Rob Drake celebrates retirement as Cornelius city manager
Friends, colleagues and dignitaries paid tribute Thursday, Aug. 4, to Rob Drake at his retirement celebration.
Drake has been city manager of Cornelius since 2012. He previously served four terms as mayor of Beaverton, as well as short stints as interim city manager of Carlton and Tillamook.
Beyond the titles, however, Drake's well-wishers at the Cornelius Public Library on Thursday described him as a mentor, an advocate, a visionary — even a hero, as Kerry Tymchuk, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society and a longtime friend of Drake, put it.
"I consider you a friend, and I consider you one of the best peers I've ever had in my professional life," state Rep. Susan McLain, D-Forest Grove, told Drake.
McLain and Cornelius Mayor Jef Dalin both said Drake has been a sounding board for them for decades.
McLain sought Drake's advice when she first ran for Metro Council. She's worked with him closely since she was elected to the Oregon House in 2014.
Dalin said he's considered Drake a mentor since he was mayor of Beaverton and Dalin was a Cornelius city councilor.
"Rob always came at things with a professional attitude and looking for that win-win," Dalin said.
Dalin became mayor of Cornelius in 2011.
At the time, Cornelius was adrift. Then-Mayor Neal Knight and his allies on the Cornelius City Council had voted earlier that year to fire Dave Waffle, then-city manager. City voters, angered by Knight's bellicose approach to governing and his decision to force Waffle out, responded by recalling him and two other city councilors from office that fall.
Dalin was elevated from the position of council president to fill out Knight's term. It was left to him and an inexperienced council to pick up the pieces — and choose Cornelius' next city manager.
They hired Drake.
Drake brought a wealth of experience to City Hall. As mayor of Beaverton for 16 years, he had served as chief administrator of Washington County's second-largest city.
Drake had also been on the other side of political upheaval. He had himself been forced to find a new path forward after Beaverton voters rejected his bid for a fifth term in 2008.
Challenger Denny Doyle went heavily negative on Drake, describing him as "incompetent" in campaign mailers and telling voters that he had failed Beaverton during his 16 years as mayor. Speaking with the Beaverton Valley Times after his defeat, Drake decried those attacks as "inaccurate and unfair" and said he was disappointed that they had succeeded.
If Waffle hadn't been fired, there would have been no job opening in Cornelius for Drake to fill. And if Drake hadn't been voted out of office, he wouldn't have been available to fill it.
Speakers at Thursday's retirement ceremony glossed over those difficult details, although Drake thanked Waffle — one of dozens of guests in attendance — for passing on a capable city staff. Every one of them, however, echoed a common theme: Cornelius wouldn't be where it is today if not for Drake.
"Many times, people will sort of determine the success of an individual based on asking and answering a question: Are we better off today than we were before, in this case, when Rob was here?" Cornelius Fire Chief Jim Geering said. "And the answer is simple. … Are we better off? Yes, indeed we are."
Dalin and Drake have now led Cornelius, as mayor and manager respectively, for more than a decade. That partnership is now ending. As soon as this month, it will be up to Dalin and the rest of the Cornelius City Council to hire Drake's replacement.
"I just count myself very fortunate that we've had this opportunity to be exposed to someone with this level of professionalism," Dalin said.
Drake acknowledged Thursday, if only obliquely, that his career in public service has had its ups and downs. He's fielded phone calls at odd hours and dealt with his fair share of criticism, he said.
But he added: "It's not torture. It's been fun, and I've really enjoyed it."
Multiple speakers spoke highly of Drake's ability to lead and build bridges as an administrator.
"This is a big day in Cornelius history, as they lose the city manager that has done so much for this city," said Tymchuk.
Indeed, Cornelius has gone through some substantial changes in Drake's decade as manager.
Drake said one of his top priorities when he was hired was fixing some longstanding issues at the Cornelius Police Department. Relations between the department and Cornelius' Latino community — a majority of the city's population — were poor, Drake recalled. Residents didn't trust that the police were there to protect and serve them.
Within months of coming aboard as manager, Drake ousted the city's chief of police. He and the City Council began discussing the idea of bringing in the Washington County Sheriff's Office to provide law enforcement services in Cornelius, instead of having a city-run department plagued with problems. In 2014, they did just that, with the council voting to dissolve the police department and Drake negotiating a contract with the county for sheriff's deputies to take over as the city's police force.
Gene Moss was the first Cornelius police chief assigned by the Sheriff's Office. He was succeeded a couple years later by Al Roque, who was then replaced by John Bennett in 2019. Bob Ray took over as chief from Bennett in 2021.
All four men were present at Drake's retirement ceremony. So was their boss, Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett.
"We do not want to let you down," Garrett told Drake. "I would feel, honestly, awful if I ever felt like I let Rob Drake down, because I would let Team Cornelius down. We are committed to Team Cornelius largely because of the relationship we forged together some years ago."
Beyond reforming the police department, Drake presided over some other significant changes in Cornelius, including the construction of hundreds of new homes on the south side of the city, the establishment of an urban renewal district to bolster and beautify the Highway 8 corridor that runs through town, and the creation of a popular dog park on the city's north side.
The most visible of them all, however, is the building where Drake's retirement was celebrated Thursday.
City voters, still reeling from the Great Recession, narrowly rejected a bond measure in 2013 to pay for a larger, more modern Cornelius Public Library along Highway 8.
It was a bitter disappointment for Drake, who counts the opening of the Beaverton City Library in 2000 as one of his biggest achievements as mayor, and Karen Hill, the Cornelius' library director. But instead of giving up on the project, they found a way to realize their dream of a new library in Cornelius without raising taxes.
Over the next several years, Drake and Hill raised money through a combination of private donations and grant awards. By the end of 2017, they had raised close to $5 million. That was enough for Cornelius to tear down the old Civic Center building, clearing the way for the construction of Cornelius Place, a mixed-use building that houses the library and more than 40 apartments for older adults on low and fixed incomes. It opened in 2019.
"Rob was instrumental in getting us this library," Hill said Thursday, before revealing that a yet-to-open wing of the building will be named for Drake in his honor.
Drake, characteristically, deflected the credit.
"A lot of work was done before I got here," he said. "I'm not a miracle worker. I don't walk on water. But this community was ready, just like Beaverton was. We had a pent-up energy in Beaverton for a new library, and when I got out here, I saw the good work that had been done, and we just pulled everyone together."
Other speakers also presented Drake with gifts, including a plaque from the Sheriff's Office, a firefighter's hard hat from the Cornelius Fire Department, and even a golden shovel for any more groundbreaking ceremonies in which Drake may be called to participate — city manager or not.
"We all know Rob's retiring," said Mark Crowell, Cornelius' longtime public works director, who gifted Drake the shovel. "But we all know Rob can't retire."
By Mark Miller
Editor-in-Chief, Washington and Columbia counties
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