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How Shall We Govern Ourselves?

November 13th, 2005 by dk

Published in The Register-Guard on Monday, Nov. 21, 2005.

The passage of Measure 20-106 continues the disempowering of Eugene’s city manager. Nothing required Eugene to choose this form of government in 1944 and nothing requires us to retain it in the future. It was all the rage back then and is still a fine choice for a city of 30,000 (our city population in 1944, give or take). Does it fit for a town four times as large with an annual budget in the hundreds of millions?

Has an insulated city staff become complacent? Do our councilors and mayor get credit and blame for the right things? Do our famously involved citizens understand how to get involved and how to effect change? These are the questions we should be asking, even as we tinker with how we are governed.

My father and grandparents lived here around 1944. My grandmother remembers her time here with a single word: “Muddy.” What was true then is true today, at least metaphorically.

Ask Eugeneans who runs the city and most will answer incorrectly. Kitty Piercy is a distant third on the power structure in its current form. But would anybody be surprised to know she gets the most calls from citizens?

For the record, City Manager Dennis Taylor manages the city staff of 1,400 and a budget of half-a-billion dollars, so it can be fairly stated that he manages the city. He is hired or fired by the City Council, so it can be said that these eight manage the city manager. Mayor Kitty Piercy manages the city council, but only if they exceed their three allotted discussion minutes or their votes deadlock a decision. The mayor votes only to break a tie. She sets the agenda for council meetings, where policy and budget decisions are made, but running meetings and running cities ought not to be confused.

What the mayor of Eugene has at her disposal is the bully pulpit, only without the “bully” part.

The voters this month empowered the Eugene city council to appoint and manage an External Police Auditor and a Civilian Review Board. This effectively moves the responsibility for processing and evaluating complaints against Eugene police officers from city staff to the elected officials. Some see this as a move toward transparency. Others see public safety becoming a political football.

I see what my grandmother saw. At least so far, it’s muddy.

Eugene has been making moves away from a pure city manager form of government for decades. Once city council meetings began to be broadcast on Metro TV and viewers saw its mundane and arcane budget and policy discussions, who could resist “sexing up” the meetings with more tangible, on-the-ground matters that (at least on paper) are supposed to be solely the purview of the city manager and his staff? Who cares about the 2050 Plan when there are potholes to be filled?

Until around 1997, city councilors met occasionally during the lunch hour, and volunteer councilors were motivated by their day jobs to keep the meetings short. Moving those meetings to evening hours gave more citizens access to meetings, but it also removed effective limits on their duration. As councilors expanded the hours they devote to city business, the public’s appetite for accountability expanded with it.

On May 16, 2000, the citizens of Eugene voted to pay councilors a small stipend, beginning at $10,000 per year for councilors and half again more for the mayor. More importantly, each elected official was given the opportunity to buy into the city’s health care policy. And voters were given a powerful new way to complain about lack of attention or services: “This is what my tax dollars are paying you to do!”

Now these underpaid-if-not-volunteer councilors will be responsible for seeing to it that bad cops are removed. The trajectory is clear, even if the eventual outcome is not. Proponents have made clear their intentions. Note the discussions of the most recent Charter Review Committee for a preview.

Next may be proposed a Portland-style independent performance auditor for every department managed by the city manager. Then we may be asked to reexamine how the city contracts for its legal services. Eventually, we may find ourselves considering a Beaverton-style strong mayor model and/or a Lane County Commissioner-style model with full-time political oversight.

Will these changes get us a local government with more transparency? More accountability? More politicization? More polarization? Who can say?

Maybe that’s where we want to go. Maybe it’s not. But it’s not too soon to begin bringing clarity to the conversation. Because the conversation has already begun, whether we know it or not.

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  • 1 Ken Tollenaar Nov 23, 2005 at 5:16 pm

    Don: Excellent piece in the Guard. My natural inclination would be to let sleeping dogs lie, but with Eugene’s political volativity it’s probably inevitable that the issue will be debated sooner or later. Here are a few observations abot your article. (1) Nationwide, 106 out of 195 cities over 100,000 population have council-manager government, and while there are always a few abandonments (but more adoptions), there is no apparent trend away from it. (2) I think you understate the role of the mayor. Mayors can play a crucial political role, generating community consensus on policies that move the city forward. (Some do, and some don’t). (3) If and when the city sets up external review for police conduct complaints, it’s unlikely they will make the council “responsible for seeing to it that bad cops are removed.” The Police Commission made it clear that discipline is to remain with the police chief and city manager, while the auditor, the Citizen Review Commission and the council monitor investigations and adjudications. (4) The Charter Review Committee wasn’t asked to look at alternative forms of city government, and did not do so. A few of our recommendations may have nudged the system in the direction of a shift from the manager to the council, but to a much lesser extent than Measure 20-106. We did propose an in-house legal counsel appointed by the city council, but that was appropriate because the legal counsel directly interacts with the council on a wide variety of city policies and programs, unlike the proposed police auditor. Our proposal to require the manager to report to the council on his process for recruiting department heads and his reasons for their termination only gives the council information that is crucial to their ability to evaluate the manager’s performance, and does not undermine the manager’s authority in any way. The proposal for council approval of contracts over a certain amount (which was not submitted to the voters) is a common requirement in council-manager cities as well as in cities with other forms of government. The council already reviews large contracts as part of the budget process.