When Dr. Suzanne Mendez prepared to speak to the Bend-La Pine School Board last month, she ran into a problem faced by parents across the country.
Mendez, a pediatrician at St. Charles Bend, wanted to urge the board to support later school start times and deliver a letter from other local health providers. But the Tuesday night meeting conflicted with a class her husband, Ariel, teaches at Oregon State University-Cascades, and the couple needed to find someone to watch their three children, ages 10, 6 and 3.
The Mendez family has an easier time participating in government than many. Suzanne Mendez has irregular hours; Ariel Mendez works part time, and they can afford a sitter.
That isn’t the case for many families, said Ariel Mendez.
“We make a lot of sacrifices as parents, and one of them is not participating in the local community at the level we wish we could,” he said.
But government officials are trying to come up with solutions. Bend City Councilor Barb Campbell, who learned about the problems parents face during a discussion at Central Oregon Community College this month, wants to foster changes by looking at what the city can do to make parents and their children feel welcome at City Council meetings.
“This ties in with discussions we’ve had about getting representation on committees and council,” Campbell said. “How do we make sure that as many people from as many different parts of our community are involved?”
Political scientists have long understood that a lack of access to reliable and affordable child care can be a barrier to parents, particularly mothers, participating in politics — women hold about one-fifth of congressional seats, a quarter of seats in state legislatures and one-fifth of mayorships in U.S. cities with 30,000 or more residents, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
School-age children and Boy Scouts are an occasional sight at Bend’s twice-a-month City Council meetings, but Campbell said she doesn’t remember seeing particularly young children at meetings during her nearly four years on the council. She said she wants to know whether parents of young children do, in fact, feel like they can’t attend council meetings with their children.
“One of the things we just don’t know is how many people wish they could participate in some way and just aren’t able to because they don’t have child care,” Campbell said.
Providing supervised child care at City Hall would expose the city to liability issues, and budgeting any city money toward it would require approval from at least four of the seven councilors. However, Campbell said, making council and committee meetings more welcoming to parents and children could be as simple as setting out toys and coloring books in the hallway, which already functions as an overflow room and has a large monitor to stream meetings.
“I would be happy to bring the toy box,” Campbell said. “For me, it could be as simple as making space in the hallway where children can play.”
Joshua Romero, Bend’s community relations manager, said the city could possibly provide a space where parents could bring children. Space is tight in City Hall, where council meeting attendees regularly spill into the hallway, but the city could make space based on community need, he said.
Romero, who works as a liaison between the city government and Bend residents, said he hadn’t directly heard from parents who can’t participate in city government. He said he’s still trying to figure out the best way to get input from residents, and a planned communitywide survey later this year is an option.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for folks who do experience these barriers to tell us,” Romero said.
If the city does create any child care opportunities or special spaces for families, it would be an outlier in Oregon.
Kevin Toon, spokesman for the League of Oregon Cities, said he isn’t aware of any cities providing child care of any sort during public meetings. The league regularly surveys cities, but those surveys aren’t exhaustive, he said.
“It’s probably not very common,” Toon said.
Larger cities would be the most likely to provide child care during meetings, Toon said. The state’s third-largest city, Salem, hasn’t considered it, spokesman Kenny Larson said. Salem did start streaming its meetings on the city’s Facebook page, as well as a community television station’s YouTube page, to make them more accessible to people who can’t be at city hall, Larson said.
“Part of the way we mitigate some of those issues is that we livestream meetings on Facebook,” Larson said.
Bend livestreams City Council meetings on its website and airs them live on COTV Channel 11. The Deschutes County Commission also livestreams morning meetings, but not most afternoon work sessions, on its website.
The County Commission, the Bend Park & Recreation District board and the Bend-La Pine School Board have not considered providing any form of child care, spokeswomen for each government body confirmed, but park district spokeswoman Julie Brown said the district occasionally has parents with children attend meetings.
“Children are of course welcome at any school board meeting,” said Bend-La Pine Schools spokeswoman Alandra Johnson.
Outside of government, a statewide nonprofit organization created nearly a year ago reimburses parents for child care costs incurred while they participate in civic activities like attending government meetings, testifying before the Legislature and talking to their elected officials. So far, Politisit only has clients in Portland and Salem, but founder Rachel Sowray said it can serve parents and other caregivers statewide.
Sowray, a Portland attorney and mother, founded Politisit after watching reports from other states on long lines outside polling places during the 2016 election. She said she knew she wouldn’t have been able to wait hours to vote with a toddler in tow, and many parents face a choice between paying bills and paying for a babysitter so they can participate in civic engagement.
“It seemed like being a parent should not be a barrier,” Sowray said.
— Reporter: 541-633-2160; firstname.lastname@example.org