By Paul Daquilante • Staff Writer • 

Four candidates chasing three seats in Willamina

WILLAMINA — Four candidates, including two incumbents, are seeking three Willamina City Council seats in the Nov. 8 general election.

Incumbents Rita Baller and Bob Burr are facing challenges by Craig Johnson Sr. and Barbara Leavens for four-year terms. The top three vote-getters will be seated.

Councilor Katie Vinson’s term also expires this year, along with that of Mayor Ila Skyberg. However, Vinson is not seeking re-election and Skyberg is unopposed.

The terms of Theresa McKnight and Heather Stritzke don’t expire until 2018.

The council also has a vacant seat not on this year’s ballot, because of Alan Bramall’s recent resignation. The remainder of his term will be filled by appointment.

The Yamhill County Clerk’s Office plans to mail ballots Thursday. Voters must return them by 8 o’clock election night.


Baller has lived in Willamina for more than 40 years. She has been a fixture in city government since the mid-’90s, alternating between the mayorship and council posts.

When the late Francis Eddy resigned in 2004, Baller was drawn from council ranks to replace him. She was elected to a full term in November 2004.

She survived a recall election in June 2006, but failed to win re-election in November. She subsequently rejoined the council.

“I’ve never been bored,” Baller said. “There’s always something happening in the city.

“When you see a city moving forward, it’s exciting to be a part of that. When it’s no longer interesting, that would be the time I would say, ‘No thank you.’”

Baller acknowledges the last five years have been challenging, and the future promises more of the same. “I see growth coming, and we need to get on top of that,” she said.

“Our streets are in terrible shape,” Baller said. But she added, “We don’t have the money.

“It’s not a matter of the city not wanting to do something. We don’t even have the money to fix potholes.”

She said the city must continue to explore ways to secure low-interest loans to maintain its infrastructure.

Willamina has been collaborating with the West Valley Fire District on an emergency plan, and it’s important that effort continues, she said.


Burr was appointed to the council earlier this year after Gary Hill resigned. He has retired from active service as a pharmacist, but retained his license.

He moved to Willamina 42 years ago to buy the local drug store. He later operated a drug store in neighboring Sheridan as well, and he and his wife, Rita, still own the buildings housing the two businesses.

Approached by Skyberg, Burr said he was hesitant to pursue the position initially, in part because he and his wife travel quite a bit. He wanted to be certain he could dedicate enough time to be effective.

But he said, “I felt the city was on the right track.”

And he said, “I wanted to be supportive of the mayor. She’s such a hard worker, and is doing a fabulous job.”

Burr said one of the reasons he wants to continue is his pro-business background, which makes him an effective recruiter and facilitator for new business the city badly needs. “I want to make sure the city helps people through the process of getting permits and so on, rather than hindering them,” he said.

He sees positive things happening. He said city finances finally seem to be back in order, the addition of a full-time manager has strengthened the staff and he likes the council makeup.

In addition, he said, “With our code enforcement officer, there’s been an effort to clean up our community and get rid of the squatters, garbage in yards and vehicles that don’t run.”


Johnson, a retiree who has lived in Willamina five years, is a member of the budget and public works committees and a regular at council meetings.

“I’m so faithful about going to council meetings, I thought if I’m going to be at all the meetings, I should run for city council,” he said. “When the opportunity came up, I decided to run.”

Johnson lived in the Independence/Monmouth area before making the move north. He said he was on his way to the coast one day when he stopped in Willamina, checked on a house and decided to make the community his new home.

“I want to serve the citizens of Willamina and give them an opportunity to be more accepted,” he said. “People want to be heard more. I want people to feel welcome.”

Like Burr, Johnson believes greater importance must be placed on attracting new business. He wants potential business owners to feel welcome in the city.

Rising sewer and water rates have upset community members in recent months. Johnson said he would like to see a senior citizen discount implemented.

He said the needs of seniors and teens must be more seriously addressed, and the Tina Miller Teen Center deserves greater use. “Kids who are homeschooled or who are on self-study programs, when they’re finished, they’re on our streets,” he said.


Leavens has lived in the West Valley for a number of years, first in Grand Ronde, then in Willamina. She serves as a caregiver for two local residents.

“Willamina reminds me of the town I grew up in,” she said, citing Goleta, California. “My dad was a community leader in Goleta. It comes easy for me to work with the citizens.”

Leavens lived with her mother and husband on acreage in Grand Ronde. However, after her mother died in 2011, followed by her husband in 2013, it was just too much for her to handle.

“My goal is for all of us to work together and take pride in where we live,” she said. “The city has so much potential. It could be a great little city, but it just feels out of whack at times.”

She shares the concern with rising sewer and water rates, saying her own water bill has tripled.

Code enforcement and youth homelessness are other problem areas. “For our kids to be out there by themselves is not right,” she said.