Eugene Needs Fewer Losers — Here’s How

Question: What are the sixth, seventh, and eighth votes on the Eugene City Council worth? Answer: More than we think.

Mayor Lucy Vinis was affirmed by voters over a year ago. It’s time to make her collaborative leadership skills shine, in a world where votes have become too transactional. Winning a majority must be viewed as necessary but not sufficient for rigorous and resilient leadership.

To take just the most recent example, renaming Ken Kesey Square garnered five Eugene City Council votes, so the motion passed and the name change was approved. North Eugene Councilor Mike Clark voted no. Councilors Greg Evans and Alan Zelenka were absent and Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis had signaled her support.

The outcome was not in question, but could the council have reached unanimity? What could have swayed Clark to vote for a name change that he has opposed for a decade? Would that extra effort have been worth it?

Undervaluing those “extra” sixth, seventh and eighth votes on Eugene City Council has real consequences. Political factions have long memories. Each side has taken its turn dismissing the minority’s support as unnecessary. When the minority later becomes a majority, they do the same thing — partly as payback, partly from habit.

Local controversies develop a predictable and circular pattern. We think an issue is settled until the balance of power shifts. Then the same issues get revisited, again and again. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Our Founding Fathers earned their capitalization when they formed a government that purposely empowered the minority. They worried aloud about “the tyranny of the majority.” They understood that leadership must never be reduced to simply winning.

Consensus is not always possible, but it’s a worthwhile goal. This is not a feel-good, trophy-for-everyone argument. Solutions that incorporate minority views are sturdier, more resilient, and often more creative. We hurt ourselves when we stop refining our path forward as soon as a decisive majority has been secured.

If we had a culture where agreement beyond winning was important, the majority might continue working to find a solution that honors the dissenting views.

What if the council had offered to support some Springfield-style rules to curb panhandling downtown in return for Clark’s vote? Would that have addressed the stigma that Kesey’s name brings up for Clark and many of his constituents? More importantly, would it have improved downtown, making it more inviting for more residents?

Eugene’s civil libertarians would argue that such concessions were not necessary. But only because winning defines expediency and agreement or consensus is seen as a luxury.

In sport, you don’t want to be caught running up the score when the outcome has been assured. It’s considered poor sportsmanship to “pile on.” But politics is not like sport, or shouldn’t be. If winning is all that matters, then losers will have nothing to do except wait for their turn to get revenge.

We need everybody to feel welcome on the same side of the rope. Our tug-of-war should be shaped by what problems are dragging the other end of the rope. As it is, we divide ourselves onto opposite ends, weighing which set of solutions we prefer this time around. The problems themselves become incidental to our back-and-forth tussle. Problems don’t stay solved, because they barely matter.

Resolving our differences beyond the vote tally may seem like extra effort that’s not necessary. Winning the game should be seen as only a means to a greater end. If we focus on developing a team of winners, we’ll attract better recruits. Just ask UO Basketball Coach Dana Altman about that.

We want fewer losers and many more winners, so that others will join the effort. Vinis and others can shine a bright light on the value and skill required to reach agreement, so that new leaders emerge who have those skills.

We need more leaders who can bring us together as a community. We say we love diversity, but we seldom go looking for it. Here’s a dirty little secret: diversity can be found most reliably among those who disagree with us.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs