City News

Since the city’s founding, mayors have dutifully reported on Salem’s needs

In his annual report, Salem Mayor William Ramsey cautioned city leaders against scoundrels who would take advantage of the government.

“Every bill should be closely scrutinized before it is allowed,” Ramsey reported. “Persons having claims against the city are prone to make them as large as they reasonably can.”

His warning was more than a century ago, and represents the first known publication of a mayor’s annual assessment of Salem city matters.

The tradition, in a revised form, played out this week as Mayor Chris Hoy delivered his State of the City address. He appeared at a luncheon hosted by the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce. Hoy reflected on the city’s past projects, those in the works and challenges ahead.

He left a crowd of more than 200 with some sense of optimism.

Kimberli Fitzgerald, the city’s historic preservation officer, dug into the record of these reports at the request of Salem Reporter.

The city, incorporated in 1857, had a city charter mandating a yearly report from the mayor.

The address to the Salem City Council was to “state to the council the condition, financial and otherwise, of the city, and recommend such measures for the peace, health, improvement and prosperity of the city as he may deem expedient.”

William Ramsey was Salem mayor in 1887, when he shared in his annual report concerns over billings to the city. (Willamette Heritage Center 2011.030.0214)

Ramsey was Salem’s 20th mayor, according to research compiled by the Willamette Heritage Center. He was the first dean of the Willamette University College of Law and served as Salem mayor from 1887 to 1888. He later went on to serve on the Oregon Supreme Court.

But in 1887, money was on his mind, according to the text of his statement published in then-weekly Oregon Statesman.

He addressed the “gentlemen of the common council,” noting his duty for the report.

“I will, in part, perform that duty, having the right, under law, to make, from time to time, such further recommendations as I may deem proper.”

He reported on construction of a bridge over the Willamette River, costing $52,596.49, a cost shared by Marion and Polk counties. The city, though, paid the larger share.

“This seems to be considerably in excess of the amount the city was expected to pay,” Ramsey reported at the time. He noted part of the cost was refunding a donation for the bridge of $1,142.64 – a refund he said the city was under no duty to issue and should not have.

Ramsey noted that 113 people were fined in court.

“The average amount collected in each case is $2.00 as nearly as I can calculate,” he reported. “It seems to me that this is making a farce of the law. One hundred persons convicted of violating the law and they are fined in the aggregate only $250! This is the strongest case of judicial moderation with which I am acquainted.”

Fitzgerald said that in 1946, the city changed its charter, establishing a city manager form of government. The mayor that year, Robert Elfstrom, didn’t provide an annual address to the council, but two years later he did speak before the Salem Chamber of Commerce.

“I couldn’t find any consistent evidence in these interim years of a Salem mayor providing any kind of formal city address until Vern Miller in 1967,” Fitzgerald said.

Miller, a Salem surgeon, delivered what may have been the first report considered a “State of the City address.” He delivered his before a Salem Chamber audience, also with money on his mind.

As reported by the Statesman on Jan. 24, 1967, Miller said that “too much frugality” was impeding progress in Salem. He urged more city spending.

He called out the need to replace “antique public buildings” with a new city hall and library.

Five years later, he helped conduct a golden shovel event to break ground for that new city hall and library. It’s now known as the Vern Miller Civic Center.

Since Miller, Salem has had 11 mayors.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email: [email protected].

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Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.