18-year-old mayor Ben Simons of Yoncalla prepares to govern
ROSEBURG, Ore. (AP) — Sure, it’s been a busy fall for Yoncalla’s 18-year-old mayor-elect, Ben Simons.
But the Umpqua Community College student, current city councilor and volunteer firefighter said he hasn’t been overwhelmed by the wave of national and state media attention since the election.
News of Simons’ win sparked a wave of stories and interviews from Roseburg to the United Kingdom.
The hype of being elected the youngest mayor in Yoncalla’s history has died down, and school has paused for the holidays, Simons said, which has allowed him to think more about how he will lead his town.
His mission is to increase town pride and bring people together, he told the News-Review. He has ideas to increase transparency within city hall and build trust between the public and local government. He said a key component of that goal is to get residents more involved in the decision-making process.
Simons won by 25 votes over two other candidates. Three-hundred and seven people voted in the town of one thousand people. But residents are confident in Simons.
“He’ll be a good mayor,” said Tammy Eveland, manager of the Yoncalla Deli, as Simons paid for his chicken sandwich, fries and coke a few hours before a city council meeting.
Simons is a regular at the deli, according to Eveland.
“It depends on how busy I am up the street at city hall,” Simons said of his lunch attendance.
Simons is putting Yoncalla back on the map with all the media coverage he has received, Eveland said.
Earlier in the day, Simons participated in a training as a volunteer for North Douglas Fire and EMS in Drain. The department now has two mayor-elects; first responder Justin Cobb was elected mayor of Drain.
“A lot of people give (Simons) a hard time over his age,” Cobb said.
“But that kid has a really good sense of city issues. He has that natural charisma about him. I think he’s going to be good for the City of Yoncalla.”
Cobb said he looks forward to collaborating with Simons on issues facing the two towns, which are 5 miles apart.
Despite his age, Simons has public service experience.
When he was in eighth grade he started attending school board meetings with his mother, a high school math teacher. An audit of the Yoncalla High School building, which was built in 1949, revealed it was in urgent need of structural improvements.
The city didn’t have the money to make the improvements. Two bond measures failed to pass. As a sophomore in high school, Simons sat on a planning committee to figure out what improvements to prioritize if the school district did find funds.
“That was the start of my participation in government,” Simons said. “Sometimes there was a lot of discontent with each other over what should be prioritized.”
The district received a seismic improvements grant from the state, which helped support other improvements to the building.
The experience sparked his interest in public service. He said it taught him an important lesson about working with tight budgets: Prioritizing can be everything.
As a junior in high school, Simons ran for school president and won. He also won his senior year. “Usually only seniors are elected school president,” he said.
“My leadership teacher was very adamant about policy and procedure,” Simons said. “We tried our best to make that a real working government even though it’s just at the high school.”
He and the student council followed a constitution and listened to the concerns of his peer-constituents.
“I tried my best to always be accountable to everyone, and I hope that’s something I can carry over into the city,” Simons said.
The default attitude toward local government of some residents has been distrust, he said. After the two school bonds didn’t pass, Simons said people told him they voted no because they weren’t sure the district would spend the money responsibly.
He thinks the best remedy for that skepticism is a commitment to transparency. This summer he was appointed to fill the vacancy of a city councilor who stepped down. He already has some ideas about how to increase city hall’s transparency.
Simons wants to update the city’s website, which he said is half-completed, and make it serve as a hub for all government action. “I’d really like to see advertisements of our meetings going up to more places in town than just the post office and city hall,” Simons said. He hopes he can get them put up at local businesses or noted on people’s water bills.
Residents rarely show up to city council meetings. He said, however, people have been telling him about city issues such as crumbling roadways more frequently since he was elected. He listens, but encourages them to voice their concerns at city council meetings too.
Although Simons’ public service resume continues to grow, he doesn’t foresee a career in politics. After graduating from UCC with an associate degree, he plans to study business administration at the University of Oregon.
He hopes he can show other young people that they too can be elected to public office and be effective leaders. He has been contacted by people his age across the country who either ran for elected office or want to.
“I’ve been really trying my best to do this the best way possible so that this is opened up for people in the future to take my case as precedent,” Simons said. “Who knows where it goes from there.”
Information from: The News-Review, http://www.nrtoday.com