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Turning Things Around

Leaders credit Shane Bemis for recognizing Gresham's problems and rolling up his sleeves to tackle them in his first year as mayor
by: file photo, Derek Bemis, 4, tries out his father’s chair in the city of Gresham’s council chamber on Jan. 6 just prior to the swearing in of the new mayor and other council members. Although Bemis’ first year as mayor has been praised by many, he says it 
hasn’t been easy. “We have the worst of the worst of the region in our city. It’s hard for me to deal with.”

Improving public safety. Cleaning up slums. Rejuvenating a neighborhood in decline. These are reasonable goals for any mayor.

But taking action requires something difficult for politicians: admitting there are problems in the first place. And, beyond admitting to problems, leaders must constantly harp on them to achieve results - political costs be damned.

In Gresham, that means inviting frustrated citizens to air their complaints about rising crime, and asking the public to pay for more law enforcement. It means alienating innocent landlords in order to eject slumlords. And, in the case of making public transportation safe, it means confronting TriMet - ferociously at times. All of this has happened in Mayor Shane T. Bemis' first year in office.

'The first step in dealing with issues is admitting you have them,' Bemis said in an interview on Thursday, Dec. 28. 'That's what I spent the year doing.'

But no one individual in Gresham's city government has the power to impose his or her will. Progress also requires consensus. Bemis has certainly benefited from a focused City Council that works well together.

'We have a great council. That helps this position tremendously,' Bemis said.

Still, many credit Bemis with setting the tone for a productive year.

At 35, Bemis is the youngest mayor in Gresham's history. He moved to Gresham at the age of 15, and he has witnessed many changes in 20 years. At some point, Portland's crime spilled across its eastern boundary, and Gresham's image transformed from working-class suburb to crime haven.

'We have the worst of the worst of the region in our city. It's hard for me to deal with,' Bemis said. 'I know this is a great community with tons of resilience, and I want it to be what it was when I grew up here.'

Bemis opened his first of three restaurants when he was 27, and at that time, he said in an interview, the City Council was a 'disaster.' Three years later, Bemis was elected to the City Council and was soon appointed as council president, a position he held for three years leading up to his run for mayor.

Bemis' first action was to rally the council around a workable plan during its annual retreat. Bemis, crediting the council, said it was the first time he remembered that the retreat was not spent dwelling on interpersonal conflicts.

'The question is whether you can keep people out of the minutiae of the day,' Bemis said. 'That stuff can just blow up out of nowhere if you're not stuck on a work plan.'

First-year City Councilor Carol Nielsen-Hood said that Bemis fosters open, respectful communication, which enables the council to make use of individual members' diverse backgrounds.

'We're not all versed to the highest degree on the same things, and we have to rely on others on the council,' Nielsen-Hood said.

Although councilors come from different fields of expertise, they all share backgrounds in private sector business.

Travis Stovall, president of the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce, said that the business-oriented mindset of Bemis and the council is the key to its effectiveness.

'It brings a kind of nimbleness to it. He doesn't have a lot of tolerance for slow processes,' Stovall said of Bemis.

A briskly moving city government may seem refreshing compared with the laboring councils of years past, but certain decisions have moved more quickly than some would prefer.

Specifically, the dismissal of Planning Commissioner Stephanie Nystrom last spring stunned some residents. Nystrom, like two other commissioners, lived just outside Gresham city limits. City code allows for a maximum of two commissioners to live outside the city. Bemis dismissed Nystrom because she had the lowest level of seniority. But some felt the decision was rushed and arbitrary.

Carol Rulla, president of a neighborhood coalition, said she did not necessarily disagree with the dismissal, but she would have preferred a more deliberate and open process.

And Tokola Properties President Dwight Unti, otherwise an admirer of Bemis, felt the city's new rental inspection program was pushed through 'much too fast.'

'I think public pressure shoved it to the top, and it caused a more hurried effort to respond,' Unti said.

Still, Unti praised Bemis' reverence for opposing arguments.

'He understands these things are a process and require public participation,' Unti said. 'I've found him quite willing to listen, and I greatly respect him for that.'

Some landlords likened the program to collective punishment, since it will be funded through increased rental license fees. Others noted that Oregon already has a law to protect tenants and said resources would be better directed toward public education about their rights. Bemis personally inspected sub-par housing conditions earlier this year and was moved by what he saw.

'I had no idea how many people were engaged in that issue,' Bemis said. 'You don't want to think that you have slumlords, or that you have slums in your city.'

Unti is a close ally to Bemis on other matters. For example, Unti was a prominent member of the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Community Safety, which Bemis convened on the heels of a public safety summit in March that drew more than 100 people to City Hall. The task force studied public safety for six months and recommended a five-year public safety levy on the November ballot that would increase property taxes by $1 per every $1,000 of assessed value - a 28-percent increase. The new revenue would add 35 to 40 new officers. Bemis wholeheartedly supports the proposal, although he knows it will be a tough sell to Gresham voters.

'Gresham residents want you to prove to them why you need it, and they want you to prove to them that you've been as fiscally responsible as you can be before you ask them for more money,' Bemis said.

Unti also holds Bemis in high regard for his handling of perhaps the highest profile issue of Bemis' first year: safety on the MAX light-rail trains.

Bemis caused a stir this fall when he announced Gresham Police would patrol MAX - highlighting the fact that TriMet has been in denial that it has a crime problem. The next day, a 71-year-old man was severely beaten with a baseball bat by a teenager at a transit stop in Gresham.

The incident uncorked region-wide fury, and Bemis, combining uncanny timing and targeted brashness, became the public face of a reform movement. TriMet responded by holding safety summits. Bemis minced no words at the meeting in Gresham - going so far as to call TriMet's private security contractors 'worthless.'

Stovall noted how Bemis' part in the TriMet firestorm raised Gresham's profile across the region.

'I think that is his style, I think he is going to be taking that political risk,' Stovall said.

Bemis didn't dwell much on the notion of political risk as he sipped a cup of coffee at Cafe Delirium in downtown Gresham. His manner of speech reflected what his becoming his trademark style of leadership: efficient and direct.

'Nobody ever has to guess where I stand,' Bemis said. 'That's how I operate my life.'