East County: Meeting adjourned
As Gresham fell into turmoil earlier this year with a pandemic, smoke from nearby wildfires, racial unrest, the resignations of high-ranking leaders, and an intimidating budget gap — a longtime public servant who never imagined vying for the top seat stepped up.
City Councilor Karylinn Echols wasn't even sure she wanted to continue as an elected leader. After serving on council for more than a decade, Echols was eyeing a new chapter in life. She wanted to spend more time with loved ones and tackle new challenges. But as things fell apart around her at City Hall, she rose to the occassion.
"I had the right experience, background and skills to be mayor," Echols said. "The city needed someone to step up quickly who wasn't interested in holding onto the role into the future."
She served for six months to close out this year, filling a role left vacant when longtime Mayor Shane Bemis unexpectedly resigned. Echols was chosen unanimously by her peers to make the move from councilor to mayor.
"Being mayor is not something I ever aspired to," she said. "But I always wanted to serve my community, and I had the support of the rest of council."
That is a sentiment shared by her peer to the northeast. Troutdale Mayor Casey Ryan never had designs to run for public office, but he realized he was the right person to get things back on track for the city where he is raising four children.
"I didn't do it for the money or my ego — I wanted to set an example for others," Ryan said. "You don't have to (be mayor) forever, I have less respect for people who don't know how to walk away."
Ryan is leaving after serving a four-year term at the top in Troutdale, leading to transitions in leadershipfor the two largest cities in East Multnomah County.
In Troutdale, Councilor Randy Lauer was elected as the town's next mayor, a position he ran for when it was apparent Ryan wasn't seeking reelection. Things are somewhat less solidified in Gresham. All signs point to political newcomer Travis Stovall taking the reins after narrowly beating Councilor Eddy Morales in a five-way race.
Pending the results of a Gresham recount, both cities will have new leadership in 2021. But Echols and Ryan left their respective marks on their communities.
"I achieved what I set out to do," Ryan said.
For years the word to describe Troutdale City Council was "chaos."
Every decision ended in a brush up in chambers, with council split 4-3 on most decisions. And that discontent was starting to spread to the community residents, who would pile into meetings in protest of decisions being made by leadership. Neighbors were fighting with neighbors.
"Every night the chamber was packed with pissed off people," Ryan said. "And all of a sudden I found myself in the middle of it."
Ryan never planned on running for public office — he was content working as the senior vice president at Riverview Community Bank and putting his energy into charitable efforts, including launching food collection efforts that eventually morphed into Fill-A-Bag, which benefits SnowCap Community Charities.
But with one phone call that changed.
A fellow Troutdale resident was tired of seeing the city bogged down in conflicts and personal attacks. That resident reached out to Ryan on a Friday afternoon to see if he would step up as a new voice to lead the city.
"I said, 'Oh yeah, I'll run' — if I had slept on it over the weekend I may have reconsidered," Ryan said with a laugh. "I decided I could bring leadership and civility."
His first year was dedicated to bringing more transparency and unity to Troutdale City Council. Without the fighting in chambers, things began to get done.
"I am just a business person — quick, to the point, not political," Ryan said. "I usually didn't have a dog in the fight, so I could be impartial during the meetings."
Ryan moved to have the community vote on what to do with the former City Hall, which had been left vacant for more than a decade. Some on council wanted to move back in, and city leadership couldn't come to a decision.
"I decided to send it to the voters, and when the bond failed we were able to move forward," Ryan said.
He delivered the opening remarks after Amazon.com selected Troutdale for its new distribution warehouse — a project that brought nearly 1,500 jobs. Ryan also was at the front as the city invested $2.2 million on retrofit of its wastewater treatment plant; created more city events and activities geared toward youths; revamped system development charges in favor of small businesses; and rebuilt the popular Imagination Station playground.
"We did more in four years than had been done in the city forever," Ryan said. "These were the same issues coming up before that people were having strokes over."
Not many would envy what Echols faced when she moved into the mayor's office.
"In the beginning I was shell-shocked because there was so much going on," she said. "Until you find yourself in that seat it's hard to know all the duties."
But despite unprecedented challenges, she relied upon her experience and that of the staff throughout City Hall. She was appointed to Gresham City Council in 2011 and won the following election for Position 3. It was her second stint, after she claimed a seat for two years from 2005-2007.
As mayor her main goal was collaborating with others to find solutions. She has had daily conversations with Interim City Manager Eric Schmidt, and has continued to delegate tasks to those on council to take advantage of everyone's skillsets.
That is something that has always been important to Echols from her first day as a councilor. She was heavily involved in the creation of the Council Work Plan, which sets a guideline for the work needed to be done each year. She also focused on generating more citizen engagement.
"We had this old model of bringing people onto advisory committees which met once a month," Echols said. "We switched to a task force model and listening sessions — we were tapping into more robust citizen engagement on issues that were important to them."
As an elected leader, Echols loved to reach out to nonprofit organizations, businesses and community organizations to figure out how to make Gresham a better place for all.
"Every year my favorite meeting was distributing the (Community Development Block Grants) because we heard how those funds would make an impact on the community," Echols said.
As mayor she has brought back community input during meetings despite the virtual challenges, started the conversation about what cuts must be made to balance the city budget, and hired a third-party group to investigate diversity and equity issues within city hall.
"At the staff level we appreciate what Mayor Echols has done," said Communication Director Elizabeth Coffey. "There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes, and she has been a steady rock amidst this interesting year."
There are times when Mayor Echols feels emotional about her decision to step away from elected office.
"Six months ago the end of the year couldn't come fast enough — but I am really enjoying the job," she said. "On the advice of a great friend, I am going to try and not take on anything new for half a year."
Echols is going to pick back up her harp lessons, something she had to put on hold with the busy schedule of a mayor. She is eyeing opening a business in Gresham, Setting Sun Doulas, which help those at the end of their life come up with plans.
"I guide them to reconnect with people, create a legacy project, figure out what they want for service, and talk with the families," Echols said. "It is demystifying everything around death."
And she will get to spend more time with her 11-year-old and 3-year-old grandchildren.
Mayor Ryan is also looking forward to spending time with his family, and diving back into his work with nonprofit organizations.
"This is the first time in a long time I haven't been serving on a nonprofit board," he said with a laugh. "The world has changed so much in the four years I was in office I need to figure out where I want to be."
Ryan is confident things won't slide backward in Troutdale. He believes the new faces on council will continue to work together to make the best decisions for the city. His advice is to stay focused on doing the best thing for Troutdale, rather than shift the focus onto any one person.
"I was honored to have been able to serve as mayor," he said.
Echols is optimistic about Gresham's future.
"The council will be dynamic and new and wonderful things are coming," she said. "I have seen through social media everyone reaching out, connecting and collaborating — that speaks to the heart of our community."
"Solid leaders are stepping up," she said.
In Gresham and Troutdale, they can follow the roadmap left by Echols and Ryan.
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