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Mayoral 'overHall'

Gaston's new leader is proactive when tackling problems in small town


NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: CHASE ALLGOOD - Gaston Mayor Tony Hall has hit the ground running with a gamut of new ideas to improve life in his hometown. Hall even went out and bought a new suit in order to attend formal mayoral events, such as mayors day at the state capitol. Councilors expressed concerns when he asked to be reimbursed for it with city money, so Hall dropped the request.Tony Hall has been Gaston’s mayor for just four months, but he has already sparked what will possibly be the city’s first official committee; taken on the job of supervising city employees; volunteered to be on Washington County’s Community Development Block Grant Policy Advisory Board; and facilitated long-overdue city-hall updates.

Perhaps most significantly for many of the tiny town’s residents, he’s working on better lines of communication between them and city officials.

Enthusiastic, energetic and involved — that’s how city councilors and staff members describe Hall. He’s going to meetings, watching webinars and having lots of conversations.

Along the way, the new mayor and relatively new council working on a new pile of to-dos have experienced some growing pains. That’s why Hall is trying to bring teamwork to the forefront of his city leadership — a thread he says has run through his life for decades.

“He’s taking the job to the max when it comes to doing things the right way,” said Gaston City Recorder Wenonah Blanchette. “And just the way he talks to people and explains things to people has been huge.”

Rick Lorenz — Gaston’s mayor for 16 years — was a good mayor, everyone interviewed for this story agreed. But Lorenz also had a full-time job in addition to volunteering as mayor.

Hall, 55, retired a few years ago and is putting his free time to good use.

Growing up in Gaston

Hall grew up outside Gaston with five siblings, his mother and stepfather — after his dad died — as well as horses, pigs, cows and chickens. One brother and one sister are still neighbors, all living in town now.

He volunteered for the Gaston Rural Fire District when he was 16, the National Guard at 17, Community Participation Organization (CPO) 11 in the 1990s, the Gaston City Council for two stints — and he’s been a lifelong coach of basketball, football, baseball and softball.

He has worked a variety of jobs, many of which he says indirectly prepared him to be mayor.

His time as a real estate agent, for example, taught him about zoning, property laws and county regulations.

Working with the mentally disabled through the Albertina Kerr Centers — which he counts as his most rewarding work — taught Hall patience. It also taught him how to work with others in difficult or even hostile situations, how to avoid power struggles and how to de-escalate tense situations, he said. That’s something he also picked up serving in the U.S. Army.Gaston Mayor Tony Hall attended a Gaston Library Board meeting in March to see how the library and city could expand their partnership.

Hall himself had to recover from brain damage decades ago when the driver of another car fell asleep and crashed into him on Highway 47 near Gaston. He was bedridden for more than 12 months and took many years to recover.

When he heard Lorenz was stepping down as mayor, Hall thought about it, talked it over with his wife and decided to run for the unpaid position, competing against city councilor Richard Sager, who declined to comment for this story.

“I know a lot of people in our community. I was aware of a lot of projects that could be done around town — and I had a lot of ideas,” Hall said.

Teamwork for big projects

There’s a lot happening now in Gaston, including preparations for Gaston Heights, a development expected to add hundreds of new residents; the Yamhelas Westsider Trail, proposed to start near McMinnville and end just north of Gaston; and the creation of the Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

For Hall, these projects are where teamwork comes in.

Hall met with Gaston Heights developer Tim McDonald and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff, asking them to let local contractors bid on projects. Hall, who worked on local farms throughout his childhood before attending Pacific University for two years, asked USFWS officials to consider hiring local workers, hoping that could help offset the loss of farm work after farmland was purchased for the refuge.

USFW officials appeared receptive to his pitches, he said.

“I think Tony wants people to know Gaston is on its way up as opposed to staying the same,” Blanchette said.

When Hall suggested a Parks and Recreation Committee to help organize scheduling, maintenance and work priorities at Brown Park — and possibly create another park — some councilors were skeptical any residents would volunteer.

But others were supportive. “I think the park is the focal point of our community. Let’s make it nice,” councilor Randy Hoodenpyl said.

Currently, year-round maintenance is inconsistent, so Hall arranged for prison work crews to come out to the park.

Earlier this year, Gaston resident Walter Kennedy complained about the feral cats pooping in his bark dust. Hall called Washington County Animal Services and learned there’s not much the city can do. But the Kennedys liked how Hall handled the situation.

“He came over and visited us and saw for himself all the cats,” said Ann Kennedy, adding that an Animal Services representative came out to talk with them at Hall’s request.

In March, the Gaston council voted to make Hall the supervisor of the city’s two employees, who are responsible for everything from answering phones to sending out water bills to mowing fields at Brown Park. Previously, the only supervision they got was spontaneous feedback on the reports they delivered at the city council’s monthly meetings.

Even though Hall’s involvement in city issues increases Blanchette’s workload, requiring daily work logs and other tasks, she is happy to have him supervise her.

“There’s someone here now who actually sees the work we have to do every day,” she said.

Last Wednesday, the council considered dissolving the city’s municipal court and merging it with Washington County’s. That would potentially save the city money and free up Blanchette’s time.

When Blanchette became city recorder in 2012, the city’s email account wasn’t checked regularly, City Hall was outfitted with an old copy machine that frequently jammed and stuffing and stamping all the water-bill envelopes took at least two days.

“Sometimes I felt like I was working in 1985,” she joked.

After talking with councilors, Hall helped get a new, working copy machine and postage machine.NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: CHASE ALLGOOD - Tony Hall is a Gaston native, having graduated from Gaston High School before attending Pacific University for two years.

He also asked the copy machine salesman “all kinds of questions I never even would have thought of,” Blanchette said, and was able to get a discount for trading in the old one.

Privately, Hall asked each city councilor to choose a cause they’re passionate about and consider spearheading a project. For Hoodenpyl, it’s improving the town’s cleanliness and general image. For David Meeker it’s public safety. For Jerry Spaulding it’s the possibility of a farmers market.

“I always see him at city hall and around town talking to people and trying to get their ideas,” said Spaulding.

Blanchette sees Hall jump up from his work station in the city council chambers at the back of City Hall as soon as he hears a visitor enter so he can chat with them.

“He’s energetic,” said Public Works Director Rich Williams, who’s worked for Gaston for 25 years under several mayors. “It’s sure different to have him here every day. We’ve never had a mayor like that.”

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