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Wheeler signs off as mayor

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Medford’s longest-serving mayor brings down the gavel for the final time Thursday night.

Mayor Gary Wheeler hands over the reins of the city to former police Chief Randy Sparacino after a four-term leadership stint that spanned almost two decades. Sparacino will be sworn in in January

To commemorate his legacy with the city, a sports field at U.S. Cellular Community Park is scheduled to be named Gary H. Wheeler Field.

During his time as mayor, Wheeler was always on hand to open a new fire station, the new police station or some other major improvement to an existing city facility.

“I don’t think I’ve missed any dedication or rededication,” he said. “I’m very proud of the 32 parks in the city, with a few still under development.”

U.S. Cellular Community Park, which has spurred tourism in Medford, was accomplished under Wheeler’s watch.

The $60 million Rogue Credit Union Community Complex at Wes Howard Memorial Park in west Medford is in the works, and will open in about two years with two indoor swimming pools.

Wheeler has served as mayor since 2004, and was on the Medford Urban Renewal Agency board of directors from 1991 to 2004. The late Jerry Lausmann previously held the record for serving the longest as mayor — for six terms, from 1986 to 1998 — but back then a term lasted only two years instead of the current four.

Wheeler was on the city’s Budget Committee from 1976-78, and has been on more than a dozen local boards and committees over the years.

Wheeler has seen his share of controversy over the years, even exercising his veto power during a contentious debate among councilors about whether Rob Patridge should be the new city manager in 2016. Eventually, the council selected Brian Sjothun, the current city manager and former director of Parks and Recreation.

The council spent years figuring out how to deal with the legalization of cannabis, triggering outrage from the public and vigorous debates among councilors.

A cost overrun for the new police station in 2015 caused a lot of heartburn for Wheeler and the council.

Wheeler also remembered the vocal turnout when the council was debating regulations for pit bulls and backyard chickens.

“People are serious about their issues,” he said.

During his time helming the council, Wheeler said the tone at meetings changed markedly, though he has been judicious about bringing down the gavel.

“The discourse over time has become a little less civil,” he said. “That’s just the times.”

Wheeler said he’s particularly proud of a process that he helped shepherd and has largely gone unnoticed but sets the course for Medford’s future.

Regional Problem Solving was a sometimes raucous collaboration among most of the county’s cities to expand their urban growth boundaries, with developers jockeying to stake out their new housing tracts. As a result of this process, the city of Medford has added about 1,000 acres over the past year that will help set the development pace for the next 20-plus years.

“RPS really put the foundation in for our urban growth boundary expansion,” Wheeler said.

Homelessness has been a thorny issue for the council and mayor to tackle during Wheeler’s time in office.

He said the local organization Rogue Retreat has stepped up to the plate offering a number of shelter options for the city to deal with homelessness.

“Rogue Retreat has been a really good partner,” he said. “They’re able to pick people up and move them into more stable housing.”

Wheeler credits the police department’s Livability Team with helping address homeless problems and other issues on the Bear Creek Greenway and the downtown. The team, authorized by the council in 2019, is made up of three police officers, one code enforcement officer and one records specialist.

At 76, Wheeler still runs Rogue Valley Optometric in Medford with his wife, Treasure.

They live nearby in a house that Wheeler’s father built a short distance from Hawthorne Park, and Wheeler often remembers going to the former swimming pool at the park when he was a boy.

Born and raised in Medford, Wheeler remembers his mother, who grew up in the Applegate, wanted to live more in the country.

Jackson County Commissioner Bob Strosser has known Wheeler for years, and Wheeler is also his eye doctor.

“His personality always has a little bit of humor, but he is always a professional,” said Strosser, a former Medford councilor. “Gary and I agreed on most things, but when we didn’t agree it was always agreeable.”

Sparacino, who takes office in January, said Wheeler has always been a genuine, pragmatic guy who says what’s on his mind.

“What you see is what you get with Mayor Wheeler,” he said.

He also remembers Wheeler as being the kind of mayor who was always at civic events and awards ceremonies, and who was very supportive of the police department.

Sparacino says Wheeler’s long run as mayor has been remarkable and shows the support he received from the community.

“It says something about how he ran the mayorship,” he said. “The council is going to lose some institutional knowledge.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Medford mayor Gary Wheeler at field #10, multi-sport complex, at US Cellular Community park which is to be named after him.