I grew up not asking for much at Christmas because my skinny little frame couldn’t bear much disappointment. In my family, we asked for practical things — a stocking cap to match my winter jacket, a clock radio with a snooze button, a toboggan to be shared with my four brothers.
I’ve only recently been getting retrained (by my own grown sons) to swap “good enough” for “couldn’t be better” — in my brain, and in my life.
So it’s in that spirit that I write this letter, asking for something very close to “peace on earth,” but still pragmatic and attainable. What I’d like under my tree this year is a voter-approved charter amendment for a reconfiguration of the Eugene city council.
I’m sure you know Eugene only passingly, but a couple of small changes in how our leaders are elected could bring us surprisingly close to that “peace on earth” ideal that stares down on us from Ya-Po-Ah Terrace each winter.
Your double-checked list undoubtedly includes all eight of our city councilors, but did you know that only our mayor has to pass a citywide naughty-or-nice referendum with the voters? Each of the councilors can be despised by seven-eighths of Eugene, but if every dissenter lives outside their ward, none of that dissatisfaction would count on Election Day.
Since councilors never have to answer to voters outside their ward, our council has less reason to pull together for what’s best for all of Eugene. They do things differently in Springfield, where all voters choose all the city councilors, not only the one who lives in their ward.
It’s no wonder Springfield’s city council has a reputation for getting along. Each member must answer to the same set of voters.
When our leaders focus on a subset of the city’s citizenry, those citizens can then be excused for forgetting about concerns held by others. How we’re led shapes who we become. We want to preserve neighborhood character and civic pride, but not to the point where it becomes territorial and arrogant.
People like to ask me what one thing I’d like changed in Eugene politics, but they don’t have the power to make it happen. Maybe you do. I believe.
Here’s what I want from you, Santa. Let’s add two at-large councilors who are voted on by all the voters in the city. We can expand the number of councilors or keep the same seating arrangements by reducing our wards from eight to six.
These two new at-large councilors would function as de facto vice-mayors, allowing our mayor to share some of the ribbon-cutting responsibilities. They’d learn what it’s like to worry about all of us and we’d learn how they handle it. If they wanted to later run for mayor, the at-large position would be like an extended audition.
As voting council members, these at-large councilors would be addressing real issues being faced by real citizens. Their subsequent mayoral campaigns would shift from “what would I have done?” to “here’s what I did” — because magical thinking can get you only so far.
We want council comity, in more than one dimension. We notice if leaders together in the room are cordial with each other. What goes unnoticed is whether each generation of the city council can find agreement with the council that sat in the room before them.
Too often voters choose a radical departure from whatever ideology last held power, producing bipolar-like mood swings in the body politic. Having three council members who won city-wide campaigns would provide ballast — a weight in the center — to lessen those swings.
I understand that this gift won’t be easy to provide. Change is always hard, but change that requires several steps is harder. Each step offers either partial success or complete failure. But this is a time of year to dream big, right? Why not ask for what couldn’t be better?
After all, a toboggan big enough to hold all of us wouldn’t be any easier to provide.
Enjoy the non-fat milk and gluten-free cookies,
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs