PENDLETON — Pendleton City Councilor Scott Fairley died Tuesday evening while on vacation in Mexico. He was 53.
According to his wife, Kimbra Cook, Fairley was admitted to the hospital on New Year’s Eve, where a doctor informed him that he needed surgery to repair an aneurysm. A week later, the aneurysm burst as he awaited surgery, killing him.
As the shock of Fairley’s sudden death began to wear off, his colleagues from across the state began to pay tribute.
“Scott’s creativity and can-do attitude were an incredible combination that he leveraged for the benefit of the people of his community,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement. “His work on the Canyon Creek Fire to support local residents and help them navigate state resources was just one example of how he went above and beyond, showing in the process how state government can be nimble in serving her people.”
Other well-wishers included state Rep. Greg Smith, state Sen. Bill Hansell, and Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock.
Those who worked closely with Fairley almost universally highlighted his advocacy for Eastern Oregon, whether it was through his work as a state employee or his time on the city council.
“We are like family at our city,” Mayor John Turner said in a statement issued by the city. “To say we’re shocked and pained at the loss of Scott is a serious understatement. His friendly, good-natured manner will be greatly missed.”
In an interview Wednesday, Councilor Dale Primmer recalled the banter they would share on city issues outside council chambers.
“His heart was always in the right place,” he said.
Along with Turner and Primmer, Fairley was elected to his first term on the city council in 2016, filing for office just ahead of the deadline.
Fairley made up for his late entry on the campaign trail, quickly turning his North Hill ward into a sea of green and gold campaign signs.
In a three-way race that included a repeat candidate and former city councilor, Fairley won nearly 3 out of every 4 votes by election night.
As a councilor, Primmer said Fairley was laser focused on finding a way to repair and maintain the city’s street system and creating sustainability for city services and infrastructure.
Fairley spearheaded a successful effort to reform the council’s goal-setting process so that goals were more directly tied to the annual budget.
Turner said the council is set to meet soon to use the process for the first time.
A Pendleton High School graduate, Fairley returned to his hometown in 2002 and embarked on a lengthy career in state government.
Phil Hodgen remembers when he and Fairley both worked in the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s regional communications office out of Pendleton.
Hodgen retired in 2009 and lost contact with Fairley until the pair had a chance encounter in Walla Walla, Washington, about a year ago. Hodgen said it was the first time he had seen him in 10 years, but Fairley’s congeniality made it feel like no time had passed at all.
“It was nice not to be forgotten,” he said.
Fairley would go on to work for the governor’s office in economic development, changing titles as governors came and went.
Annette Liebe directly supervised Fairley from 2014 to 2017 when he worked for the state office of regional solutions, and she couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t come into work with a smile on his face.
Liebe said this sense of positivity combined with his breadth of knowledge gave him a knack for bringing people together and advocating in Salem for the communities of Eastern Oregon.
Hansell said his work history with Fairley extended all the way back to Hansell’s days on the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners, when Fairley helped the county secure funding for water projects.
“He was the kind of guy I wanted in an economic battle,” Hansell said. “I wanted him in my foxhole.”
He continued to do that in his most recent role as the regional development officer for Business Oregon, where he worked with John Day City Manager Nick Green.
Green said Fairley played a big part in helping John Day secure $343,800 in grants and $1 million in loans for local projects in their three years working together. Just earlier this week, Green said he had shot off some emails to Fairley to request help with some new grant applications.
As Fairley’s friends, family, and colleagues process the void he left behind, the council will need to take steps to fill his seat.
The Pendleton City Charter requires the council to declare his seat vacant and appoint a new councilor to represent Ward 2, which covers North Hill, Westgate and the airport, until Fairley’s term expires at the end of the year.
It’s been less than a year since the city council made its last appointment, which was spurred by the January 2018 death of Councilor John Brenne.
In an email announcing Fairley’s death to his coworkers at Business Oregon, Cummings echoed the rest of Fairley’s former colleagues by lauding his best qualities before offering a solemn sign-off.
“I will miss him, Oregon will miss him,” he wrote. “I miss him already.”