25-Year-Old Shoots for Creswell’s Top Post
Twenty-five-year-old AJ O’Connell says he’s running for public office because he wants to give back to the community that gave him so much.
“[Creswell gave me] the opportunity to succeed in life,” O’Connell said. Now he’s running for the city’s top spot of mayor.
No stranger to controversy, the brash councilman, whose term expires in 2014, threw his hat into the mayoral race against opponents David Stram, Martha McReynolds, Jr., Brent Gifford and incumbent mayor Bob Hooker.
In a newly civic-minded city, having five candidates running for mayor, and six people vying for three open council seats is a bit out of the ordinary.
Paying His Dues
O’Connell, who grew up and was educated in Creswell, graduated from the University of Oregon in 2009, majoring in planning, public policy and management. He lettered in track and field, making the Pac-10 All-Academic Team.
O’Connell ran for city councilor in 2006 at age 18, losing his first bid by just 20 votes. After college he spent six months in Guyana teaching math and physical education for the Peace Corps in a rural school district. Upon returning from Guyana, he ran again for city council and was the top vote-getter of six candidates.
“You’re Not Exactly Catching Us at Our Best”
An avid Star Trek fan, O’Connell has ruffled his share of feathers amongst his peers at City Hall.
When an African-American student was attacked near Creswell High School in 2011, O’Connell brought a resolution for a “Racism Free Zone.” It garnered a 3-3 tie vote by council members. Mayor Hooker then broke the tie, opposing the resolution.
O’Connell said Hooker then went on television saying the city needed a resolution, so O’Connell went to work drafting a new version, based on a similar resolution passed in Seattle in 2002. His proposed resolution included provisions for sexual orientation, religion, age and economic status. O’Connell submitted the paperwork, but said Hooker told him it would be “dead on arrival” when it goes to council.
Concurrently, the city’s attorneys were working overtime, according to O’Connell, developing anti-hate legislation “almost verbatim to the one we did for free,” which was then accepted with a unanimous vote. O’Connell did not have a figure or estimate for the cost of city attorneys’ efforts to draft the ordinance.
That same month, Hooker led the council to a 5-2 vote on a resolution taking away the right of councilors to speak or ask questions during council meetings. Citizens are allowed to provide public comment during meetings, but cannot receive comments or questions from councilors in the public forum.
O’Connell said that speaking to citizens about their concerns outside of council meetings can lead to censure from the council. He said this makes the job of being a councilor particularly difficult, and has been directed to forward all constituent concerns to the mayor and city administrator.
So the young politician took to his Facebook page and website, providing information, airing his opinions, and soliciting input from citizens.
O’Connell has been censured twice by the city. The first occurred in July 2011 for illegally contacting city staff. The second censure occurred in March 2012 as a result of a Facebook post he wrote. He says after the Penn State allegations and the death of a local girl from abuse, he had placed an agenda item for an ordinance that would make city staff and elected officials mandatory reporters of abuse.
O’Connell quoted fellow councilor Jean McKittrick on his Facebook page, “We don’t want beat and battered kids coming into city hall.”
His mandatory reporting ordinance fell on a 5-2 council vote. O’Connell said the main reason officials gave in opposition to the ordinance was that there was slim chances they would encounter signs of child abuse in their positions with the city.
“There is always that chance,” O’Connell says, and he believes the community as a whole needs to be vigilant against child abuse.
O’Connell told his constituents that public sentiment regarding the gag order on councilors is one of frustration, which affirms his efforts to bring about open dialogue concerning city affairs.
“What happens when you have established power in power for over a decade? They don’t appreciate outside ideas, so they use fear as an ally.”
An effort to recall O’Connell from his council seat was initiated by former city councilor Bob Millam. The petition required 251 signatures in order to put it to a public vote. O’Connell did not know the exact number of signatures collected, but said he heard about half the requisite amount was collected.
Five Key Goals for Creswell
O’Connell has five key areas he wants to focus on as he leads Creswell forward over the next four years, should he win the mayoral bid: government transparency, addressing the city’s high water and sewer rates, poverty, airport management, and crime.
According to O’Connell, the city is three years behind in filing its required annual financial audits with the state, dating back to the 2009-10 fiscal year. He says in his administration, no new spending will occur until all audits are completed and filed, so that the city has an accurate assessment of what it has to spend. Similar problems plagued Oakridge in 2011 and 2012, leading to the subsequent layoffs of one-third of that city’s employees.
O’Connell wants to “increase the number of eyes [on the city] and give the public quadruple the opportunity to speak at meetings,” doubling council meetings to two per month, and giving the public two chances to speak at meetings: one at the beginning, one at the end. O’Connell also plans to restore transparency by reinstating the right of council members to speak at meetings.
O’Connell supports making public records more accessible to citizens and the press, and advertising council meeting times and agendas in the monthly water and sewer statements sent to residents.
Poor government transparency plagues the city, O’Connell said, citing an example in which the local newspaper, the Creswell Chronicle, filed a records request concerning the proposed mandatory reporter resolution. He said the newspaper received a reply from the city saying it would cost approximately $6,000 to honor this request.
“[This is the] modus operandi of this administration, to shut out people and entities who may disagree with them,” O’Connell said. He added that the emails are saved on a server, and can be easily recalled. He says the Chronicle was stonewalled because its been critical of the current administration and its lack of cooperation.
Cities are required by law to file public notices with a newspaper of record. O’Connell said that the city historically filed its public notices with the Chronicle until about five months ago, when the mayor and city administrator decided instead to place notices in the Eugene-based daily newspaper, the Register-Guard. O’Connell said doing so costs taxpayers about four times as much as the Chronicle. O’Connell supports a return to the city’s previous practice of placing notices in the community newspaper.
“Elimination of Litigation; Initiation of Mediation.”
The city council also recently stifled the Eugene Sky Divers, who have for years used the Creswell airport for their hobby, when the council voted to ban sky diving over city property. O’Connell feels the city was out of line, and should settle the suit and allow them to resume business, provided there are safety provisions in place to protect pilots and divers. Two other councilors, Jan Vincent and Jacob Daniels have called for a public hearing on the matter on October 19. O’Connell said he sees the airport as an economic asset, envisioning its future a commercial hub for Creswell. He proposes designating the airport area as a Foreign Trade Zone, which would be the only one in the Willamette Valley. He says Creswell being equidistant to the ocean ports of Coos Bay and Newport provides great potential in attracting international employers interested in setting up shop here. The proposed zone would allow businesses to export and import goods free of federal tariffs.
Fighting Poverty and Crime
The aspiring mayor wants to address the city’s 20% poverty rate by fostering a welcoming environment to small businesses. O’Connell would champion a city-sponsored microloan program, based on a scaled-down model of one used in Miami. The model utilizes a coalition of citizens, business owners and politicians to disburse loans to upstart businesses, based on certain criteria such as number of employees, environmentally friendly practices, etc.
O’Connell, who enjoys hikes with Pepper, his mixed Border Collie/Jack Russell terrier, also supports significant investments in infrastructure such as parks and streets, which he said would create ongoing local construction jobs. On some recent police ride-alongs, O’Connell was surprised to learn that Creswell, which has the appearance of an idyllic small-town America, has experienced an increase in youth gang activity, drug use and break-ins. O’Connell believes job creation and added opportunities would go a long way in reversing the growing crime problem in his small city.
Circling the Drain
O’Connell would like to do away with the $65 sewer system fee required of every resident just to access the resource. This ranks among the highest rates of its kind in Oregon. O’Connell believes this exacerbates the plight of the city’s impoverished. He says restructuring the city’s loans for its water system, doing away with the base rate, and allowing citizens to simply pay for the water and sewage services actually used would be a fair solution.
He also would like to see an average payment plan in which ratepayers’ bills would be averaged, based on usage history. O’Connell believes the city should include a pledge that rates will remain the same as long as the ratepayer remains active in the program. The city’s water and sewer department has $12.7 million in reserves, so he proposes a fund which would assist low income and senior residents with water bills.
Creswell has a practice, according to O’Connell, of using water and sewer revenues to pay for unrelated capital projects. One notable example is the new city hall building, which O’Connell says is more than 50% funded by this revenue source. He added that since taking office in 2011, he voted against the city hall project due to the funding method.
Love Him or Hate Him……
O’Connell has received his share of criticism for his brash style of politics. In an April, 2012 Register-Guard article, Mayor Hooker was quoted as saying O’Connell is “an embarrassment to the city of Creswell.”
“If I’m an embarrassment to Creswell, why is our community now taking notice of issues such as poverty, job creation, keeping children safe, keeping streets smooth — if I had been such an embarrassment?” O’Connell asked.
O’Connell believes a “dramatic example shakes people from apathy.” He readily takes credit for the current level of engagement through his stirring of the pot, saying seeing 40-45 of his neighbors at council meetings is commonplace now.
Acting as his own campaign manager, he has about $1,000 in his war chest, says he is “the only candidate with a plan and the qualifications to lead the city.”
“I stand by that, I respect all of my opponents, including Mayor Hooker, but it is time to have people with a vision who will work with the community and address these issues that have such an effect on our neighbors.”