The way Bend elects its mayor and city council could be radically different by the next time voters cast their ballots for city races in November 2018, a change that could give the city’s east side more influence than it has historically exercised.
The City Council is in the early stages of exploring a shift to a ward system in which the city would be divided geographically into voting units, similar to the way congressional districts are drawn.
The ward system question is one aspect of a larger review of the charter that lays out the structure of city government, a process that began last summer at the urging of the Bend Chamber, Bend 2030, City Club of Bend and other citizens’ groups.
Currently, councilors are elected at large, meaning all Bend voters can cast a ballot for candidates running for each of seven council seats and any qualified resident can run for any of those positions.
Councilors then select a member form their ranks to serve as mayor. The mayor directs council discussion during meetings but otherwise has no more power than any other member of the council.
Although the council has only just begun exploring the issue, the most popular variation of a ward system under consideration would retain the seven-member council, with a mayor and two councilors elected by the city to at-large seats. Four equal-sized wards would be created, with one candidate living within each ward elected by the voters of that ward.
A directly elected mayor could serve in a role similar to past mayors or be given authority to take a larger role in setting the council’s policy direction.
Current members of the council are generally favorable to some form of an elected mayor but remain split on whether a ward system would help ensure all parts of Bend have a voice in city affairs.
If the council decides changes are worthy of serious consideration, voters would have to approve the changes, likely in the May 2018 election.
Councilor Bruce Abernethy has flipped on wards. In 2004, during his first stint on the council, he opposed the idea, believing ward-elected councilors would advance regional interests at the expense of what’s good for the city as a whole.
But Abernethy said he’s become convinced that the sense that the east side of Bend is neglected and underrepresented is powerful enough to warrant a shift to a ward system. He said he believes it’s more perception than reality — he lives on the lower flanks of Awbrey Butte — but in this instance, the council should be responsive to the desires of residents.
“I think this is what the community wants — whether it’s good or bad, I guess we’ll see,” Abernethy said.
Five of seven councilors currently live west of Third Street.
Abernethy said the “wild card” in the discussion of wards is where their boundaries would be set. Different maps could elevate or suppress the political influence of different groups or parts of town, he said, and could complicate re-election plans for the current council.
Bill Moseley, one of two new members of the council elected last fall, said Bend is ready for a ward system. Different parts of the city have different problems, he said, as well as different political leanings, with the west side being more liberal and the east side more conservative.
Moseley, who lives near the base of Awbrey Butte, said the emails he gets from residents of his neighborhood reflect west-side concerns such as bike lanes, noise, parking and overnight rentals in residential neighborhoods. East-side residents contact him about the lack of small-scale commercial services near their neighborhoods, congested roadways and the proliferation of apartment buildings.
Moseley said he’s made a point of trying to be a voice for east-side concerns but will never be as in tune to east-side issues as someone who lives there.
The west side of Bend seems to attract a lot of people who are inclined to participate in city government, Moseley said.
“It’s not that an east-side person is prevented from running for the City Council — people on the west side make twice as much money; they tend to be professionals and tend to be more educated,” he said. “They tend to be more involved with their communities and more likely to be activist types.”
Wards could create an incentive for councilors to be less interested in citywide matters and more interested in ward-specific matters, Moseley said, though that wouldn’t be a bad thing if it led to a more equitable distribution of city resources spent on street improvements and similar investments.
The council’s lone east-side resident, Barb Campbell, is unconvinced a ward system would be an improvement. She said she’s looked at results going back several election cycles and sees no evidence that east-side residents are unable to win seats on the council — the east side simply isn’t fielding as many candidates.
Campbell said she thinks the east side’s under-representation is mostly a demographics issue. The west side has more retirees and financially comfortable residents, she said, while the east side has more working families that often don’t have the time to dedicate to community service.
The financial disparity between the west and east sides of Bend could be an obstacle for east-side candidates in the future, Campbell said, regardless of whether the city moves to a ward system. She said the bare minimum needed to run a competitive council campaign now appears to be around $20,000, about twice what she spent in her last race in 2014.
“Money in politics in our city has changed dramatically in just five years,” she said.
Campbell said while a ward system would reduce the costs of candidate mailings and the time involved going door-to-door, well-funded candidates could still overwhelm their competition by buying advertising. Realtors, builders and other interests that have an outsized role in local politics could have even more influence under a ward system, Campbell said, bankrolling candidates to run against poorly funded competitors.
Mayor Casey Roats is also a skeptic for now but said he’s open to being persuaded to backing a ward system.
Roats, who lives off Brookswood Boulevard, said a ward system would provide better geographic representation but might not provide better representation overall.
“My big takeaway is it would be different,” Roats said. “And a potentially different set of problems. Is that different set of problems better? Might be.”
Roats said it’s already difficult to find enough people willing to run for office to give voters a choice when choosing city councilors. In last fall’s elections, Abernethy ran unopposed, Roats observed, while Justin Livingston was matched against perennial candidate Ronald “Rondo” Boozell.
Roats said under a ward system, it’s possible some Bend residents will have few well-qualified candidates to choose from, while others will have a glut of qualified, interested candidates and will be forced to reject all but one.
Cities around the state vary significantly in how they choose their city councilors and mayors. Portland elects its mayor directly, but all of its councilors are elected at large, while several Oregon cities with populations under 10,000 use a ward system and have a directly elected mayor.
Until 2004, Bend’s council was elected through a system that did not provide for any head-to-head competition among candidates. In a race for three positions among seven candidates, for instance, the top three finishers won the seats under the old system.
— Reporter: 541-383-0387, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. The original version misstated the number of Bend city councilors who live west of Third Street. The Bulletin regrets the error.