By Dick Hughes
Marion County's newest commissioner has plunged into his job with gusto.
The three members of the Board of Commissioners serve approximately 340,000 residents in Marion County, and Colm Willis was quickly immersed in that decision-making after taking office on Jan. 7.
"I just love this place, and so my passion for this job is to serve the people of Marion County and to make the best decisions I can for this community," he said in a recent interview. "As much as there is a learning curve, I have to get it right, right away."
He said he has learned a lot through getting to know the different county employees and understanding their jobs on a personal basis.
Willis, whose first name is pronounced "Col-um," was elected in November to succeed longtime Commissioner Janet Carlson, who retired. He joins Sam Brentano, a commissioner since 2003, and Kevin Cameron, who was re-elected in November and has been a commissioner since 2014.
County commissioners have broad roles. They work with other elected county officials, including the assessor, sheriff, district attorney, clerk, treasurer and justice of the peace; serve on dozens of local-government and regional boards; and oversee county departments dealing with roads and bridges, land-use planning, health and human services, juvenile services, parks and other programs.
Willis, 32, is a graduate of Boston College and has a law degree from Willamette University. He and his wife, Joan, live in a 100-year-old house in Stayton with their four young daughters.
Housing is an important issue for him, and he wants to increase its availability and affordability throughout the county.
"I know what it's like to have student loans and try to buy a house and to feel that pressure with housing prices going up and up and up. So I'm really interested in working on that," he said.
"I want young people to be able to afford to buy a home. I think home ownership is something that's been profoundly important to the people of Marion County and to the people of this country. And I'm concerned that's becoming harder and harder for people to achieve."
He does not have a particular strategy in mind.
"I think we need to look at all of our options," he said. "Obviously, we live in the heart of agriculture here in Marion County and it's one of our major economic drivers, so I'm not interested in taking good farmland and turning it into urban land. But we have land within the urban growth boundaries that I think we need to look hard at and see if there's a way we can expand the number of houses that exist on that land."
When not working, he enjoys soccer, playing Irish music with his brother – Willis plays the wooden flute and the bodhran, an Irish drum – and spending time with his family. Reading to his daughters is a nightly ritual.
As busy as he is, Willis wants county residents to know he makes time for them.
"I want people to please come and tell me their concerns. I want people to know that they can call me, email me, come visit me in the office. I very much prioritize hearing from constituents. As busy as my calendar is, my most important meetings are meetings with constituents."