Eugene Wants Someone Strong, Accountable, Elected

Eugene won’t be getting an auditor, but people still want auditing. I hope our leaders will respect — fear, if they must — the lawn sign consensus that was mounted for an elected city auditor. Nobody knew how the vote would turn out. Once you feel shivers being sent up it, you know where your spine is.

Even though both auditor measures failed at the polls, Eugene is begging its leaders: Don’t do nothing.

We’ll never know how many Eugene voters wanted some sort of auditor. How many voters endorsed at least one of the two city auditor proposals? Of those who voted against both (or didn’t vote at all), how many resented — or were confused by — the political shenanigans of competing measures? Has anyone gone on record opposing a city auditor? There’s a hidden mandate here for the Eugene City Council.

They were given a visible mandate in 2002, when a council-appointed committee took a deep dive into the city’s charter. The committee worked intensely. Many of its recommendations were adopted by the City Council, but its auditor proposal languished for 16 years. Nobody ever really explained why.

An uprising shouldn’t have been unexpected. And no comfort should be taken in the fact that nothing toppled. Yet.

Eugene City Council now finds itself in the best place possible — where the right thing to do is also the easiest. It will take no courage to appoint a new committee. Supporters of both city auditor measures should be included. After all, they agreed on the need. They differed only on the tool. The city should harvest that precious civic engagement.

If our leaders believe they can let this field go fallow for another 16 years, they are mistaken. Once an issue flowers into lawn signs, it will spread. Whether it spreads below the surface or above it will be determined soon. Our leaders must quickly reap what they failed to sow.

The new committee should be focused not on an auditor remedy specifically, but on the deeper civic issue. How can city government increase transparency and accountability As cities grow, needs and expectations change. Those 2002 recommendations may not fit us as well today.

For example, Bend will directly elect its mayor for the first time this November. When Bend was a backwater town in the upper middle of nowhere, elected city councilors could choose one of their own to play mayor. After a few of decades of explosive growth, Bend has outgrown that.

Eugene may have outgrown its city manager form of government. Bend’s citizens want a direct say in who their mayor is. Eugene wants somebody overseeing how the city runs.

Eugeneans want more transparency and accountability from their government and their elected leaders. They want a watchdog with administrative and moral authority. They want whistles blown where processes are corrupt or inadequate. They want to see changes made. Eugene may want a strong mayor form of government.

If you gulped at that last sentence, it’s only because you took those words at their plain meaning. Eugene has a soft spot for anarchists because we’re skeptical of power. We don’t like anything in our government to be too strong — least of all, any one individual. A strong mayor is not a bully or a dictator. He or she manages the city staff, replacing a city manager.

A strong mayor government combines the power of a city manager with the visibility of an elected mayor. A strong mayor answers directly to the voters, but also must work collaboratively with the city council. A strong mayor may be the itch that Eugene has been trying to scratch.

Or not. Eugene could be the place that reinvents the city manager form of government with all the transparency that is possible in a digitally connected world. We’ve placed bodycams on cops. Can we devise an equivalent watchful eye to be placed over the city’s contracting and finances?

We no longer tolerate second-hand smoke. Any whiff of smoke-filled backroom deals must go. One thing should be clear to everyone. Eugene wants something to change about its government. Exactly what is less clear.

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