Published Friday, March 14, 2008 in The Register-Guard.
Former Eugene Mayor Jim Torrey has begun his mayoral campaign by suggesting that current Mayor Kitty Piercy hasn’t gotten enough done for roads and public safety in her first term. Changing mayors may or may not be a good idea, but it won’t fill the potholes. At least not directly.
Fixing roads or hiring police or watering flower baskets on the lampposts around downtown — these are done under the direction of the city manager, who is empowered by the city charter to implement the policies set out by the city council. The mayor’s role in setting those policies is both lesser and greater than the city’s eight councilors’. The mayor votes only when there is a tie. The mayor also sets the agenda for each meeting.
How does any mayor set an agenda for eight policy-making councilors to agree to a policy to empower a city manager to instruct city staff to fix a pothole? It’s hard enough just thinking about it — imagine trying to do it, day in and day out. But wait. It’s even more
convoluted than that. Those councilors answer to a different set of voters than the mayor. They serve a different master.
Only the mayor in Eugene is chosen by voters from across Eugene. City councilors may raise money and build political alliances across Eugene and beyond, but the votes that get them into City Hall come only from the ward they serve.
This shades every political calculation, but in a subtle hue that gets lost in the more dramatic contrasts between south and north, left and right, black and white. The issues that stymie the council most are those that benefit one ward more directly than all the others.
Councilor Alan Zelenka wants better communication with the University of Oregon around land use planning, but why would Councilor Betty Taylor make that a priority when there are acres of the Ridgeline Trail in south Eugene to be acquired? Councilor Chris Pryor wants better transportation solutions for his constituents in west Eugene, but Councilor Andrea Ortiz would rather we first improve diversity training for city staff.
These invented examples give you a picture of a day in the life of the city council. Councilors who too often take a step back and consider the larger needs of the community risk being punished by voters in his or her ward for not attending sufficiently to their particular needs.
The mayor’s job is roughly equivalent to getting eight cats into a sack.
Looking for a political recipe that offers less spice, but more starch? Springfield’s recent mayors have been given more kudos for getting things done.
Springfield also uses a city manager to oversee operations, directed by policy articulated by the city council. They also allow the mayor to set the agenda and vote only to break a tie.
But Springfield’s five councilors each are elected by every voting Springfielder. They represent their ward, but they are chosen by the entire city. Every Springfield city councilor is beholden to every Springfield voter. How councilors campaign affects how they govern.
The analogy is not perfect. Springfield averts controversy as naturally as Eugene attracts it. Cultural roots matter. Springfield is a smaller town. Citywide campaigns are more expensive and so they limit candidates in a different way.
But we can create a hybrid of the two models.
Expand Eugene City Council to ten by adding two at-large councilors (running in alternate election years) who run citywide campaigns. Successful city councilors or ambitious civic leaders could campaign citywide before attempting a mayoral race. The mayor could then groom a possible successor, or build a voting bloc on the city council that campaigns, thinks and votes for the entire city.
It may not fix the potholes. But it may fix how we fix the potholes.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former president of the City Club of Eugene. He welcomes feedback about current, past or future columns at his blog, right here.