Eugene’s Naming Policy: Mend It, Don’t Upend It

I liked Andrea Ortiz and the work she did for her family, the Eugene City Council, and the community at large. She brought an important perspective to city council discussions as a Latina, a breadwinner, and a woman. She had less patience for nonsense than some of our elected leaders.

It may take us a little while longer to sort sense from nonsense, because Ortiz is not here to help. She died on Jan. 16, 2017. City Councilor Greg Evans has recommended that we rename the undeveloped Royal Elizabeth Park in her beloved Bethel neighborhood. Andrea Ortiz Park has a nice ring to it.

Evans presented to his fellow councilors a letter of support, signed by 180 residents. He’d like the park’s renaming to be bundled with another — renaming the Westmoreland Community Center for Dr. Edwin L. Coleman, Sr., who died just four days after Ortiz.

Both names are worth remembering. Both lives are worth honoring. But there’s a little problem and it has nothing to do with either Coleman or Ortiz. We have a few quirky policies about naming things in Eugene. Streets can be named after people, but only after their first name. This is how we got Chad Drive, but also Charnelton Street.

(That reasoning is also why we don’t live in Skinnerville. We’re like a town settled by members of Alcoholics Anonymous. First names only, please.)

Eugene’s public buildings can honor a person’s complete name, so long as they have been dead for at least a year. Parks require two years. Waiting allows time for any disreputable secrets being kept during the person’s life to come forward. In an age when secrets are being exposed with alarming frequency, that patience seems prudent.

Why parks require twice as long as buildings isn’t apparent, at least not to me.

Evans would like his fellow councilors to waive the two-year park rule in the case of Ortiz, approving both of his renaming proposals. A better course would be to unify the city’s naming rules. Shorten the waiting period for parks to match the one year delay required for buildings, or lengthen both waiting periods to two years.

I’d favor eliminating the delay entirely, despite the risks involved. After he won the Heisman Trophy, I proposed Mariota Way should replace 8th Avenue. I still believe we’re denying ourselves something delicious by not naming something after fabled Register-Guard columnist Don Bishoff, while he’s still around to complain about how the renaming is handled.

One year, two years, no years — we can adjust to any of these. The only proposal that I believe should be considered dangerous is the one that is currently under consideration. Waiving the two-year-delay rule instead of amending it sends the wrong message.

If breaking the rules is something the powerful are allowed to do, should you and I put our best energies toward following rules — or amassing sufficient power so that the rules would no longer apply? Feel free to extrapolate from that hypothetical a worrisome interpretation of national and world leadership.

Advocates for Coleman and Ortiz have made no secret of their desire to add the names of black and brown leaders to an overwhelmingly white population of civic honorees. That’s laudable, and even more overdue. But suspending the rules to rush this honor isn’t the best exclamation point that could be added to the honor.

Making the rules work better for everyone would be preferable. Coleman and Ortiz stayed focused on that ideal throughout their lives among us. Eugene City Council should direct city staff to unify our naming rules, or present compelling reasons why renaming parks should wait longer than buildings.

In the meantime, there’s nothing to prevent City Council from issuing a decree that Royal Elizabeth Park’s name should be considered temporary, pending any discoveries that may prevent it from becoming Andrea Ortiz Park, no later than Jan. 17, 2019.

Instituting a 12-month period between decision and decree could be the best possible outcome: “If anyone can show just cause why this name would not honor this city, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”

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