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Mon November 25, 2013
Meet the Homegrown Politicians Who Run a Tiny Northwest Town
Every morning, Jim Larson takes a walk around town. Down to the railroad tracks. Up the hill behind City Hall. There's hardly a sound.
The silence is not unusual for a weekday morning in Larson’s small town of Prescott, Oregon. There’s not even a morning rush hour.
“No, because there isn't that many people even that work anymore, either,” Larson said. “Everybody up this hill that I live on, from my house up. Nobody works here; they're all retired."
The Big Challenges of Leading a Small Town
The Census Bureau shows that just four people have jobs in this town nestled on the banks of the Columbia River, about 40 miles north of Portland. The next stop on our tour is a shed that houses the city's water pump. Anyone can get in if they know how, and Larson knows how.
"I'll just get the key out of here,” he said.
Larson's no busybody. He's on the Prescott City Council. And one of his duties is to keep an eye on the town's water pipes.
If this system broke down here, nobody would come and bail out the town.
"No, that's why I started taking care of the water,” Larson said. “We had a guy that was doing it, he waited 'til you turned the faucet on and there was no water. And then you'd go see what was wrong. No, you got to look at it every day. And then you'd catch it before it goes wrong, or before it gets to that point, anyway."
Even when it flows, water is Prescott's biggest ongoing challenge. The city is having a tough time meeting state standards for water purity. Mayor Lynette Oswald says it doesn't help that not everyone can pay the water bill. And that leads to some awkward conversations in a town where everybody knows everybody else.
"The people, you know, they feel bad. And they give you their hardships. But we also have had people that have threatened our families and not dealt with it in a professional manner. So there's a good and bad to both sides of that, when you do know people and they do know where you live,” Oswald said.
Another source of tension: The city council asked voters to pass a property tax levy last fall to help pay for an upgraded water system. It passed, 22-to-14. But now that those increased bills are coming due, people are grumbling.
Those kinds of challenges aren't unusual for leaders in very small towns like Prescott, says Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Kentucky.
“People feel isolated,” Davis said. “They feel like they're in it alone, that their situation is different from other communities when in reality, there are a lot of small towns who are facing some of the same travails.”
Davis says small-town elected officials have to quickly learn how to do everything, from balancing the books to filling the potholes. And he says that can wear down even the most dedicated public servant.
"One of the issues for a lot of towns is oftentimes the effort it takes to just keep going,” Davis said.
Only So Many Players
There are nine people in the room for the monthly Prescott City Council meeting. That's nearly one-fifth of the town's adults. On the wall is a poster of the Oregon Legislature. There are more people serving in the Oregon House than live in the entire city of Prescott. And most of the lawmakers on that poster will face a tougher re-election campaign than council member Jim Larson.
"I've been elected ten times and never been opposed by anybody,” Larson said.
In fact, neither the mayor nor anybody else on the current council faced an opponent the last time they ran, and that's the way it usually is here. Once you agree to serve, you just can't stop. Larson knows that. He's the guy who literally built this city—the City Hall, that is.
"It started out as a community project. One time they came up here and laid the floor on a weekend. And then everybody else kind of disappeared, and I kept coming over here and working on it,” Larson said.
That was back in 1970. Larson’s been doing upkeep on the building ever since, longer than he ever expected. Being mayor isn’t something Lynette Oswald expected to do at all when she moved here seven years ago.
"No. Oh, no. Everyone kept asking me. Myself or my husband. And my husband said, ‘Oh I'm not doing it. If you want to do it, I'll support you.’ So I did it, and this is my third year,” Oswald said.
Oswald is the mother of the only preschooler in town, but she says she and her husband are in Prescott for the long haul. But with just two dozen households and a median income well below the state average, why even keep the town going at all? Why not disincorporate? Larson says Prescott isn't ready to give up.
"The county would take over everything we got. Our assets, the county would absorb them. That would be the downfall right there. They wouldn't care a hoot about Prescott,” Larson said.
Larson is 75. He doesn't know how much longer he'll be able to serve on the city council or keep an eye on the town's water pump. But he figures as long as people in Prescott want to control their destiny, somebody will step up.