Bend voters will know how much members of the City Council would be paid before they vote in May on proposed changes to the city’s charter.
Councilors agreed Wednesday to have an independent committee recommend stipend amounts for councilors and an elected mayor, which the council could then pass, contingent on voter approval. They also agreed that an elected mayor would serve four years and be elected in 2018 and in subsequent midterm election years.
The council is expected to take a formal vote during its Feb. 7 meeting. Any changes will need to be approved by voters during a May election.
Council pay has been set at $200 a month since 1995, when Bend residents last voted on charter changes.
If their stipends kept pace with inflation, councilors would be making about $325 a month.
Because those monthly stipends are listed in the charter, it now takes a citywide vote to change them. Removing it would allow the council to set stipends, but they can’t vote themselves raises.
Any changes wouldn’t take effect until after the next election, and because councilors serve staggered terms, three or four members could make more than their colleagues for up to two years.
Such small stipends could discourage potential candidates who can’t afford to take time off of work to handle city business, Mayor Pro Tem Sally Russell said. The current council consists of three business owners (Mayor Casey Roats and councilors Bill Moseley and Barb Campbell), a real estate broker (Councilor Justin Livingston), a grant writer (Councilor Bruce Abernethy), a physician (Councilor Nathan Boddie) and Russell, who is self-employed.
“I think payment or lack thereof really results in an equity issue of who can stay here and take this time,” she said. “I would guess most of the people in this community don’t know what we get paid. They assume I have an office; they assume I have a secretary; they see me working late and assume I’m being paid for this time.”
A pay increase also could encourage more candidates from the east side of Bend, said Campbell, one of only two sitting councilors who lives on the east side.
“The median income on the west side is fully twice what it is on the east side, and the vast majority of councilors and people who apply to our committees are from the west side of town,” she said.
According to city data, people living in the three neighborhood associations in northeast Bend are least represented by the City Council and citizen committees.
But Moseley said he didn’t think paying councilors more would make serving on the council easier. A council position should be considered a public service role, not a job, he said.
“Paying us more will not solve that problem or enable someone else who works a day job,” he said.
An independent committee is expected to recommend council and mayor pay by the end of March or early April. Bend voters will know that recommendation before they receive their ballots.
Along with a question about pay, Bend voters will get to decide in May whether to directly elect the city’s mayor. Bend voters now elect seven councilors to staggered four-year terms, with four councilors elected each presidential election year and three chosen in each midterm election. Councilors choose a mayor from among themselves to serve a two-year term beginning in January of each odd-numbered year.
Proponents of electing a mayor contend that it will allow voters to have a real voice in their elected representation and quell any concerns that the city’s mayor is chosen in a backroom deal. They also believe a four-year term will allow the mayor to develop a clear and consistent vision for the city and help when Bend needs to lobby at the state level or try to convince businesses to relocate here.
But skeptics say an elected mayor may not be able to provide a political vision, or at least not one the whole community supports. Russell and Campbell supported postponing the first mayoral election to 2020, to tie in with the next presidential election and higher voter turnout. The percentage of registered voters participating in council elections was 49 percent in 2010, 58 percent in 2012, 55 percent in 2014 and 63 percent in 2016.
“I think the whole reason for making this change in the first place is to give people greater opportunity to elect their mayor, and we should give that opportunity to the most people possible,” Campbell said.
That argument might work better in a state other than Oregon, which makes it easy for voters to participate in any election, Abernethy said. The state’s vote-by-mail system means all voters receive a ballot in the mail for each election and don’t have to go to polling places.
“There’s no question there is a difference in turnout,” Abernethy said. “I think I’d like voters to take a little responsibility in that.”
The city should allow runoff elections to ensure an elected mayor actually receives a majority of votes, Bend resident David Paulson said. He pointed out that Roats won his council seat in 2014 with about 44 percent of the vote in a four-way race.
“If the candidate cannot win more than half the votes, he or she cannot legitimately claim to represent the city’s residents,” Paulson said. “He or she is not the voice of Bend but the voice of a minority of residents.”
Roats said he could support doing that if Bend’s form of government were changing, but the mayor wouldn’t have any more power than other councilors. Bend will maintain its manager-council form of government, in which the City Council creates policy and hires a city manager to handle the day-to-day operations of the city.
Councilors also approved a $7.5 million contract with Minnesota-based M.A. Mortenson Co. to finish its long-overdue wastewater treatment plant expansion. The project was originally scheduled for completion in summer of 2015, but problems with the original contractor left it unfinished.
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