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Jeff Bernhard respects his own limits

Jeff Bernhard may be part of a local political legacy, but Scappoose’s current City Council president hardly believes in lifetime appointments.

Like his mother, former mayor and longtime county commissioner Rita Bernhard, Jeff has enjoyed a lengthy run in City Council. But as he wraps up his nine-year tenure this December, one of his major agenda items might be to impose term limits for city officials.

This isn’t a petty act of revenge on his way out of city hall. As Mayor Scott Burge points out, Jeff Bernhard’s colleagues twice voted him City Council president.

Nor does Bernhard have any intention of skipping town. Scappoose is where he was raised and where he met his wife. Scappoose is where the Bernhards have spent their 23 years together, where they’ve chosen to raise their three children, Ryan, Megan and Jake.

The lifelong Scappoose resident just thinks the City Council could use some new blood.

“I think that after eight years of being on the council, you’ve had the opportunity to learn what you’re going to learn, and to take those teachings and apply them to what is really truly needed within our community,” Bernhard said.

“At the same time, though, I think you become somewhat callous. You can start to become somewhat complacent. And I think that’s natural.”

He’s ready to pass the torch, he said, and is excited about Scappoose’s newest city councilor, Jason Meshell.

The family business

Growing up, Bernhard was inspired by how his mother Rita, a housewife, became increasingly active in the community.

She successfully campaigned for a seat on the City Council and became mayor of Scappoose — all before Bernhard graduated high school. She went on to serve as county commissioner for 12 years.

“Never before was I exposed to someone who wanted to do it just to make a difference,” Bernhard recalled.

Not surprisingly, his early political life mirrored his mother’s. Neither finished college, but each was drawn in to serve in local government: Rita on the Planning Commission, Jeff on the Budget Committee.

That’s not to say Bernhard always dreamed of weighing in on the city’s fiscal concerns.

After high school, he enrolled in courses at Portland Community College but made his money working up to a management position at a nearby sporting goods store. Through a couple social connections, he found out that Wells Fargo bank was looking to hire managers with strong sales backgrounds.

Though he had no banking experience, he was hired as a banking retail manager. He would ultimately become a mortgage branch manager at the bank.

“I attribute my success to hard work, but to also being at the right place at the right time and taking advantage of when I was at the right place at the right time,” Bernhard said.

So when he was asked to join the City Budget Committee, he knew better than to turn the opportunity down.

“The meat and potatoes of the City Council is making sure the budget is in line,” he said. “And to kind of jump in on the budget side of it, see how that worked for a few years, get an understanding of where our dollars were being spent, how do we categorize our dollars, understanding the different bond measures — that was quite the learning experience.”

When a City Council seat became vacant a year later, Bernhard was appointed to serve out the rest of the term.

That abbreviated stint as a city councilor inspired him to run for election, securing him a full four years.

Mayor Scott Burge was struck by Bernhard’s studious approach to local politics.

“He was always thoughtful and prepared,” Burge said. “He wouldn’t speak unless it was an argument that was thought out.”

“He didn’t bring a lot of his personal issues to the table, which I really appreciated,” said Councilor Donna Gedlich.

All politics are personal

On the national stage, politics are expected to get nasty; anyone running for a high-profile public office is opening himself up for attack. Serving as a politician in the town where he was born and bred did give Bernhard pause.

“We didn’t have a lot of controversy, but that opportunity’s still there,” he said. “And you’ve got young children in the system, and everybody knows you — the whole community.”

Perhaps the most heated issue he’s had to weigh in on is the Urban Growth Boundary, which he still supports expanding.

“I had to stand up and say, ‘I understand the fear of what growth could potentially mean to the area,’” he said, “but I also understood that us being content in just being a bedroom community of Portland, or just being a bedroom community of St. Helens, and relying on their ability to provide services and employment. I was no longer content in doing so.”

The final tally

It’s been a busy nine years.

During Bernhard’s watch, Scappoose implemented 24-hour police coverage and saw the Havlik Drive extension to allow the city’s south neighborhoods better access to Scappoose’s main thoroughfare.

And then there’s Veterans Park. Although it was a long time coming, Bernhard says, at least the city took the time to do it right.

“It cost us so much less — by getting grant money from the state, by getting volunteer help for the park,” he said.

Now, he looks forward to a busy schedule of coaching for each of his children’s teams. But that’s not to say he’ll completely retire from politics. He can see himself on the school board, or further following his mother’s example in a role as county commissioner.

In the meantime, you might see him at the occasional City Council meeting.

“Hopefully I’ll be that voice of reason once again, without any voting power.”