Sunday Profile: Meet the Mayors (yes plural) Gamba
Soon after Michael Gamba was appointed mayor of Glenwood Springs by his fellow City Council members this spring, he got a phone message from a constituent about a neighborhood concern.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
“You get all sorts of interesting calls and emails when you’re on City Council, and as mayor,” Gamba said. “I even got one call suggesting it was my responsibility to go over and fix the hot water heater at the Manors apartments.”
What was unusual about the aforementioned message, though, was that it was left in the voicemail box of his older brother, Mark Gamba, who, coincidentally, was recently elected mayor of the Portland suburb of Milwaukie, Oregon.
Unsure how that happened, Mark said he relayed the message to Mike, and they concurred that some of the correspondence one receives as a local elected official can be amusing.
“I even got a call from some guy claiming to be James Bond,” Mark said.
A resident of Milwaukie for about a dozen years, Mark said he became involved civically as a member of the city arts committee and was then on the planning commission before he was elected to City Council about two and a half years ago.
When the former mayor was unable to run for office again, Mark agreed to be appointed interim mayor and was then elected by city voters in an uncontested election in May. That was just a month after brother Mike accepted the non-elected mayoral appointment in the Gambas’ native Glenwood Springs.
“When Dad (Jerome Gamba) called up and said Mike had been appointed mayor there in Glenwood, I just laughed,” Mark said.
Jerome Gamba, a second-generation Glenwood native, had also served on City Council in the 1970s when Mark and Mike, along with their younger brother Steve and sister Terri, were growing up.
“I think we all have a natural inclination to do what we can to better our communities,” said Mike, who was re-elected in an uncontested race in April to a second and final four-year term to his Ward 4 Glenwood Council seat.
“We both work for ourselves and aren’t tied down by working for someone else, so we have the time to do that,” adds Mike, 52, who returned to his hometown after graduating from Colorado School of Mines in the 1980s and now runs the longtime family business, Gamba and Associates Engineering and Surveying.
Mark, 56, graduated from Colorado Mountain College in the late 1970s and moved to New York City to pursue his career as a freelance photographer. He continues to work in that field while living in Milwaukie, having shot for magazines including National Geographic, and doing commercial photography for major advertising campaigns.
The Gamba family stretches back five generations in Glenwood Springs to the arrival of Jerome’s grandfather from Italy to the United States more than 120 years ago. He eventually landed in Glenwood, as did many Italian immigrants, bringing with him a rich family tradition of wine-making.
“Our Italian heritage is something our family is proud of,” Jerome Gamba said in an August 2009 interview with Immigrant Stories author Walter Gallacher.
“Dad made wine but he didn’t have the patience,” he said.
Still today, Mike said the family carries on the tradition of making homemade wine, holding big family gatherings to do so.
The brothers remember a simpler time growing up in Glenwood Springs, hiking and biking around town and spending their days on the hillside above their home just north of 23rd Street, near Valley View Hospital. That home is no longer there, having been acquired for Valley View’s expansion in recent years.
“I always remember when I was real young we grabbed a pack of hot dogs and a mess kit and went up on the hillside to make a fire and cook them,” Mike recalled, suggesting that probably wasn’t a good idea given the wildfire potential.
As teenagers, both Mark and Mike were lifeguards at the Hot Springs Pool.
“Things were different then, we were always off doing something without our parents knowing where we were,” Mike said. “Today, you know exactly where your kid is pretty much 100 percent of the time.”
Mike and his wife, Karin, have two daughters, Grace and Sofia, both of whom are following in their father’s footsteps and attending Mines.
Mark said he and his young family at the time decided to relocate to Oregon when son Forrest was 6, initially settling in Bend before moving to Milwaukie so Forrest could attend a noted Waldorf school there.
“We looked around at all the cool towns of the West and ended up here,” he said, adding that a return to him hometown of Glenwood Springs was a consideration, but was “way overpriced” given their situation at the time.
The brothers recall a few discussions with their father about Glenwood politics of the day, which wasn’t really all that different from today’s politics.
Mark said he remembers some drama around the city manager at the time and their father both having a financial interest in the building that now houses the Italian Underground restaurant, and whether that constituted a conflict of interests.
“Land-use issues were big too,” Mike added. “I think it was Glenwood Park that was being reviewed at the time, and people were saying, ‘Oh, we can’t have that much growth.’
He recalled that his dad spoke up at one of the council meetings, saying something to the effect of, “Well, if that’s the case, then anyone who got here after 1970 should just pack up and move out. We can’t shut the gate.”
As leaders today in their respective communities, Mark and Mike acknowledged that they are dealing with a lot of common issues.
Milwaukie is a town of about 20,000, roughly double the size of Glenwood Springs, and has a lot more urban influences being so close to Portland.
Still, both cities are somewhat landlocked with little room to grow naturally without annexing into unincorporated areas. Milwaukie is mostly surrounded by neighboring jurisdictional boundaries, while Glenwood’s physical growth potential is limited by steep hillsides and deep canyons.
“The new light rail line from Portland just opened, so we are going to see a lot of new development,” said Mark, who has begun to question and offer suggestions on how to change the old “way we’ve always done it” way of thinking among some in his community.
“Houses are selling like crazy here, and we are going to have to think more about densification and higher buildings,” Mark said.
ANSWERS AREN’T THE SAME
With all of that comes the usual conversations around parking, making the city more accommodating for pedestrians and bicyclists, and maintaining a tax base to pay for public improvements.
Those are all issues Mike is very familiar with here in Glenwood Springs. But that doesn’t mean they can necessarily compare notes and talk about common solutions, he said.
Milwaukie and other municipalities in Oregon are largely dependant on property taxes for funding government services and improvements, while Glenwood Springs, like most Colorado towns, is sales tax-dependant.
“Yeah, we have a lot of the same problems and questions, but the answers in many ways are not going to be the same,” Mike said.
The main thing he has learned in his four-plus years on the Glenwood Council is that “local politics are 95 percent divorced from national politics.”
“When you’re talking about building that street or renewing that tax, it’s not Republican-Democrat, liberal-conservative,” Mike said. “To me, it’s very refreshing that the closest government we have to the people is local government.
“It’s really nice to be able to do things that are truly for the betterment of the community,” he said.
One place where Mike might be able to share some thoughts with Mark about what’s set to take place next year in Milwaukie and other Oregon towns is the legalization of retail sales of recreational marijuana.
That’s an issue Glenwood Springs has been dealing with since such sales became legal in Colorado last year, establishing and more recently tweaking the rules and regulations around the new industry. Oregon voters last year also authorized the legal possession and trade of marijuana for recreational use.
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