O'Fallon Progress

O’Fallon mayor will not seek re-election, says the best is yet to come

After two decades as the mayor of O’Fallon, Gary Graham will not seek re-election.

“I am filled with excitement for the future and the next step,” Graham wrote in a four-page letter to the community. “There is no better time to be part of the O’Fallon community.”

Graham, 71, said the hardest part about stepping down is knowing the best is yet to come for the city.

“The next 10 years will be the best 10,” he said. “I hate to walk away when it’s going to be better, but there’s never a good time to go. ...We will be the largest city in 15 years in St. Clair County.”

He said he’s excited about the City Council’s approval of the Destination O’Fallon plan, which will be paid for by an increase in the city’s hotel/motel tax, and the opening in 2017 of the new St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

Destination O’Fallon is an economic initiative that hopes to construct a state-of-the-art multi-sports complex at the O’Fallon Family Sports Park and a new multipurpose community plaza in downtown O’Fallon. The cost is estimated to be $9.5 million.

Shiloh Mayor Jim Vernier says he wishes the mayor the best of luck.

“Gary, in my opinion, has done a very good job for the city of O’Fallon,” Vernier said. “Gary, for the most part, has put O’Fallon on the map, as they say. ... Nobody can say he didn’t do a great job as mayor.”

In the future, Vernier said he hopes Shiloh and O’Fallon will maintain the “good working relationship” they have.

O’Fallon Fire Chief Brent Saunders said, “It’s been an honor and a pleasure to work with someone who is as much of a visionary as Graham.

“In regards to the fire department, he has always been there to help the (department) move forward as the community grew,” Saunders said. “He always listened to concerns we had.”

Graham was “instrumental” in constructing the new fire station on Venita Drive, according to Saunders.

“He’s always been an advocate for public safety and making sure we did the right thing for the citizens of the community,” Saunders said. “He will be greatly missed.”

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said he’s enjoyed serving on several boards with Graham, including the Illinois Municipal League and the Southwestern Council of Mayors.

Growing community

In his retirement letter, Graham said O’Fallon has grown from a community of 15,000 residents in the early 1990s to more than 32,000 today and is “one of the top five cities in the St. Louis region that families and businesses are choosing to call home.”

“The greatest reward I have received has been to see this city that I love soar,” Graham wrote in the letter.

Graham touted the city’s accomplishments over the last 20 years, which include:

▪  Construction of the new St. Elizabeth’s Hospital currently underway

▪  The city’s bond rating of AA plus is one of the highest levels from Standard and Poor’s

▪  Transformation of downtown from vacant buildings to a shopping and dining district

▪  Construction of state-of-the-art police and fire stations

▪  O’Fallon Family Sports Park which draws tens of thousands of visitors to the city

▪  Construction of Central Park Plaza Drive, which attracted major businesses and restaurants to O’Fallon

▪  Working with former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, who helped get two interchanges along I-64 for the city

▪  Creating Rock Springs Park, which encompasses 107 acres

▪  Hiring well-trained professionals to lead city departments “Every department head has a master’s degree in their field,” Graham said.

Graham doesn’t take all the credit for the city’s successes. “I don’t consider I did them. I consider we did them as a team of the city, because of the kind of city we are,” he said.

Years of public service

Graham first ran for mayor in the late 1990s. He owns the record for the longest serving O’Fallon mayor — 1997 to date, which will be 20 years when his term ends. Runner-up is Ralph Kampmeyer (1921-1935), according to local historian Brian Keller.

Before Graham, Robert Morton served as mayor from 1993-97, and before him, Kristi Vetri was mayor from 1985-93.

Prior to running for mayor, he served as alderman for two years. He also served four years on the O’Fallon District 203 school board.

Monday’s City Council meeting marked the 456th one the mayor has attended, he said. As part-time mayor, he earns an annual salary of $24,000.

He thanked his wife, Lucia, children and grandchildren for never complaining, he said, “when a call came in from someone who needed my help at all hours of the day and night.”

Graham will retire at the end of his term in April 2017 for a total of 26 years of public service.

Graham said he never intended to serve 20 years as mayor. “I intended to serve maybe eight years,” he said. “There was always something else to do. I always had goals.”

Ward 3 Alderman Herb Roach has announced his intention to run for mayor.

Future plans

Graham looks forward to spending more time with his family. He said both of his adult children, who graduated from O’Fallon Township High School, live in Indiana, and he plans to spend the summers there to spend more time with his four grandchildren.

“As a grandfather, there’s lots of things I want to tell them whether they want to hear it or not,” he said.

He said his children and other OTHS graduates can’t find work in the metro-east after college so they relocate to other states. He hopes the opening of two new hospitals — Memorial Hospital East in Shiloh and St. Elizabeth’s replacement hospital currently under construction in O’Fallon — will change that.

“We are sending away great educated young people to other communities,” Graham said.

His advice for the future mayor — don’t get bogged down in politics.

“If you just worry about the political side, you are not going to get anything done,” he said. “You are always going to make people mad. ... The big thing is doing and making the city great for the residents, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”

Jamie Forsythe: 618-239-2562, @BND_JForsythe

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