Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber has given back to community his entire life, but it hasn’t always been his day job.
When the software industry veteran and his wife moved to Corvallis in the early 2000s, Traber put his technology background to work in support roles for local initiatives during retirement. Always one to stay actively involved, he did everything from volunteer at the local food pantry to serve on the boards of United Way and the county Charter Review Committee.
Even with these close ties to service, not the kind of person to step into the limelight of their own accord, Traber did not expect to go further than enabling others.
With this humble attitude it came as a surprise when, after asking about a budget issue during a Benton County Democrats meeting, Traber was approached by the outgoing Treasurer to consider filling the position. He took it.
In this role, the lifelong follower of politics had a hand in the group’s budget and fundraising efforts. From there, he became a city councilor in 2011 before being convinced to run for the center seat as mayor, taking office in 2015.
“I don’t have to work, but I still have the ability to give back, to help out and to have some impact,” Traber said. “As long as I’m still having some impact and doing some positive things, it is worth putting time and energy into it.”
In person, Traber is soft-spoken but still exudes passion for the city he serves. He carries himself easily—with a casual stride and a calm demeanor. But even with this enthusiasm there were a number of hurdles he had to navigate before beginning his first term.
As a self-described introvert, Traber needed to be convinced that he would even be capable as Corvallis’ chief spokesperson, a key aspect of any mayor’s job. While finding out he did enjoy public events and talking about the city (with anyone who would take the time to listen), Traber also saw firsthand the way being a small town mayor is different than what many constituents see on TV or in news coverage of larger cities.
“The mayor job is very much helping to move along the agenda for city government,” Traber said. “In Corvallis, the mayor does not have a vote—except in rare situations—so it really is City Council who makes decisions about policy issues.”
In my conversation with him, Traber steadfastly affirmed he and the City Council are in their positions to help the city improve and preserve the good, not their personal advantage. Though councilors have to balance the interests of their individual ward, Traber himself is focused on the city as a whole.
“There are different views on how to go about doing that, but someone does not put time and energy into running for election without having some high level of dedication,” Traber explained.
While certainly a tall order, working through disagreements, finding common ground and solving complex problems is nothing new for this mayor.
In addition to service in various community organizations, Traber believes his prior career helped prepare him for the social leadership aspects of being mayor. He spent years forging industry partnerships between companies to create operating system products, establishing shared interests among multiple stakeholders.
“Negotiations do best when it’s looked at with both sides gain,” Traber said. “Look at where there are nuances and ways to bring it forward that both can gain out of it, not ‘Who am I going to force into a situation?”
This community mentality comes through when Traber talks about his work connecting with different interests in the city and hearing what community members are asking for. He seems relaxed and comfortable with the topic, like his words and stories are treading a well-worn path.
One of the most critical partnerships Traber currently manages is between Corvallis and Oregon State University. From the local art scene and student safety to rental issues and even economic development, people and ideas radiate outward from the campus and reach inward to the community.
A clear example is the OSU Advantage Accelerator program, which mentors startups from idea to launch, helps to foster an entrepreneurial environment within the community, benefitting both institutions and the student-residents it coaches.
“To me, one of the reasons for being in a college town is some of the cultural spinoffs you get,” Traber said.
Of course, not every issue a mayor must deal with has to do with the university, or is even unique to the Corvallis community. Traber said he and the City Council do their best to respond to concerns raised by their constituents.
“Someone raising questions about speeders in an area resulting in us, over the last year and a half, acquiring and using more radar speed signs,” Traber said.
More complex issues like housing availability are also in the discussion—and are not always so easy to resolve—as the city must balance multiple competing priorities including businesses and non-profit organizations. This fall, one men’s shelter plan was struck down after contention between different groups.
For all issues large and small, Traber stressed that a single citizen bringing up the matter a single time is not enough: persistence in communication and gathering support for issues is crucial for building the political will to move forward.
“Part of it is ‘How serious is the individual about getting a change?” Traber said.
When asked about one of his singular achievements, he noted an issue he got the ball rolling on when he served as a city councilor: single-use plastic bags in local stores. With insight from the Sierra Club, he came to understand it as an important sustainability effort.
He chuckles, remembering a costumed man adorned in plastic bags showing up to council meetings when this issue was being discussed, an anecdote as amusing as it is quintessentially Corvallis. But it seems this unorthodox lobbying was effective, as the city joined others along the West Coast in banning the bags’ use.
“I think that’s had a benefit and it started with some individuals building some interest,” Traber said, content to deliver on what the people of his town had asked of him.