Checking in with Mayor Russ Axelrod
While tracking the COVID-19 pandemic and providing information about the response of governments and other entities is the main priority, Pamplin Media Group also wanted to provide a window into the lives of individual residents whose lives have changed because of this calamity.
In this edition of our series, Checking in, the Tidings spoke with West Linn Mayor Russ Axelrod leading the city through a crisis, his daughter contracting COVID-19, the power of people coming together and comedy TV.
Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity.
Over the past couple of months, what have been the biggest changes for you as a mayor and as a leader in the community?
There's been a lot of impact just to how we do things, which is creating complications. It's also a lot about the months coming up. When I think about the city and our typical gatherings and celebration points, things like having to cancel our spring and summer events, like the Old Time Fair and Music in the Park and Movies in the Park, the 4th of July event — the 4th of July event of course isn't a city activity per se, but we do get involved in that — not being able to gather as a community is really difficult.
We're very fortunate that the IT staff has found a way for council to meet and conduct our business and I'm very grateful for that. And there's some elements that I think are really quite functional, but not being at the dias and not being there for people to come and speak, share stories and the one-on-ones that I do with people monthly, those kinds of connections or group connections, those are really missed. That personal connection for me personally, I really miss that. I'm used to hugging people and it's really tough to not be able to do that. As a representative for our community, I guess my biggest concerns are those who are really challenged — our small businesses are really, really hard pressed. I'm eager to find ways to help them, and open things up where we can do it safely. I really regret that we don't have some of the taxing resources areas in our budget or additional grants like some cities have, but we are working on some opportunities. We expedited our community grants and we're looking at applying for the Oregon Business Grant. We're going to see if we qualify and pull some of our waterfront economic reserve funds to use as matching grants for our businesses. We're submitting an application on Monday. Where we can, we're trying to do that outreach. But I'm really concerned about those who are more in need and just meeting their basic needs, just needing to pay rent and keep food on their table. Many of them lost their jobs or their work capacity has been limited, so they're challenged. I really worry about them and I really worry about anyone who might be driven to the street. Even in our community, there are families that live just a few paychecks away from being homeless and that concerns me, that worries me.
In your home life, in your personal life, away from all your mayoral duties, what have been some of the most challenging parts of the last couple of months?
Certainly it's been a challenge having my daughter get the virus and being thousands of miles away. We're very grateful that she's going to be fine, it looks like, but that was really hard, just not knowing how it's going to go. We do FaceTime check-ins and some days, she was great and other days she wasn't, but just not being able to hold her, that's been the most difficult.
Not seeing friends personally has been tough. But I've been taking time to step away from things. It's been Zoom call to Zoom call and I hardly come out of my office now, I'm working more on city and local issues than ever. It's been nonstop and into the night. So, I'm kind of worn out and I have to take time for myself and take breaks. I get out in the garden some. I'm working on some new areas of the garden and tearing out some invasives in one little area. I'd like to get our yard certified eventually in the habitat program.
I listen to music, also I've been getting out on my bicycle. Getting out on my bike has been a really good release for me, long walks too.
When you do give yourself those breaks, you mentioned the biking, gardening and walking, but have you been reading anything new, or watching any movies or TV, listening to any great music or podcasts or audiobooks?
A little of all of that. We've been watching some comedy. I watch CNN a lot and learn alot there, but when I want to get away and watch TV, I love comedy, watching a little comedy. I'm also doing a lot of sudoku, crossword puzzles. I finally finished the autobiography of Tom McCall, "Maverick," finally finished that. I've got another book I'm reading on salmon recovery.
I'm also fascinated by the virus and how viruses come and impact the body. As a geologist, I deal more with inanimate elements, and I'm fascinated learning about the biology of viruses and what they can do. It's very humbling to see and understand how connected we really all are. That's been an eye-opener for me.
So I've been doing a little bit of all those things. Have you seen "Arrested Development"?
I've never seen it but I have some friends that really like it.
It's one of those comedies. The writers of the show are great and it's crazy but I've been enjoying that. I watch "Seinfeld" when I can.
I'd also like to say, one thing I've noticed is that the air quality has been really good, much improved, because fewer people are driving and fewer activities. It's really got me thinking about the power that we have if we really put our mind to it and people put their energy toward a goal or an objective. Needing and wanting, desiring to address climate change as a global issue, we really could do a lot more if we make it a priority. Just like how COVID became a priority throughout the world, look at how quickly things can change and you can do things differently. I think this has just brought it home how powerful we really can be if we want to bring about change.
A good aspect of it too, I think we all get kind of caught up in the rat race of things, running around from place to place and doing things and this has provided an opportunity, albeit in an unfortunate, challenging way, to take pause and to reach out to our loved ones and kind of focus on the important things in life. I guess that's one positive aspect of what this has brought to our community.
I guess that is just about all from me, but I was wondering if there's been anything on your mind that you wanted to say to the people of West Linn.
I want them to know that I guess it sometimes seems like we're not all in touch on things, that we're not tracking things, (but) we're all working hard on a number of things. Some people feel for example, like before COVID, we had this policing issue to deal with and address. We're still taking it on and I want people to know that we're still working on it. We've gotten some emails saying "because of COVID, you're not doing anything," well that's not true at all. We're moving things along in many areas, with the task force and we've hired this other firm to answer some of these early questions so we can address items that we've been trying to piece together before these other investigations get completed. I feel badly that I can't go sit down with (Michael) Fesser and meet with him. I should talk with him more. I just haven't as much as I want to. This case that came up about Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia sickens me. The thought that this kind of stuff is still happening in America is a tragedy. People should know that we're out there working on things all the time, and to hang in there, be resourceful, care for your neighbors, be friendly, be kind. This concept about "we're all in this together," some people kind of make fun of it, but there's a lot of truth to it and one of the strategies that I've been sharing while talking with regional leaders as we develop strategies and approaches moving forward is it really does make so much sense when we tackle our problems together and have uniformity in the things we do.
Thanks a lot, Russ. I appreciate you making the time to share everything.
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