By RANDOM PENDRAGON
It is Saturday, January 20, the night of the First Citizen and Awards Banquet. Matt Lawyer is in attendance, expecting only to support fellow members of the community and help set it all up. He had no idea that he himself would be honored that night. Even as outgoing Chamber president Nate Bauer began describing the contributions of the recipient of the President’s award, Matt had his mind on others.
“I was actually getting really excited because they started to tell the story about the person who was doing these things, and instantly I thought about Mark Caillier, who’s been a longtime man of Keizer,” Matt said. “Then they started talking about parks stuff, so I instantly thought about Clint Holland and Dylan Juran who were both in the room.”
It wasn’t until the last second, when they actually called his name that he believed it. “When Nate said my name, I kind of thought at first he was picking on me and then it clicked like, ‘Oh man, this is real.’”
He found the experience hard to describe.
“The only other time I felt the way I’d felt was when I found out my wife was pregnant with our first kid … If you would have told me that morning that I was going to walk in there and get anything other than the opportunity to help clean up I would have said you were full of it.”
For Matt, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where his dedication comes from, stating that he’s “always just kind of liked helping out.” But his first taste of real volunteerism came during the Willamette Valley Flood of 1996 when he was in high school. “We helped a lot of people evacuate,” Matt, who’s now 35, explained. “Then, I spent the entire evacuation at Whiteaker Middle School, helping people who were sheltered there.”
Matt helped distribute meals and fresh blankets and lightened the mood for kids sheltered in the school.
“It was a lot of fun getting to do that.”
After serving in the Navy for just over nine years, Matt returned to Keizer.
He began working with the Claggett Creek Watershed Council where he forged much of the philosophy that would lead him through his community work. He recounts a story about doing an invertebrates study of Labish Ditch and the excitement of seeing fish return to the lake, “When I was in high school you didn’t see as many… The health of the creek was poor, but people have started to take better notice locally.”
To him, this was emblematic of some of the values he learned while in the Navy. “Being part of the military helped me understand just how it important is to take care of the people around you,” he said. “They always taught us to be aware of our footprint.”
His work with the Watershed Council highlights his views on personal and community responsibility.
“I think if we begin to start taking care of what’s in our own backyard and start to share the importance of understanding the cumulative adverse effects that can happen just out of your own home,” Matt explains. “If we can start to make meaningful efforts locally, maybe as it gets out to the wider world they might look at Keizer as the model city for what cities could be.”
“Pride, spirit, and volunteerism is not an accident,” he added. “We take a lot of pride as being citizens of Keizer, it takes a tremendous amount of spirit to the kind of work nobody wants to do.”
“It just makes sense to care for where you live.”
Matt then began to get involved with the Keizer Parks Advisory Board where he quickly got involved in discussions about funding. To study for his first meeting, Matt went back and watched the previous two years of meetings. He says that the parks meetings had become pretty routine. An idea would be presented, but funding wasn’t there to back it and solutions were few.
“We had a gentlemen [during my first meeting] stick his finger in our chest and say, ‘this is what’s broken in our parks,’” Matt said. “What I drew out of that was: Keizer has a lot of parks, they’ve been maintained by volunteers, but there’s never been the infrastructure or the dollars to support the need.”
Later, Mayor Cathy Clark challenged the board to begin tackling questions about funding. “Over the course of the next couple weeks, I started asking questions,” he said. “I was driving the public works staff crazy ‘cause I was trying to really understand what’s going on.”
The board came to a crossroads and was presented with the choice of a few options. The first, create a separate taxable Parks District, which Matt says “would cost a tremendous amount of money.”
The second, bonds and levies could be issued, but that solution was too short-term; the funding provided by them can do great work, but once they’ve dried up you’re back where you started. The third option was to establish a parks fee, which is the route they ended up taking. Or, they could simply do nothing and begin shutting parks down.
The parks fee, then, became a massive undertaking for Matt. After countless meetings and handing out surveys with his 12-year-old daughter Baylee, it finally came down to the vote in July of 2017.
Matt says the initial public response to the survey results was at first very negative.
“I was getting absolutely blasted on social media,” he said. “It was terrifying, I was so scared to jump in that arena.”
But that fear quickly turned into a realization about how important the discussion taking place was. He began responding to comments and engaging directly with the public on the details of the plan.
“Everybody’s opinion matters even if they don’t share the same view as I do.”
It became a learning experience.
“There’s substance and objective in the emotion that are important that need to be pulled out and used in objective factual responses,” he explained. “I went from being terrified to being able to say ‘look, these are the facts as I know them.’”
This is how all public policy should be decided, according to Matt: by listening to the people with an open mind and finding the facts. Only through rigorous and productive discussion and diligent work can honest policy be made.
“You could be as effective or non-effective as you want to be in Keizer,” Matt said. “But it’s so much more fun to be effective.”
Matt cites his family as the reason he’s able to put so much work in. “It’s only because of their support that I’m able to do what I do.”
He is excited to see his son Zach, 6, and daughter Baylee, 12, begin to get involved as they grow older. His wife, Jessica, has been a huge source of support: “My wife has the biggest heart in the world.”
Matt is working on wrapping up the second Keizer Rotary Arboretum Project and recently joined the Keizer Planning Commission.
“The planning commission is going into some heavy discussions about the future of Keizer,” he said.
Now that the parks will have steadier funding, much of his and other parks board members’ time can be spent making sure parks are kept up and continue to serve their communities.
“Keizer is one of those places where I think we do a really good job of taking care of each other as neighbors and do a really good job of trying to make Keizer a great place to be,” he said.