Local government

Ontario voters speak ‘loud and clear’ in mayoral race

ONTARIO – A legal battle over nuisance ordinances and a public scandal that involved allegation of child molestation proved to be key turning points in the tenure of Mayor Riley Hill and probably cost him the election, two former city leaders said last week.
Hill – who was elected to the mayor position in 2018 – was defeated by political newcomer Debbie Folden.
“I got my butt kicked,” said Hill the day after the election.
In unofficial returns, Folden got 1,124 votes while Councilman Eddy Melendrez finished second with 960 votes and Hill had 773. Ballots mailed by Election Day will be counted and added to the tally. Hill and Melendrez didn’t return messages seeking comment.
“I think the community has spoken loud and clear that the current administration, especially Mayor Hill, was on the wrong track,” said Ron Verini, who preceded Hill as mayor.

“I think it was just the community saying we don’t like the direction, we want another avenue for us in our community.”

–Ron Verini, former Ontario mayor

Verini spent 10 years as a councilman or mayor in arguably one of the most politically-charged small town climates in eastern Oregon. Verini was elected mayor in 2012 and then bowed out of the political scene in 2018.
“I think Mayor Hill has really brought a tremendous good to our community yet in his position as mayor, I think he lost the support of the community when he was so intent on bringing suit to our government,” said Verini.
In early 2021, Hill’s company, Eldorado Investments Inc., sued the city to overturn a $500 fine levied by Ontario’s code enforcement officer for excessive weeds and debris on a lot owned by the company. Hill implied the fine against this company was politically motivated.

Lawsuit a factor

The suit devolved into something of a political soap opera and stretched out over a year before Malheur County Circuit Court Judge Lung Hung found the city violated its own procedures and vacated the fine in September 2021.
Norm Crume, an Ontario businessman and former councilman, said the suit created a “negative sentiment” against Hill.
“It (the suit) cost the citizens a whole bunch of money,” said Crume.
The suit eventually cost the city more than $8,000 in legal fees.
“He is a strong conservative and he has the ability to be a good mayor. It just didn’t happen,” said Crume.
Also, in 2021 Hill was embroiled in a political scandal revolving around former councilmen Freddy Rodriguez and Marty Justus.
In the spring of 2021 Rodriguez said in a public session of the Ontario City Council that he believed a friend’s assertion – never proven – that Justus was a child molester.
Justus put the city on notice in May 2021 that was considering suing the city for violation of his civil rights and asserted Hill “directed or urged” a police investigation into Justus that produced no evidence.
Justus asserted Hill helped Rodriguez make the allegations. Rodriguez was bounced from office after a recall campaign by city voters.

Rodriguez controversy

A year later, the city settled with Justus by paying more than $28,000. The settlement also focused on another incident that occurred in May 2021, when Justus was kicked out of a city council meeting after he displayed signs questioning Hill’s sobriety.
“The citizens rebuking him does not surprise me because his attitude in suing the city. His actions speak for themselves,” said Crume, who served with Hill for two years on the city council.
Hill also faced criticism over the resignation of former Ontario City Manager Adam Brown last spring and for leading the effort to strip the power to hire key employees from the city manager and give it to the city council.
Verini said he believes one reason Brown departed Ontario last spring was because of conflicts with Hill.
“Adam Brown was a city manager that took us close to six years to find. I think Adam Brown was not appreciated by Riley. I think that lack of appreciation culminated with Adam Brown leaving. That, I think, was at the detriment of our community,” said Verini.
Hill’s tenure was turbulent, said Verini, and voters wanted a change.
“I think it was just the community saying we don’t like the direction, we want another avenue for us in our community,” said Verini.
Crume said voters were angry that Hill sued his own city.
“The message sent was they were sick and tired of somebody suing the city for something he was guilty on,” said Crume.
Folden agreed.
“People were really unhappy when his company sued the city. I think he lost a lot of voters when that happened,” said Folden.
Dan Cummings, Ontario city manager, said he, too, received feedback that many voters were upset over Hill’s decision to sue the city.
“They all felt there was a better way of getting his point across and working with staff and council,” said Cummings.
Hill, obviously, didn’t see the situation the same way Crume and Verini. He pointed to several triumphs during his tenure, including finding a way to pay down the city Public Employee Retirement System debt and crafting a deal with Snake River Correctional Institution regarding wastewater and water service.
He also pointed to his work to establish the Tater Tot Trail, a 3.2-mile-long pathway.

‘Good things for Ontario

Hill said he was surprised he lost.

“I wish everybody luck and good things for Ontario. I hope that is what happens,” said Hill.

Ken Hart, city council president who won reelection last week, said the controversy over Hill’s move to sue the city, the Justus settlement and the departure of Brown all “had an impact.”

“I think people took all of that into consideration,” said Hart.

Hart, though, said Hill’s leadership was crucial in several areas, including budget issues and long-term financial planning for the city and an effort to revamp the city charter. Hart said Hill also helped get more money for the Ontario Aquatic Center.

“Riley was right there with me and others trying to get that done. The mayor was a big help on those,” said Hart.

During Hill’s tenure not only did Brown leave but former police chief Steve Romero resigned. Those transitions, said Hart, were an issue for some.

 “I don’t believe our transition of staff has been bad. I think Dan Cummings is awesome. I think (new police) chief (Mike) Iwai is doing a heck of a job. I think that is where especially the mayor was criticized,” said Hart.

Hart said it seems voters use a bi-polar perspective when they evaluate elected leaders.

“In Ontario it appears if we exercise oversight and give suggestions then we are meddling At the county level, if elected officials don’t exercise oversight and give suggestions then they are not doing their duty,” said Hart.

News tip? Contact Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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