Lewis reluctantly leaves office
After 12 years working at Fifth and Evans in McMinnville, Lewis is packing up her Fenton House office and moving on. For the second time in her public life, she is facing something she always fervently supported — term limits.
While turning a space heater on and off to regulate her office upstairs in the 1909 colonial, she spent some time reflecting on her three terms as county commissioner, which immediately followed the same number in the Oregon House of Representatives. Surrounded by tokens of various groundbreakings and achievements, Lewis collected her thoughts at a desk featuring an array of files, a calculator and a pair of cell phones.
What will Lewis miss most about her service in the office?
The people, she said. And not just those she worked with on the county staff, but also the many citizens she dealt with on issues of interest to them.
“I’m sad because I’m going to miss everybody,” she said. “I know I’ll still see them in the county, but I will miss the day-to-day association.”
Lewis said she cherished the camaraderie. If it weren’t for term limits, she wouldn’t be leaving, she confided.
When she was term-limited out of the Oregon House, she considered seeking a seat in the Senate. But her district was represented by Gary George, a friend, fellow Republican and longtime political ally.
There has been muchspeculation about her pursuing a return to the House, but she said that same philosophy continues to guide her.
“I never say never,” she said. “But I’d only consider it if the seat were open. I would absolutely not run against Rep. (Jim) Weidner.
“He represents my views in the Legislature. I’m a loyalist; I’m not going to run against someone from my home party.”
Weidner said the warm feelings are mutual. “She’s been a tremendous help on county issues,” he said.
He acknowledged her penchant for ruffling feathers, but said that comes with the turf. If you work in politics, and you stand up for what you believe in, you accumulate enemies along the way, he said.
“She stood up for the taxpayers of Yamhill County,” Weidner said.
For the immediate future, at least, Lewis plans to turn her attention inward, to her family.
She and her husband plan to have their rural Carlton-area residence renovated. During the process, they plan to spend a few months at a rental they own at Gleneden Beach.
Afterward, they will rent it out again, return to Yamhill County and put their focus on the family business, Uptime Technology. However, she hopes the commissioners will let her return to county service in some capacity, perhaps naming her to the Parkway Committee in recognition of her deep and abiding championship of the Newberg-Dundee Bypass.
“I’m not going to drop out of the county altogether,” she said.
That would be fine with Commissioner Kathy George, who will be term-limited out herself two years hence.
“It’s been a real pleasure working with Leslie,” George said. “I appreciate the work she’s done for the citizens of this county, both as a state representative and as a county commissioner.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for her, and I’m going to miss her insights and perspective on issues that come before the board. Leslie has strong personal values and she never compromised those values.”
George said, “She’s never promised the voters one thing and done something else. She’s always been true to what she promised the voters.”
No such sentiments passed the lips of Commissioner Mary Stern, who often clashed with Lewis both personally and politically, and found herself repeatedly outvoted by the Republican coalition of George and Lewis.
Asked for her thoughts, Stern fell back on the old adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anthing at all.
“I’ll let Commissioner Lewis’ record, both good and bad, speak for itself,” she said. “And I’ll keep my personal thoughts private.”
The county workforce was probably as divided in its feelings as the board of commissioners and the county’s political constituency.
No county supervisor felt Lewis’ wrath more than Murray Paolo, the county’s information systems manager. He ended up becoming the target of a series of seven county, state and federal investigations, racked up legal fees along the way even though he was repeatedly exonerated of wronddoing.
Paolo eventually settles with the county for $47,000 in compensation and $46,000 in legal fees. But like Stern, he declined to comment on Lewis’ exodus from county office.
Both Paolo and Stern, however, left a legacy of sharp words on the record from earlier exchanges.
Stern, who rose to Paolo’s defense, termed Lewis personally responsible for investigations that turned out to be a “big waste of taxpayer money.” She even made a motion, failing for lack of a second, that Lewis be held personally responsible for reimbursement of Paolo’s legal fees.
She said Lewis had a history of “repeatedly abusing her power.”
Reflecting exactly the opposite view, Public Works Director John Phelan said he appreciated having Lewis at the helm.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of professional people, and I think Leslie Lewis is one of the most professional and inspirational leaders I have ever seen,” he said. “She’s driven, she expects professionalism out of the departments and she’s very budget-minded.
“I’ve worked for large companies with CEOs and I’ve worked for mom and pop companies, and out of all the places I’ve worked, Leslie is one of the very best as far as being able to run a business and get the taxpayers as much for their dollar as she can.”
Fiscal caution was a theme Lewis and her supporters sounded throughout her tenure.
“We were on the prudent, conservative side of things,” she said. “It’s better to be surprised on the upside instead of the downside.
“I think our county is in better financial shape than others. That’s something I’m really proud of.”
But that doesn’t wash with local businessman Waldo Farnham, a vocal critic of Lewis’ stewardship.
He said Lewis made a lot of bad decisions as a commissioner. He said they cost taxpayers needlessly, and it wasn’t a small chunk of change.
While most who’ve crossed swords with Lewis chose to hold their fire as she bowed out, Farnham did not. According to his calculations, he said, “More than $944,695 of county money was wasted due to Lewis’ poor decisionmaking and vindictiveness.”
He was particularly critical of what he termed Lewis’ vendetta against Paolo, who had his duties and pay cut at Lewis’ instigation. He was also critical of Lewis’ oversight of the county’s emergency radio system, saying that resulted in more wasted taxpayer money.
Perhaps the biggest single controversy arose when Lewis apparently secretly taped Stern’s endorsement interview with the Newberg chamber and the tape ended up on YouTube in a heavily edited form that badly distorted Stern’s views. At the time, Lewis was playing a key supporting role in the candidacy of Mary Starrett, who appeared losing to Stern in one of the most bitterly contested elections in modern county history.
That led the Attorney General’s Office to conduct a criminal investigation into Lewis’ conduct. Though it did not lead to charges, it did lead to calls for Lewis’s resignation or recall, and to courthouse picketing to that end.
When asked if she harbored regrets over anything she had done during her 12 years in office, Lewis teared up briefly, then said she wasn’t going to go there. “It was a positive job and I enjoyed it very much,” she said.
Lewis said she appreciated the people she worked with at the county, and admitted having a particularly soft spot in her heart for Phelan’s public works road crew.
“I appreciate what they do,” she said. “They’re out there in the snow and ice, and on really, really hot days.”
She recalled being scheduled to rendezvous with a road crew on a day when the temperature rose to a scorching 108. She said someone suggested it was too hot to go, but said, “They were out there, so of course I was going to go.”
Lewis is perhaps best known for her unwavering support of the Newberg-Dundee Bypass, a project she championed long before moving from the Oregon Legislature to the Yamhill County Courthouse. And that has earned her the undying gratitude of local attorney Dave Haugeberg, affectionately known as the “grandfather of the bypass.”
Haugeberg said the first conversation he ever had with Lewis was about the bypass. He said it meant a lot to her when she was finally able to participate in a ceremonial groundbreaking for the project in August.
Lewis described working on the bypass as an incredible journey — one that would never have been possible without community supporters like Haugeberg. In fact, it had a lot to do with her decision to seek county office after being term-limited from the Legislature in 2000, she said.
Haugeberg said he and Lewis have been working together on the project ever since.
“She is tenacious,” he said. “Commissioner Lewis doesn’t give up.
“Neither do I, so it’s been a great team.”
He said, “I don’t know how many times ODOT told us it wasn’t going to build this, that it wasn’t going to happen. We weren’t going to take no for an answer.”
Lewis returned the compliment: “Dave Haugeberg is Superman when it comes to this project. All the members of the Parkway Committee have been instrumental to our success.”
As he was talking about Lewis, Haugeberg looked out his office window and saw four buses lined up at the main depot. That reminded him, he said, that the bypass is only one of many transportation improvements boosted by Lewis.
“Her fingerprints are all over transit,” he said. “She’s clearly made a difference there.”
Lewis is also known for her championship of the county fair, which was badly down on its heels when she took office, but has been largely righted during her tenure.
During her first year as a commissioner, there was discussion about simply shutting the fair down and walking away. She said she asked for a chance to help turn it around, and was given the opportunity.
“It mattered to me,” she said. “I was a 4-H kid.”
She said she knew how to run a business, calling that “my forte.” She said she promised her fellow commissioners, Rob Johnstone and Tom Bunn, that she would turn it around.
“That first year, we operated in the black,” Lewis said. “We still had debt, but in three years, we paid off all $48,000.”
The fair has been gaining success ever since. In 2001, admission proceeds were around $37,000, she said. This year, the fair brought in $114,000 in admissions.
“We’ve come a long, long way,” Lewis said. “We have a great fair manager now in Al Westhoff, and excellent staff.”
As Lewis packs up her office, she has something new to take with her: a framed picture of a Fender’s blue butterfly, a gift from the public works department. The photograph was taken on an early morning this summer as Lewis went with a team to check on the butterfly’s progress.
She said she remembered Phelan snapping the picture on his iPhone, and was happily surprised to receive a print as a gift.
Even butterflies can trigger critics, though.
In 2010, Lewis teamed with George to reject a $391,000 federal grant that would have covered the cost of developing a comprehensive plan to protect the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly and its host plant, Kincaid’s lupine. That triggered the filing of a lawsuit by a national conservation group.
The issue was eventually resolved through a county commitment to create a habitat conservation plan. And Lewis said she spent countless hours working on it herself.
As she sorted through a dozen years of paperwork, her thoughts turned to successor Allen Springer, a custom homebuilder who once served on the McMinnville City Council. He will be sworn in at 8 a.m. Monday, Jan. 7, in Courtroom 1 at the county courthouse.
Asked if she had any advice for him, she said: “He should be himself. Voters expect him to be true to his beliefs.
“In the darkness of night, you have to know you are being true to who you are. Don’t violate your principles.”
She said, “The voters voted for you because they believe in what you stood for. Listen to that little voice inside. Carry what the people want in your heart and mind.
“I think he will, in fact, that’s one of the reasons I voted for him.”