One year in, Ontario mayor tempers political zeal

Ontario mayor Riley Hill (above, center) talks with city manager Adam Brown (right) and airport manager Dan Beaubien, at city hall last week. Hill stepped into the city’s mayoral slot in 2019 and since then worked to build relationships at the state level. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

ONTARIO – Dan Capron wasn’t sure what would happen when voters elected local contractor Riley Hill to be Ontario’s mayor in 2018. 

 “I thought he was coming in to be a wrecking ball,” said Capron.

Hill took office on Jan. 1, 2019. Hill collected more votes than three other candidates – residents Billy Carter, Frank Griffith and current city councilor Marty Justus – in the election.

Capron said his initial views on Hill were wrong.

“He has the best interest of the city in mind. We go about things sometimes different but we all have different ideas about stuff,” said Capron.

Hill said last week he wasn’t immune to the fact some of his fellow council members were nervous about his new title. 

So, he adjusted, he said.

“I think there was some apprehension on their part on wanting to follow things I wanted to get done. Truthfully, I have not pushed hard as I’d hoped because I could see it would probably not be productive,” said Hill.

Hill’s realization he needed to modify his political approach didn’t go unnoticed.

“It was completely different than I thought it would be,” said Capron.

Interviews with council members City Manager Adam Brown other local officials indicate Hill’s political approach evolved since he took office and he has added a different – and effective – new dimension to government through his work at the state level.

“He has brought some really good relationships to the table and has been an advocate for the city of Ontario and gone to Salem on his own time and dime and knocked on doors and made cold calls on the city’s behalf. That is something he brought to the table that other councilors might not have had,” said Brown.

Capron also noted Hill’s work in Salem as important.

“He goes from office to office and he pleads for this side of the state,” said Capron.

Councilor Norm Crume agreed.

“He does have the ear of the political machine in Salem,” said Crume. 

Former mayor Ron Verini said he has watched Hill’s political acumen improve.

“I think Riley has worked his way into the position quite well. He has, at times, created a discussion on the city council that, because of the diverse opinions, created some really good solutions to some of our challenges,” said Verini. 


John Breidenbach, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce said Hill’s background as a businessman is crucial. 

“So he understands our mission. He has been very supportive of the chamber and businesses,” said Breidenbach. 

Hill served as a member of the city’s planning and zoning commission for many years and is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. Hill has also 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 helped create Poverty to Prosperity, a program designed to improve career technical education, create more industrial land, retain local businesses and capitalize on the region’s natural resource base. 

Hill said he arrived in Ontario from Yakima, Wash., in 1972. 

As mayor, Hill is similar to a chairman of the board of a company, and he typically manages the city council meetings that are held on the third Tuesday of each month. The city council consists of a the mayor and six other councilors. As mayor, Hill is paid $200 a month. 

Hill said his work in Salem is centered on raising eastern Oregon and Ontario’s profile. He also believes that more money should be funneled from the state to places like Ontario.

“We send money to them, so we want to get money from Salem,” said Hill.

Hill said he believes his trips to the state capital will pay off for voters.

“I think I’ve developed some alliances and people understand that,” he said.

Closer to home, Capron said Hill’s experience as a developer is critical for the city on construction projects and with bids from contractors. 

“He is a contractor and he can look at it and he has saved some money on some projects. He has helped in negotiating with contracts,” said Capron.

Hill said one of his goals for the next year will be to get a plan to create a greenbelt in Ontario off the ground. Current plans call for the greenbelt – dubbed the Tater Tots Trail – to extend along the Snake River from the city water plant to the Ontario State Recreation Site north of town. 

Hill said a greenbelt was part of the city’s future parks and recreation plan for at least “25 years.”

“I went to the council and the city manager and said, ‘Are we going to do it’? We need to offer something in Ontario more than marijuana,” said Hill.

Hill said the city is working to finalize deals with Heinz Frozen Food Co. and Walmart for land each firm owns along the proposed greenbelt path. 

“We’ve started paperwork to do that,” said Hill.

Hill said he also wants to create a “destination point” in downtown Ontario centered on the old train depot. 

“Like a bandstand or a pavilion where you can do some performances and have shows and community gatherings and we’ve put out some requests for proposals to get some ideas,” he said.

Both the greenbelt and the “destination point” will enhance Ontario, he said.

“Probably none of these will happen in my term in office but you have to start somewhere,” said Hill.

Because Hill is a developer and owns or manages properties inside city limits, the potential for conflicts of interest are real but he said it hasn’t been a problem so far.

“I have never asked the city for anything and I go through the same process everyone else goes through. I haven’t started on a project that wasn’t already zoned properly and if I have anything going on I declare it,” said Hill.

He said since he has been mayor he “picked up two building permits and it was routine and they were already zoned properly.” 

Another future goal, said Hill, will be to find a way to allow Ontario to receive a larger share of the marijuana tax revenue. Earlier this month, the city wrote to state elected leaders calling for the tax receipt formula to be changed.

Now, marijuana sales in Ontario generate more than $3.2 million a month, or about $105,000 a day. But the city will receive about $50,000 back from the state this year, instead of $653,490 city leaders believe they should collect.

“I still want to pursue the fact we are not getting our fair share of the marijuana tax. I want to keep moving on the greenbelt. I want something better for Ontario other than it is known as the eastern Oregon capital for marijuana,” said Hill.

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