Mayor Bill Dillard and his political opponent Micah White agree on at least two things – Nehalem is a beautiful place to live with great neighbors.
By Ann Powers
After that, there’s not much they have in common – starting with how to achieve community unity for the small coastal town’s population of 266.
Dillard wants to maintain the status quo.
“I’d like to see it stay the same,” said the longtime local who was appointed to his position last May after the former mayor resigned.
White wants change.
“The current city council doesn’t actually do anything,” said the Occupy Wall Street co-creator, author and public speaker. “Nehalem represents the solution to what is facing America right now – which is the decline of democracy. This community has lots of ideas. But, what they don’t have is control over the city council.”
And that’s why he and his supporters say they are trying to motivate the city’s 187 eligible voters that casting a ballot for White in the Nov. 8 election, is giving the community a voice.
“Micah wants to take it where the people want to take it,” his wife and collaborator, Chiara Ricciardone, said during a Nehalem People’s Association (NPA) meeting at the North Coast Recreation District, Sept. 4.
White formed NPA to serve as a community town hall prior to city council meetings. He said he wants the gatherings to “feel like walking into a friend’s living room.”
“Citizens don’t have any power,” White said. “So, you have to create a forum where citizens have power.”
The recent NPA gathering kicked off with an ice-cream social, followed by three minutes of silence so “everyone feels grounded” as the approximate 30 participants sat in a circle to encourage open communication.
“I like the idea that we could live in a town that has a town-hall meeting,” said Vivi Tallman. “That would be a significant change.”
Some topics raised during the most recent NPA meeting included:
- City officials’ consideration of a parking lot paving proposal (with costs roughly estimated at $125,000 to $2015,000) from an out-of-state developer in exchange for public use;
- Dwindling affordable housing options;
- The city’s recent approval of spending a total of $2,334 on ipads for three council members to view their agenda packets;
- Various political theories on revolution and governing;
- Creating a Vision Committee to map out Nehalem’s next 100 years, and;
- Condensing the tri-city (Nehalem, Manzanita and Wheeler) governmental structure.
“We have three small communities and we have three small governments,” said one attendee who introduced the idea of possibly downsizing local government. “I think they need to come together and be one.”
White said such concerns are not unique to Nehalem. However, he added the town’s small size offers a unique position to overcome these obstacles, give people more control and serve as a model for other communities.
“The things we’re struggling with in this room right now, Americans are struggling with all over this country,” White told meeting attendees. “The solution that I’m trying to come up with is to shift power from five individuals who sit in city council and don’t take public comment until the end. It’s a unique, historical opportunity for a new vision.”
He also noted the Nehalem City Council seems to be “friends appointing friends” and lacks imagination on how to best utilize the city’s generous budget that includes $731,471 in unallocated funds.
“I’m concerned because the majority of our city council (four out of five) were not elected by voters, they were appointed to their current positions,” he explained. “And the fifth councilor was selected after an uncontested election. Fortunately, these are good people, good neighbors and friends of us all. But, that does not make them the best leaders for Nehalem.”
Dillard disagreed. He said he was okay with the “friends approach” and has no problem with reserving the unallocated money generated by timber revenue as a kind of rainy-day fund.
“When you’ve lived here long enough, everyone is a friend,” he said. “I’d like to have 10 years in reserve. We can build a city hall with no impact to the tax base because of the timber harvest. We can also upgrade the water system with no substantial impact to taxes.”
He also emphasized that Nehalem residents enjoy a relatively low tax rate at 42 cents per $1,000 square feet of accessed property value.
Moreover, Dillard pointed out that residents do have the opportunity to voice their opinions at city council meetings and sees no reason to change that structure – too much.
“Sometimes we don’t talk enough,” he said. “(The public) is allowed to speak if they plan ahead and get on the agenda – then they’re on the agenda.”
And the differences don’t stop there between the political rivals.
Dillard was raised in Nehalem, graduated from Neah-Kah-Nie High School and completed one year of community college at Chemeketa in Salem. He currently works for the phone company, has served on city council since 2003 and was a local firefighter for 14 years.
He and his wife, Nancy, have three children – two in college and one in high school.
White moved to Nehalem from Berkeley in 2012 with Ricciardone. The young couple first met at Swarthmore College where they earned their bachelors degrees in 2005, with MAs to follow. They now have a one-year-old son.
White earned his PhD from European Graduate School in Switzerland and Ricciardone is currently finishing up her doctorate, which she’ll receive from UC-Berkeley.
White said the Occupy Wall Street movement aimed to raise the social consciousness of Americans and bring attention to the disparity of wealth between the classes. While he acknowledged Occupy did not meet its ultimate goal of getting money out of politics, he said it did raise awareness to the need for a true democracy.
He brings the lessons of what he calls Occupy’s “constructive failure” to his mayoral campaign. And in his book, “The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution,” White wrote:
“Nehalem is still coming of age. Time moves more slowly here. In many ways, our town is still living in a previous era of democracy. Life here offers a second chance for reverence… It was by chance that we settled in Nehalem. Only later did I learn that in the indigenous language Nehalem means ‘the place where the people live.’”
White said if elected, he pledges to be “responsive, welcoming and positive” by holding the NPA gatherings prior to city council meetings, maintain a community newsletter, develop a Vision Committee to work on a 100-year plan for the city, and give residents power over the decisions being made by their council.
Dillard said if he is re-elected, he has no major changes in store.
“There’s nothing new on my plate right now,” he explained. “I’ll be here, I’ve been here, I’ll always be here.”
For more information about White, go to micahmwhite.com. To learn more about NPA, visit PeopleOfNehalem.org.
Mayor Dillard can be reached at 503-368-6737.