson.

Gall supports the chief in recent efforts to expand the police department by up to four officers. Johnson sees similarities between his and Gall's roles as long-range managers.

'From a departmental standpoint, you have to be able to see the big picture,' he said. 'Joe's the same way. He has to have that mountaintop view. Each department is competing for the same dollars and resources. He has to balance that. It's a difficult job.'

Johnson appreciates Gall's commitment to a safe, as well as vibrant, community. With previous administrators, his pleas for more officers didn't reach council's ears.

'I finally got an administrator in there who said, 'You're right. They need to hear this.' And it happened,' he said. 'Joe listens. He's open-minded. I think he's a very engaged administrator who cares deeply about the community we serve.'

Good-neighbor policy

Gall's counterparts in Wood Village and Troutdale agree. Sheila Ritz, a 20-year veteran as Wood Village city administrator, is impressed with Gall's attentiveness and cooperation on inter-governmental issues.

'We have a good relationship,' she said. 'Especially in a metro area, intergovernmental relations skills are very important. Joe wants to cooperate with other jurisdictions. We don't always agree with every single thing, but he listens to understand the other side. He's willing to work cooperatively.'

John Anderson, Troutdale administrator, said a good city administrator needs a good sense of balance.

'The role is complex,' he said. 'You have to balance your interactions with department heads, who often take differing roles. Joe brings lot of positive energy to the city of Fairview. He introduces new ideas. He's a good listener and communicates well.'

Since he moved with his wife, Melissa, and their 3-year-old son, Ryan, from Hillsboro to Fairview Village, Gall has come to admire the more laid-back atmosphere of East County. Maintaining that quality of life will take cooperation among the four neighboring cities. He's willing to do his part for the greater good but doesn't want to lose sight of the daily nuts-and-bolts work.

'When people walk in (city hall) for some service, we want them walking out with a feeling they got something out of it,' he said. 'Some of this is not the sexiest stuff: filling a pothole, fixing a streetlight. But it's important that we're there and we respond quickly.

'There's a nice quality of life over here,' he said of his newly adopted East Side. 'But we're not an island. There are two other adjacent small cities. Gresham has an effect on us.

'We all kind of rise and fall together.'