Meet Ontario’s mayoral hopefuls

Billy Carter

Billy Carter said if he is elected mayor he would beef up city finances with a fee on merchants who own a business in Ontario but live outside of the city limits or in Idaho.

“Right now, we have limited sources of income that goes into the general fund,” said Carter.

Carter – who has lived in Ontario for 23 years – is one of four residents running for mayor in the November election. The other candidates are Riley Hill, Frank Griffith and Marty Justus.

Carter said his business fee would be sustainable. 

“The fee would not apply to businesses with less than 10 employees. If we have 75 businesses contributing $50 a month to general fund it would generate at least $45,000 a year,” said Carter.

The plan could also produce more money, said Carter.

Carter said he is the best choice for voters because he learned how to direct people and manage budgets while working for the Oregon and Wyoming prison systems. 

“I bring considerable experience in preparing and controlling budgets and comprehensive experience in collaborating with community partners and the ability to generate and administer short- and long-range planning,” said Carter. 

Proper planning – especially regarding finances – is something the city needs, said Carter.

“I don’t want to come off negative and I don’t want to be critical because nothing is ever perfect but I think there are a lot of improvements that can be made,” said Carter.

Carter said that in terms of finances, the buck stops at the city council and the mayor. 

Or, he said, it should.

“The city council and mayor are in charge of operating, managing and running the city so they should be keenly aware of what their responsibilities are and they should be accountable for the decisions they make,” said Carter.

Carter said one of his frustrations with the current councilors is they make decisions “but have no clue about the impact.”

Carter said he doesn’t think city elected leaders are involved as much as they should be.

“My experience with the city council is they virtually have no clue about what is going on,” said Carter.

Carter said as mayor he would be more engaged. 

Carter also said a good leader knows when to take charge and when to step into the shadows.

“My philosophy is you find out what people are doing, give them the equipment and the responsibilities and give them what they need to get the job done,” said Carter. “Then you have parameters in place so you know if they are meeting the measurements.

“Then you get out of the way.” 

Carter said doesn’t support legal retail sales of marijuana in Ontario.

“The most important result of legalizing marijuana will be the deterioration of the family structure which will contribute to Ontario being the poorest town in Oregon,” said Carter.

He will vote against the measure, he said, because retail marijuana sales are still illegal at the federal level.

“So, Ontario residents who choose to use the drug will have limited opportunities to work for any company or firm that does drug testing for insurance or policy reasons thus limiting work opportunities for head of households,” said Carter.

He said Ontario’s emergency services are “not adequate for the additional issues associated with recreational marijuana.”

If voters approve legal retail marijuana sales in Ontario, estimates show that the city could collect at least $500,000 from taxes on the product. The city would also be eligible to a share of the marijuana revenues collected by the state each year. 

Carter said if voters approve the measure he would recommend the city use the tax revenue to pay down the city’s state employment pension debt and to beef up emergency services like police.

The county and Ontario face a serious shortage in housing that impacts families and children. 

More than 350 students, for example, in the county are homeless. Carter said he does plan to address the issue.

“An innovative idea would be to establish a program to turn the Presbyterian nursing home into a residential work facility where the homeless could live and work to offset their living expenses. It would also create a sense of worth and responsibility,” said Carter.

The county’s poverty rate – 23 percent – is a concern, Carter said. He said he will work with the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board to tackle the problem.

“I would lead the council to work closely with the board who have $5 million to invest in community development. And I will encourage development of land that will attract companies with a large number of jobs to this community,” said Carter.

Carter said his volunteer work includes his membership in the Ontario Lions Club, the Ontario Elks Lodge, as a member and past board member of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, and assisting the annual holiday charity effort Help Them To Hope.

Riley Hill

Riley Hill said voters should elect him to be mayor for a simple reason.

 “I have more experience than anyone running or on the council,” said Hill. 

Along with Hill, Frank Griffith, Billy Carter and Marty Justus also seek the city’s top political slot.

Hill, a longtime local contractor, is also a member of the city’s planning and zoning commission. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Hill said he has served on the Ontario Budget Committee, the Eastern Oregon Workforce Committee, and served as a founder and chairman of Malheur County Poverty to Prosperity.

Hill said he arrived in Ontario from Yakima, Wash., in 1972 and “all I had in my possession was a Skil saw, a nail apron and some hand tools.” Two years later, he said, he was building his own apartment complexes.

“I had no money but a will to succeed,” said Hill.

Hill said he is especially proud of his work with Poverty to Prosperity. The program, founded in 2011, is designed to improve career technical education, create more industrial land, retain local businesses and capitalize on the region’s natural resource base. 

For Hill, the key is forming more land for industry and boosting career and technical education for area youth. He believes programs such as Poverty to Prosperity are a good way to tackle the poverty problem in the county.

“That is the whole reason we started –because we are the poorest county in the state of Oregon,” said Hill.

Hill said the program works.

“I think it has been very effective, particularly in areas where we were able to get more industrial land for Ontario, Vale and Nyssa,” said Hill.

Hill said career and technical education can cut down on poverty by creating a sustainable economy. 

 “About 14 percent of our kids return with a college degree. They may or may not stay. What are the other ones going to do? There are great jobs out there for people who specific skills, like electricians, HVAC and welding. If we keep training a population, industry will see we have trained people and they will come here,” said Hill.

Hill said he doesn’t support retail marijuana sales in Ontario.

“How is marijuana going to save the community?” said Hill.

If voters approve retail marijuana sales in Ontario, estimates show the city could collect $500,000 from taxes on the product.

Hill, though, isn’t convinced. 

“There are all kinds of estimates,” said Hill. “I do believe that marijuana sales would generate more police calls. Marijuana is considered an illegal drug in the United States.”

If voters do approve retail marijuana sales in Ontario, Hill said he would use the tax revenue to pay the city’s public employee retirement system debt. 

“First, though, it has to pass and then see the affects after the developing regulatory structure being worked on by the city,” said Hill.

Hill said he isn’t sure the city’s budget woes are as severe as some believe.

“The voters didn’t think Ontario had a shortfall. After the election, the city council moved funds around and we see no difference with the exception of a part-time ordinance officer. The city, in the long run, gets additional property tax money each year,” said Hill.

Hill said he will seek consensus with the council on major decisions.

“With the city manager form of government, the mayor has only one vote, the same as a city councilor,” said Hill.

Hill said the housing shortage in Ontario and Malheur County is “loaded with a lot of what ifs?”

“First, as a council, we would need to see and analyze a study that has presumably been done,” said Hill.

The next question, he said, will be how to pay for more housing.

“There is no possible way to develop affordable or homeless housing without an infusion of public money – lots of it,” he said.

He also said new affordable and homeless housing will attract people from Idaho.

“Why? Because Oregon’s public assistance benefits are more lucrative than Idaho’s, which causes another drain in the system,” said Hill.

Hill said the only way to solve the housing problem is by working with state and federal legislators to find financing. Hill said his tenure as mayor would be different because he is already familiar with the political and regulatory system of the state and knows personally many of the key elected leaders in Oregon.

“As mayor, I would continue to make many trips to Salem to let the many department directors know that Ontario exists. I have developed many contacts in our state capitol and a mayor’s hat will help build on those,” said Hill.

Hill said he would pull no punches as mayor.

“It is the obligation of the mayor to ask the hard questions, to seek honest answers and sometimes make people uncomfortable for a good result,” said Hill.

Marty Justus

Marty Justus believes it is time for a change in Ontario.

That is why the local real estate agent wants voters to elect him as the town’s next mayor.

“All the other candidates don’t want change. The conservative approach has failed the city,” said Justus.

Justus – who owns Four Star Reality in Ontario – knows a little about city government. He was appointed to the Ontario City Council in 2015 before winning a four-year term on the council in 2017.

Justus said one of the city’s biggest challenges is costs connected to the state’s public employee retirement system, or PERS. Justus said PERS is a problem neither he, nor any one elected mayor, can fix. Now, PERS costs the city general fund budget about $1 million a year.

“It is taking the biggest percentage out of our general fund. But every small town in Oregon faces the same issue. The state has to fix it,” said Justus.

Justus said a shortfall in the city’s general fund can be solved in only two ways “cut services or charge for them on city water bills.”

Justus said residents should vote for him because he knows how to get things done.

“I not only think about what needs to be done today but also how the decisions we make today effect our future,” said Justus.

Justus said he is proud of his reputation for asking the “hard questions about matters that come before us.”

“True solutions require more than a simple yes or no. They require thorough and thoughtful answers,” said Justus.

Justus said he supports retail marijuana sales in Ontario.

“By legalizing marijuana sales, we will effectively be disrupting the black market. This will put downward pressure on those people that grow and sell marijuana illegally in our community,” said Justus.

He said restricting retail sales of marijuana in Ontario is “poor public health policy.”

“By not allowing dispensaries we are supporting the unregulated manufacture of a substance that is meant to be ingested into the human body,” said Justus.

Current estimates show Ontario could collect $500,000 from taxes on retail marijuana sales. 

Justus said if voters approve the marijuana measure he would use the money to expand the city’s police department “and allocating personnel to address the increased traffic visiting Ontario.” 

He also touted his political experience.

“I am the one that is most experienced with city government. Riley (Hill) probably has the second most but he has not had to make the hard decisions. He has arm-chair quarterbacked but I’ve been in the game,” said Justus.

Justus said as mayor he would work with the city council to solve problems.

“To get a measure to pass you must have a minimum of four votes. Consensus is the only way to get anything accomplished,” said Justus. 

Justus said one thing he plans to change if elected mayor is how elected leaders interact with Adam Brown, Ontario’s city manager.

Now the council and mayor wait for Brown to bring an issue to them before they consider it. That isn’t how it is supposed to work, said Justus.

“I think the council needs to bring issues to the city manager. If you are going to wait for Adam Brown, he can’t do everything. He can only do so much,” said Justus.

Justus said he is aware of the county’s housing shortage and homeless problems.

“As a council member, I have a record of supporting housing incentives, including the $10,000 credit to anyone building a single-family house inside city limits,” said Justus.

He said he also encourages efforts to help the homeless.

“I supported funding a homeless kitchen and finding sustainable shelter to address those issues,” said Justus.

Tackling poverty in Malheur County and Ontario is a more complex problem, said Justus.

“Our form of government does not give the mayor the power the office would require addressing the poverty issues facing the city and county,” said Justus.

Justus said voters would see a change immediately if he wins. 

“Within 30 days of taking office I would ask that the new council meet in a workshop-type setting and poll the individual council members on problems or issues they think need addressing. Then I would ask for input from those council persons on ways to address it. At that time, we would ask the city manager to move forward in resolving it,” said Justus.

Justus arrived in Ontario in 2009 from Garden Valley Idaho and purchased his real estate business in 2011. He is a co-founder of Revitalize Ontario, a board member of the Boys & Girls Club of Western Treasure Valley board and a former president of the Ontario Rotary Club. 

Frank Griffith

Frank Griffith decided to run for mayor after a conversation with a close friend.

“I was complaining about the city and my friend said, ‘If you don’t like it, do something about it,’” said Griffith.

Griffith faces Riley Hill, Billy Carter and Marty Justus for the city’s top political spot. 

Griffith is a relative newcomer to Ontario. He and his wife moved to town two years ago from Meridian, but he said that is an advantage.

“I think I bring a new perspective that the city has not had in a long time. I see myself as forward-thinking and I am not looking to the past,” said Griffith.

Griffith said he would tackle one of the city’s biggest challenges – a shortfall in the general fund – in a simple and effective manner.

“My plan is to downsize city government, bring the city back to the city’s hands and for people to have more of a say in what the city does,” said Griffith.

Griffith said he doesn’t support legal retail marijuana sales in Ontario. 

“I don’t use marijuana and I don’t think it would be a good thing for Ontario. I think if it passed that the revenue would be great for the city. But if it doesn’t pass, the city will survive,” said Griffith.

That’s because, he said, he has a “lot of ideas on how to make money for the city.”

If voters approve retail marijuana sales, Griffith said he would use the tax revenue – estimated at least $500,000 to beautify Ontario.

“There are sections of the city that need to be cleaned up and redone to make the city more attractive to a person coming off the highway. And our downtown needs renovated,” said Griffith.

Malheur County – and Ontario – face a serious deficit of housing. That shortfall impacts not only families but children. More than 350 students are listed as homeless in the county. 

Griffith said he would tackle the housing shortage as mayor with a program to fix up existing homes in town.

“I would like to see those homes brought back to livable conditions and used for low-income families. I would seek federal grants to accomplish this. I would not use city money, grants only,” said Griffith.

Griffith said that over the years he learned “how to delegate my authority,” a method he said he would exercise as mayor.

“By doing that I surround myself with smart people who I know will get the job done and know I can trust and I don’t think the city has that now,” said Griffith.

Griffith said he won’t make decisions on his own if elected mayor.

“In this age and time, I think consensus of the public would be far greater than making decisions on my own,” said Griffith.

Griffith said attracting more business to Ontario is one way to solve the county’s high poverty rate which now stands at 23 percent – one of the highest in the state.

Griffith said he would leave distinctive mark on city if elected mayor.

“One thing I want to do is downsize city government. I would reduce the city council to four from six. I would also reduce the city manager to a lower income and I would implement a volunteer system that I was part of in Meridian that involves the public and brings in more people helping the city that are volunteers and not paid staff,” said Griffith.

Griffith said he isn’t new at helping organizations become better.

“I am a member of the VFW. I became commander of the post in Meridian and I took the post from being, well it was almost defunct, and I brought it back. I remained commander for the next five years,” said Griffith.

Griffith said he also spent time volunteering at Four Rivers Cultural Center, a gig he said helped him meet and get to know Ontario residents.

Griffith, a U.S. Navy veteran, worked as a pipe fitter on nuclear submarines at Mare Island shipyard in California and at McClellan Air Force base near Sacramento, Calif., before retiring. 

He said he and his wife moved to Ontario get away from the “hustle-and-bustle” of Meridian.