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Mayor wants to make Tigard more accessible through fireside chats

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tigard Mayor John Cook is holding a series of fireside chats every month as a way to open up communication between the city and residents. The chats are the first in a series of ideas Cook has to gain more public feedback.If you live in Tigard, Mayor John L. Cook is looking to spend a little quality time with you this Valentine’s Day.

The new mayor, who took office in January, is starting a series of monthly informal get-togethers to discuss, well, whatever is on the minds of residents.

“I am hearing their ideas in a very informal way,” Cook said. “There won’t be any staff taking notes or anything. It’s more just me taking in their thoughts and ideas.”

The first of Cook’s “fireside chats” begin next week, and offer people a chance seldom seen in Tigard politics: The chance to sit down with their elected officials and talk about what they want to see in their neighborhoods.

“It’s a chance to listen to people,” Cook said. “Maybe we can’t get everything solved, but we can at least tell people where we are coming from.”

City councilors are accessible by email or through public comment periods during council meetings, but Cook said the formality of speaking to a city councilor can be intimidating, especially if it involves speaking publicly at a City Council meeting. Often, residents would rather remain silent, Cook said.

“It scares people to death to speak, and (council meetings) are broadcast on TV, so they just don’t do it,” Cook said. “What you end up getting are the same five or 10 people speaking over and over again. How do we get the rest of the 48,000 citizens to tell us their thoughts?”

The first fireside chat is set for Thursday, Feb. 14, at Beveland Street Bistro and Café, off Southwest 72nd Avenue from 3 to 5 p.m.

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mayor John L. Cook said he drew inspiration from his father, who often met informally with residents at his Tigard drug store while serving on the City Council.‘I’m still John’

Cook said he hopes that through something as informal as talking over a cup of coffee, he can get public feedback on issues and dispel the idea that city government and elected officials are somehow off-limits from public interaction.

“I’m still John — I’m still the guy that coached your baseball team,” Cook said. “But people now look at me differently, and they talk to me differently (after being elected mayor).”

The fireside chats were a key part of his campaign as a way to make city government more transparent.

“If you have a committee, those are probably eight of the most involved people in town,” Cook said. “I want to know what Joe Blow at the corner says. I want ‘water cooler talk’ versus ‘committee talk.’”

Cook said he drew inspiration for the talks from his father, who served on the Tigard City Council in the 1970s and 1980s and was elected mayor in 1984.

“My dad worked at a drug store, and people would walk into the drug store and talk to him about what was going on. I want more of that type of open-door communication,” Cook said. “I grew up watching that interaction, whether it was a customer with an issue or someone who just wanted to talk.”

Never too much input

The monthly chats are just the start for Cook. He plans to host several informal town halls a year — he has two planned for this year already and said he’d someday like to see the city host as many as four or five a year. He wants to make the city more accessible to people.

It’s a change in the city’s interactions — Tigard has held few town hall meetings in the past four years.

“You can never have too much public information,” Cook said.

Cook wants to see public interaction with residents in Tigard to look like what former mayor Sam Adams brought to Portland.

Adams was wellknown for his omnipresence on Twitter, engaging with constituents, hearing criticism and addressing issues all across the city throughout the day.

Cook’s own Twitter account is seldom used for now (he’s posted one tweet since joining the site a few years ago), but he’d like to take a similar tactic. And he has already reached out to people via Facebook.

“I was on Facebook the other day, and someone made a comment about how the sidewalk was raised and she had gotten a letter from the city, saying it was the property owner’s responsibility to fix it,” he said.

The letter was meant for a neighbor, but had been sent to her house by mistake, Cook said.

“Everybody jumped onto that post,” Cook said. “They were writing that the city was this or that. I took that whole thread and emailed it to the public works staff.”

A public works crew went out and apologized to the homeowner for sending it to the wrong address, Cook said.

“She then got back on Facebook and said, ‘Wow, the city came knocking on my door, apologized in person and took care of the issue. I can’t believe they did that.’”

In the end, Cook said, that’s what the city is for, to make the community a safe and comfortable place to live.

“I’m able to read comments that people are writing out there and get them acted on. If people have bad interactions with the city, how will we know that?”

Next Thursday’s fireside chat begins at 3 p.m. at Beveland Street Bistro and Café, 7357 S.W. Beveland St., in Tigard.