Bend councilors to choose mayor - for last time?

Some think post should be filled by voters

Bend councilors will choose the next mayor

BEND, Ore. -  Bend is on the forefront of tourism marketing, neighborhood planning and expanding education. But where it might be considered archaic by some is in one aspect of city leadership -- how the mayor is chosen.

Bend is by far Oregon's largest city where councilors, not voters, pick the mayor.

But that may change.

Three city councilors -- Mark Capell, Jodie Barram and Jim Clinton -- have thrown their hats in the ring to become the next mayor, a post still chosen by colleagues, not the voters.

As it turns out, Capell was the deciding no vote the last time the council looked at whether to ask voters if they want to elect a mayor. A citizen panel had reviewed the pros and cons and recommended leaving the current system in place.

Consequently, the city charter remained the way it is, having councilors appoint the mayor -- a largely ceremonial title, except for the role in leading council meetings.

"One of the advantages is you'll always have a mayor who's been on council so there isn't as steep a learning curve," Capell said Thursday. "One of the cons is, it's (the mayor) picked by council, so the public doesn't have a lot of say. And in the past, it's been done privately, a conversation between councilors."

The mayor has no more power than other councilors, except helping city staff set the meeting agendas, steering the council toward working together and meeting with prospective new businesses and dignitaries.

In 92 percent of Oregon cities, it's a voter-elected position, Bend, with about 78,000 residents, is the biggest city where it isn't in voters' hands. The next biggest is Baker City, a city of 9,800 people.

Capell, Barram and the longest-serving councilor, Clinton, all want the title.

Capell says he's the best man for the job because he has the business experience to attract new jobs to Bend and operates with a centrist political view.

Clinton touts his tenure on council and staunch opposition to the controversial, costly water improvement project as evidence he follows the mandate of the people.

Barram said she believes she's the best choice of the three, noting a Bulletin review of councilor voting records that showed Capell never cast a single no vote last year, while Clinton voted no more than any other colleague (many of those votes, but not all, in opposition to that controversial surface water plan).

She also pointed to election results, including the fact she ran unopposed for her position in 2010, a rarity "that I believe demonstrates my effectiveness at serving our community."

Clinton is also a loud voice for changing the city charter to vote for a mayor.

"To me, it's a basic tenet of democracy that the citizens get to choose who their leaders are," Clinton explained. "So we have kind of a quaint system. It has served Bend well in the past, but I think now the issues are complex enough to elect a mayor, but in that case, I do not seek additional power for the mayor."

Clinton says in the next year, he'll ramp up the discussion for another look at changing the city charter.

Barram says she would prefer a directly elected mayor as well, and would "still like to let the voters decide if that is what they want."

However, both Clinton and Capell, and first-term councilor Scott Ramsay, all say they'd like to keep the "strong city manager form" of government, instead of a more powerful or salaried mayor.

But the argument for Ramsay and Capell comes down to experience.

"The downside to having a mayor selected at large by citizens is we could end up with a mayor who's not been on council == and the learning curve in the first year is pretty steep," explains Capell.

But Clinton says it could be an easy fix. Just mandate that those mayoral candidates up for election have council experience, or if they're new, give them a six-month period to get adjusted before taking over the elected title.

For now, all agree the appointment process needs to be more transparent, with less secret campaigning to each other behind closed doors.

Clinton encourages the community to weigh in on who they would like for the position.

If indeed changing the city charter goes to a citywide vote, several councilors also would like their pay to be up for review.

They get $200 a month now, which several say is more of a paperwork hassle than it's worth.

Capell says either make it a volunteer position, or pay more money.

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