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Gearhart Mayor Wakes Up Citizens With Conversation

GEARHART — If it’s Wednesday, the mayor is pouring coffee in the kitchen and offering homemade chocolate chunk cookies to a visitor.

But Gearhart Mayor Dianne Widdop isn’t entertaining guests in her living room. She’s in City Hall, listening to a constituent’s concerns.

Since January, Widdop has held regular office hours, from 9 a.m. to noon, in the City Council chambers.

There, she greets those who have seen her sign on the front lawn in front of City Hall announcing that the mayor is available for conversation.

“There have been a couple of weeks where one person or no one came in,” Widdop said. “Some people will poke their heads in and ask how it’s going.”

They come with all kinds of problems and questions, and if Widdop can’t help, she knows someone who can – City Administrator Chad Sweet, Building Inspector Jim Brien or Police Chief Jeff Bowman.

And if she really wants something to get done, she bribes Travis Owsley in public works. Those are the weeks she bakes snickerdoodle cookies especially for him.

“One resident had a problem with the Ridge Path,” said Widdop about the informal path that follows an old Indian trail in the center of town. Houses are along either side of the path.

“She came in with concerns, very valid concerns,” Widdop added. “We had a chance to talk. I suggested that she go to the planning commission, and she did.”

The coffee-and-cookies sessions are “positive,” she said.

“It gives a chance for people to be heard.”

On a recent Wednesday, Widdop met with Gearhart resident Jan Kenny to discuss plans for a gathering to welcome the city’s new planning director, Carole Connell. Connell’s family has deep roots in Gearhart, and she is a second-homeowner there.

For about a half hour, the two women discussed what appetizers would be served, who would bring the dishes and silverware and how many people – including former planning commissioners – might attend.

When the question about how much coffee should be made, Widdop called out to City Administrator Chad Sweet.

“Chad, do we have any coffee pots?” Widdop asked.

He showed the women the two “air pots” in the closet in the City Hall kitchen.

“I’m glad to know we have two air pots,” Widdop said.

After Kenny left and Widdop awaited the arrival of another resident, she looked around at her handiwork in the City Council chambers. For 20 years, Kent Smith occupied the mayor’s chair, and, while Smith and Widdop remain good friends, she decided the chairs had to go. Some were broken and presented a hazard, she said. Now, the councilors sit in high-backed blue chairs.

Other decorative touches include newly painted walls with historic pictures of Gearhart. Next, the desks that make up the council’s dias will be replaced with modular tables, and soft blue light bulbs will replace the harsh lighting currently in the chambers.

“It’s like a police interrogation room in here,” she said.

All of the redecorating is being done on a budget, Widdop added. “This is Gearhart for heaven’s sake,” she said.

She smiled as she looked around the room.

“We’re on a roll,” she said. “There’s a woman in the house.”

The next person to talk to Widdop was Norm Worboys, who told the mayor in no uncertain terms that he didn’t like receiving a letter from the city telling him he had to move his motorhome. Parked in his driveway, the motorhome hangs over onto the sidewalk by about four feet.

Widdop assured him that he hadn’t been singled out; the city is sending letters to other residents who are violating city codes, including those with broken down vehicles or too much debris in their yards.

But Worboys felt personally maligned, and he pointed at Widdop.

“You’re the mayor,” said Worboys, who had a British accent. “You’re the one who runs the show.”

“Lord, I wish,” Widdop said, shaking her head. “I do what I can do.”

After more discussion, Widdop told him, “I’m glad you’re sitting here with me and telling me this, just get it out.”

Worboys’ complaints captured Sweet’s attention, and the city administrator joined the conversation.

“We’ve got letters going out all over the place,” Sweet said in reply to Worboys’ suggestion that he and other city employees are purposely searching for code violations. “We don’t have to go out looking too much.”

Nearly an hour later, Worboys left, a little calmer than when he arrived.

“I appreciate you coming in, and I wanted to hear from you,” Widdop told him.

After his departure, Widdop sighed.

“They don’t understand that no one person runs this town,” she said. “I’m not the CEO. I’m one of five on the City Council, and everything is majority rule.

“They also don’t understand that we don’t get paid. We do this because we want to. … We’re volunteers. In some ways we’re crazy,” she said, laughing.

While it was her idea to hold open office hours, and she said she enjoys talking with those coming to see her, she admitted that some encounters can be difficult.

“I want him to leave here feeling good,” she said about Worboys. “I want him to think someone is listening. But it’s hard.”

However, Widdop added, the sometimes loud conversation, didn’t bother her.

“I felt fine. At no point did I feel I was being attacked. This was someone who felt like he had a major problem, and I feel sorry for him.”

A Gearhart resident for 21 years, Widdop knows her neighbors. She managed a local card and home goods store, A Great Shop, until recently, when the store’s owner closed it. A city councilor for 16 years, Widdop eagerly stepped up as a candidate for mayor when Smith decided against running again.

But Widdop won by only five votes against political newcomer, local contractor Bob Shortman.

Sometimes, Widdop admitted, her acerbic personality may throw people off. But she’s learning, she said.

“I’m Irish, I’m from Philadelphia and New York. I have a temper. You learn. Maybe this comes with age. You learn to swallow and not be confrontational.

“However,” she said, smiling, “There are times when a little righteous indignation goes a long way.”

Her weekly three-hour visits to City Hall also enable her to talk to Sweet and others about issues coming up on the City Council agenda or city projects under way.

“I am learning stuff all the time,” she said. “Chad and I talk. We can bounce ideas off of each other. I’ve learned so much from Chad, and he’s learning things from me.”

Sweet said he appreciates hearing the background on issues that began before he became city administrator almost two years ago.

Some of the issues the City Council hears started with a coffee-and-cookies conversation with the mayor.

“Next month we have on the agenda a discussion about fluoride in our water,” Sweet said. “We had a gentleman come in and talk to Dianne about his concerns with fluoride.”

That conversation led to Widdop asking her dentist to provide information and assist Sweet in researching the issue.

“Next month, we will have the dentist coming in and the gentleman who is against fluoride to talk about it with the council,” Sweet said.

Fellow City Councilors Al Carder and Sue Lorain have stopped by to say hello or to spend time working on a council project, Widdop said.

Although she enjoys the collaboration with the other councilors and with city employees, Widdop said she’s not there to watch over their shoulders.

“There’s no micromanaging,” Widdop said. “I can’t even micromanage in my own house.”

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.

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