BEND, Ore. - The Bend City Council, seeming at times to nearly drown in parliamentary motions, mixed views and a sea of details, made some headway Wednesday night in deciding what it might ask voters next May: Do you want an elected mayor, as opposed to leaving it in the hands of colleagues, and to no longer lock the mayor and councilors’ pay – now $200 a month – in the city charter?
But getting there was not much fun, even after months of work by a citizen committee that made proposals for a possible spring ballot, as well as plenty more public input at a “listening session” earlier in the afternoon.
That variety of views and a tight election timeline left the council all over the map, including whether to take it slow on such big changes or that the time for debate was passed and to get ‘er done.
There were a string of 3-4 failed motions and amendments and others passing 4-3 – until a unanimous rejection of the panel’s other key proposal: to get more balanced representation by splitting the city into four oddly shaped geographic wards.
The pros and cons and questions were tackled by several members of the public during a listening session, but that didn’t help clear things up for the council. Instead, it gave them more things to weigh and made the wrestling that much tougher.
To make matters more muddy, the debate wasn’t purely about what councilors supported, in terms of governance changes, but what they think voters should get to decide – not exactly the same thing, by any means.
One example: Current Mayor Casey Roats asked colleague Bruce Abernethy if a higher salary and prominence of a stronger mayor could lead to a “10-man rugby scrum for mayor” and relatively few seeking a supporting role on the council.
But Abernethy had a word for those who said a mayor could ram through his or her policies: “Hogwash.”
“You’re one of seven” on the council, he said. “There’s a lot more that’s beyond an individual’s control.”
But Roats and his “decision matrix” couldn’t confine the discussion or keep it going on a straight line, any more than a cat herder (or, in the old political parlance, sausage maker.)
Councilor Bill Moseley pooh-poohed the idea that there could be more friction, and said it was wrong to try to make nice when the city faces big issues.
“The only thing worse than conflict is avoided conflict,” he said. “Sometimes I think we’re too afraid to lay it on the table. When you love something, you have really strong opinions about it. This is totally normal. I don’t think we need to be shy or afraid of heated discussion. It’s normal and healthy in a democracy.”
When Roats asked who was “adamantly” for the split into four wards, not a hand was raised. But when he asked who was adamantly opposed to wards, Councilor Nathan Boddie urged a slower approach and time to digest the latest testimony: “We just heard some very divergent comments, political views. I think it's worth continuing to think about it, mull the issues."
For his part, Roats pooh-poohed the idea that the issue being addressed is a split of Eastside vs Westside, or that wards – oddly shaped to keep neighborhoods and areas of “common interest” together – would be a magical solution.
“To me, Bend is far more dynamic than east-west,” he said. “And what’s the dividing line? Do we use the river, the parkway, Third Street? … I don’t think Bend is so big you can’t represent the whole community, wherever you are from.”
And he said he couldn’t think of a case where an Eastsider has “thrown himself against the (political machine) and been repulsed (by voters) again and again.”
He also disputed the claim that the Westside gets all the big improvements. In hard dollars: “The Eastside of our city has fared very well, in terms of actual investment.”
Moseley acknowledged the raised eyebrows when he raised a record $120,000 to seek and win a council seat.
“It wasn’t because I was in the pockets of builders or Realtors, but because I was already connected to the business community," he said. "So that was really easy for me. If you’re not connected, it’s going to be really hard to get that money. That’s where you really get stuck.”
Colleagues noted the costs of running for office in a smaller part of the city would cut the cost of mailings and the like.
Boddie still urged going slow: “I just don’t think it’s ready to put to a vote right now. I don’t see it’s there yet. I still think the pot needs stirring a little more.” Councilor Justin Livingston disagreed: “We’re just referring it to voters. We’re not making the decision to have a ward system.”
But Roats said it’s simply not that simple: “Do you think we can adequately explain on a ballot summary the complexities involved?"
Councilor Sally Russell agreed that the issues are “really complex,” with a “million iterations,” but said she was fine on moving forward with a proposal for an elected mayor. And she said she heard from some people had too much going in a few days before Christmas to show up and speak at the meeting.
“We have to have our ducks in a row,” she said. “On a ballot, you don’t have a choice – it’s up or a down. I feel like we’re not even close on wards.”
Another complication was a split over whether candidates who seek to represent one part of the city also should be voted on only by that part of the city, or at large.
But a major factor was looking at how many people can commit to the time – some councilors say it’s 50 to 60 hours a month – for just $200 a month, and whether raising the salary somewhat could make it possible for more to throw their hat into the ring.
“We know there’s an income disparity between east and west” Bend, said Councilor Barb Campbell, who Roats had noted was an Eastsider on the council.
“The median income on the Westside is almost twice the Eastside. Why aren’t we looking at how much councilors get paid? They don’t want this job is the problem,” Campbell said.
“This is a really, really bad job,” she added, with a laugh. “Nobody wants to do this for $200 a month. I question that an overwhelming part of (the decision whether to run) is the getting elected piece. How many hours? How many meetings do you go to? How many times does your name appear in the paper?”
Boddie said that as a physician, greater pay wouldn’t be his motivation. “But we know government works better when everyday people participate."
And he said “a bit more” pay -- not a lot -- could mean that the people who work “pouring coffee, waiting tables – not to make this a career, but allow everyday working folks to take a day off.”
Russell said at Bend’s current size, 4,000 or 5,000 people would be electing a councilor. “I just think that number is too small. If Bend had 250,000 or 500,000 people, we’d be having a different conversation.”
The details loom large: Among them, when the changes would take effect, a process for how to fill a vacancy if a councilor decides to run for mayor. City Manager Eric King kept seeking direction, and that provided a challenge.
And when things got hamstrung over issues like that $200-a-month salary, Roats quipped, "You get what you pay for." Abernethy said folks watching the meeting might agree: "This is killing the desire to run" for council.
Finally, the main motion on proposing a ward system, with citywide voting and a slightly less jigsaw ward map, failed 7-0.
But soon, another motion passed 5-2 to remove the mayor’s and council’s pay from the charter, last updated 20-plus years ago, and instead have it set by ordinance after review by an independent committee. Moseley and Livingston were opposed.
City staff will return Jan. 17 with details and options, for no doubt more public input and council debate, nearing the election deadline for May.
After Wednesday night's meeting, Councilor (and Mayor Pro Tem) Russell told NewsChannel 21: "I don't think any of us disagree about moving forward and asking the community if they want an elected mayor. That's not what I think was on the table tonight."
"There are a lot of details behind it, and we had gotten a lot of input and a lot of new information, and it was really tough to make a totally informed, quick decision," she said.
They're not done, but the sometimes confusing wrangling had results. In the end, it'll all be in the voters' hands -- not a menu or decision matrix, but a thumbs up or down.