Mayor’s farewell: Aziz reflects on decade of leadership

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

After five consecutive two-year terms as Lebanon’s mayor, Paul Aziz has left his mark.
Whether by providing more transparency or adding social and visual warmth through Strawberry Plaza and Porter Park, his legacy will benefit residents into the future.
Prior to his longtime stint as leader, Aziz served on the city’s Planning Commission and Parks and Trees Committee. He first ran for the mayor’s office in 2012 in part due to what he saw as city discontentment.
“It was kind of a tumultuous time,” he recalled. “When you went to a city council meeting, you would see fighting and threats of lawsuits between councilors. The fighting was unbelievable. I was shocked at how people played. It was just way out of order. Everybody had these personal agendas.”

City staff surround Aziz as he cuts the ribbon for the welcome monument on the north end of the city.

Aziz was also concerned about complaints coming from Lebanon police officers about internal staff problems, and he saw then-mayor Ken Toombs dismissing the downtown corridor as a viable option for economic improvements. Aziz felt that other social-centered aspects, such as parks, were also being ignored. But he loved some of the developments taking place under Toombs’ leadership, including the incoming College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific Northwest.
“I enjoyed the town growing and the college coming in,” he said. “I thought these things were great.”
However, he did have a problem with the city’s lack of transparency. He tackled that issue on his first day in office, setting up a camera at a city council meeting, whose session was then broadcast on YouTube.
“I felt that the council and the staff were very secretive,” he said. “They would give out a staff report to all the councilors, but it wasn’t given to the public. If you asked for it, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s a private-read file’ or something like that. It was weird. I did not like it; it was wrong. They did have a good website but no social media at the time. So communications and being open with the public — those were all the things that I saw that made me want to run.”

Aziz participates in one of many ground-breaking ceremonies during his mayorship. Here, he breaks ground on the Gillott Dog Park.

Social media, an improved City website, live council-meeting streams and online accessibility to agenda packets can all be attributed to Aziz.
Councilors Jason Bolen, Barry Scott and Rebecca Grizzle were sworn in alongside Aziz on Jan. 9, 2013, forming a nearly new council and – according to both Aziz and Grizzle – ultimately redirecting its culture.
“We got along really well,” Aziz said. “It was very cordial. If something was contentious, we would talk about it, kind of hash it all out at the table, and when we were done, pat each other on the back and go talk on the way out the door.”
Grizzle, who now serves as executive director at the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, said Lebanon was lucky to have Aziz as mayor.
“We didn’t always agree,” she said, “but he always led with strength and integrity.”
Aziz then won four more terms in office to finish out 10 years. During that time, he played a key role in the development of Strawberry Plaza and Porter Park, the reestablishment of Lebanon’s motto as “The City That Friendliness Built” and the formation of a museum board.
“As mayor, you get to kind of direct the direction and the feel of the city,” he said. “Those are things that I kind of did and I directed, but it was totally a team effort because I could not have done it without the staff.”

PAUL AZIZ cuts a ribbon during the grand opening of the new Strawberry Plaza in 2014. The park was one of Aziz’s earliest ideas as mayor, and his favorite project.

His favorite project was the redevelopment of what became known as Strawberry Plaza, which today serves as a popular spot for community activities. He’d been eyeing the location, formerly known as Mural Park, since early in his first term. He spoke with then-Community Development Director Walt Wendolowski about transforming the lot into a more welcoming area.
What they thought would be great, he recalled, was to have a brewery in the building next door with seating in the park. What he couldn’t have known at the time was that his vision would ultimately play out in serendipitous fashion as key players took the stage.
Shortly after Aziz took office, Scott Bruslind approached him about opening Conversion Brewing next to the park. At roughly the same time, Gary Marks came on as city manager and oversaw the park’s transformation. Finally, metalworker Chris Kopp (who had moved to the city from Colorado for a brief period of time) built the strawberry fountain as the park’s centerpiece.
“It was really cool; it was a community project, and it just came together,” Aziz said. “I think that one thing has led to what’s going on downtown now.”

FORMER MURAL PARK, sitting between Conversion Brewing and Hollywood Studios, receives the beginning of a facelift as city workers tear down the landscape.

He was referring to increased businesses and foot traffic downtown, along with the formation of the Lebanon Downtown Association to promote the area’s economic vitality.
As the city’s mayor, Aziz broke ground on and welcomed several new enterprises, including the Edward C. Allworth Veterans’ Home, Linn-Benton Community College Healthcare Occupation Center, Gillott Dog Park at Bob Smith Park, Samaritan Treatment and Recovery Services, Applegate Landing and Crossroads Community, the new city water treatment plant, Western University’s College of Health Sciences, new trails and bridges through Build Lebanon Trail, and the iconic Santa Maria Valley 205 historic steam locomotive.
He also played a part in the development of the Lebanon 2040 Vision, the Downtown Building Restoration Microgrant Program, disability-access at Cheadle Lake and Christopher Columbus parks, and the installation of “Welcome to Lebanon” monuments at both ends of the city.
Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist called Aziz a pragmatic and consistent fiscally conservative leader.
“He served the community of Lebanon well, and his leading the city through the 2040 visioning work is legacy kind of stuff that will live on,” he said.

Aziz listens to a talk at the East Linn Museum during his research for a Lebanon museum. File photo

If Aziz has any regret or feelings of missed opportunity, it’s that city staff are still working inside a city hall housed in what’s been deemed a dangerous structure at 925 Main St. He said he would have liked to have been part of moving those offices into a safer location, but the right building has not yet been found.
Both Nyquist and Grizzle complimented the mayor’s leadership during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
“It took a lot of guts to lead us through COVID,” Grizzle said. “With people on all sides angry no matter what local politicians did, he handled that admirably.”
And although he leaves on the tails of perhaps the most contentious issue of his tenure, he still stands by his decision in April to not read a Pride Month proclamation for June, citing the Strawberry Festival as a big factor in the decision. He said he didn’t mind what people did in their bedrooms, but it wasn’t something he thought needed to be celebrated.
Many in the community expressed gratitude for his refusal to sign the proclamation. Others felt differently, however, as evidenced by public outcry during subsequent city council meetings.

Aziz read many speeches for big events happening in the community. Here, he speaks at the Applegate Landing groundbreaking.

After saying goodbye to the mayor’s gavel at the end of this year, Aziz will continue developing his annual Cascade Christmas Lights program and perhaps return to a former hobby: woodworking. But one thing’s definitely for certain: he plans to relax and barbecue.
“I am humbled that the community voted me in five times,” he said. “There was a lot of support, and it meant a lot to me.”