Departing Ontario mayor casts an optmistic view of the future

Ontario mayor Ron Verini will step down from his slot next month but he says the city is in a good position but will face a set of new challenges – including managing legal sales of marijuana within city limits – in the future. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – Ontario Mayor Ron Verini will step down from his position next month, but he departs with a sense of confidence for the city’s future.

“For the first time, we have a group of people who are in decision-making positons that have the capacity of actually selling Ontario and its future,” said Verini.

Verini, who jumped onto the local political stage as a city councilor in 2009, was sworn in as mayor in 2015. His tenure was not without its challenges, including his vocal support of a 1 percent sales tax that city voters rejected last spring by a nearly 2 to 1 margin.

Verini, though, said he exits Ontario’s political stage with an optimistic attitude.

“The potential that sits right here in Ontario is absolutely huge,” said Verini.

Verini said Ontario may be poised for economic growth soon.

“It is just a matter of getting all the pieces together,” said Verini.

Verini believes his most important accomplishment as mayor was putting the right people in the right places within city government.

“The thing we’ve accomplished under my administration is the quality of our department heads. I’ve been here for every single hire over the last 10 years and we have tremendous amount of depth and knowledge that we never had before,” said Verini.

That expertise will be essential in the future, Verini said, especially after voters approved retail sales of marijuana in Ontario in November.

Verini also said he is proud he brought “civility” back to the city council.

Verini said the advent of marijuana dispensaries in Ontario may create residual problems for city officials.

“Because of our location as a border town, with the possibility of hundreds of thousands of people coming across the border to buy recreational marijuana, that is going to be a challenge for our city,” said Verini.

That’s because, said Verini, the city’s streets and emergency services aren’t designed to deal with such an influx.

He said even if marijuana taxes net the city up to $750,000 a year, “that isn’t enough to support what we have in place as a police department and a fire department.”

That means, he said, elected leaders will need to “find unique ways of managing those numbers of people.”

“Our city management, they will probably have one of their greatest challenges moving the city forward. We are going to be stressed. Many of the locations for dispensaries are located next to Heinz Frozen Food Company, so that will create a unique problem in itself with just traffic,” said Verini.

Verini said there may be an upside to a large influx of marijuana customers to Ontario.

“I hope these people will come into this community and spend in other locations and go to our stores, but I don’t know if that will occur,” said Verini.

Verini said there are more questions than answers now regarding marijuana dispensaries.

“What do we do with the monies from the marijuana industry? How long will this actually last and how big can the industry get? Will this be just a big shot in the arm and then trail off? Or will it be a sustaining factor in our community? So, the challenges of the next council are going to be great,” said Verini.

Verini said he saw a sales tax as an important tool to offset costs tied to dispensaries.

“But when the community said to us, that no, we don’t want you to have these additional revenues coming in and then turned around in the next election and said, yes, we want dispensaries in our community, I think they have the cart before the horse,” he said.

Verini said one of his biggest disappointments was the failure of the sales tax.

“That would have solidified our city with public safety, increased the safety of our community with more police and fire. It would also of course set us up for increased economic development,” said Verini.

Ontario’s city government is designed so that the mayor wields no more power than another councilor. Yet the mayor is often perceived as the face of the city and that is where Verini made a big difference, said Norm Crume, city council president.

Crume said Verini made a behind-the-scenes difference.

“He was totally devoted to the city and spent an awful lot of time getting things done,” said Crume.

Verini put a focus on attending local events and supporting Ontario, said John Breidenbach, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

“The extra work Ron did behind the scenes will be missed. As far as chamber activity he was there representing the city almost all of the time. I think Ron did a fine job and he did it for a long time,” said Breidenbach.

Crume said he and Verini did not always agree.

“In politics, you never agree all the time. But I would say, probably in the last six years, we’ve been pretty close on ideas. The first few years we were further apart,” said Crume.

Crume said he misjudged Verini early on.

“I had a predetermined opinion with Ron and, after working with him, found it wasn’t true,” said Crume.

Crume said he perceived Verini as liberal.

“And come to find out he just thought things through a little bit more and I was able to still work with him even though we didn’t see eye-to-eye on things,” said Crume.

Councilor Dan Capron said the one attribute he admired was that Verini would listen.

“Even if he didn’t think it was a good idea he would listen.” Capron said. “And he was easy to get along with.”

Verini said the effort to create prosperity can’t be just a goal for Ontario political leaders. Residents and county political leaders need to be involved in shaping a future, he said.

“We are in this as a community and our community doesn’t stop at the borders of Ontario,” said Verini.

While Verini said he is ready to move on, he pointed out that new Councilors Freddy Rodriguez and Michael Braden and Mayor-elect Riley Hill can draw upon an array of resources to be successful.

“They have a wealth of information at their fingertips, not only from the council and the city staff that have been there many years but they also have the League of Oregon Cities and the mayor’s association,” said Verini.

Verini said he believes Hill can make a real difference.

“He has the contacts with the Legislature and he has put together construction projects throughout our community and has a tremendous amount of clout moving things forward,” said Verini.

Verini – who is also chairman of the Ontario group Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida – said he is “leaving the base to work from as far as the quality of individuals,” at the city.

“The tools to move our community forward are there,” said Verini.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.