When he returned after missing two meetings in a row, telling his colleagues where he spent the month of August was one of the hardest things Bend Mayor Casey Roats had to do during his time on the City Council.
It was also one of the most important and meaningful messages for many in Bend.
Roats, 37, is an owner of a small water utility, one of the youngest people to serve as Bend’s mayor in recent years and the last mayor to be selected by fellow councilors. He also spent much of August being treated for depression and anxiety at an in-patient treatment facility in Arizona. They were problems, Roats would explain to the council at the end of a late-night meeting in September, that he had suffered with for a few years but was reluctant to address because of the shame and embarrassment that often clouds mental health issues.
He finally sought treatment because he felt stuck. His colleagues told Roats he was courageous.
Since returning to Bend, Roats used his position as mayor to discuss mental health issues. It has become a mission for Roats.
“I really wanted to just use that platform so others might feel more comfortable seeking help before it’s either too late or before they endure any more than they have to,” Roats said during a recent interview.
His first brief comments in September prompted more letters, emails and cards than anything else Roats did during a four-year term on the City Council that included major policy decisions on the city’s growth, transportation planning, marijuana regulations and sewer infrastructure. And his message stuck with colleagues, too, including Mayor-elect Sally Russell.
“We are all better when we bring this forward in the community,” Russell said. “The more that we’re visible and conversant about it, the quicker we can get to a healthier community.”
More than four decades after his struggle with depression forced U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton to end his run for vice president, mental health issues of all kinds still carry a stigma in politics and society. It’s been estimated that 43.8 million Americans experience mental illness in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Roats, who leaves office in a few days, plans to continue sharing his story in the hopes he can change attitudes toward those who suffer from mental illness, starting with a volunteer role at Bethlehem Inn, a shelter for homeless people in Bend.
“If I would have broken my arm, no one would have blinked an eye that I had to get my arm worked on and miss a meeting or two,” he said. “We as a society, I hope, will move toward understanding that mental health is every bit as important as our physical health.”
Wednesday marks the end — at least for now — of a decade of service on city committees and the City Council that began with work on the city’s infrastructure advisory committee. As a member of that group, and later the city’s sewer infrastructure advisory group, Roats worked on two of Bend’s biggest infrastructure projects of the past decade: a new pipeline to draw drinking water from Bridge Creek and a major new sewer line in southeast Bend.
During his past few months on the City Council, Roats was the driving force behind a compromise to a new problem caused by the sewer line: how to connect hundreds of southeast Bend homes on septic systems to the city’s sewer system. State law prohibits homeowners from repairing their failing septic systems if a working sewer is within 300 feet, and the cost to connect could be as high as $100,000 for some residents.
A city committee proposed connecting about 600 homes in southeast Bend to the sewer over the next three years at a subsidized cost of up to $25,000 per homeowner.
It soon became clear that solution didn’t have the political legs to succeed, Roats said. Instead, the City Council adopted a policy he proposed that would eventually connect all 2,800 homes on septic systems to the sewer by allowing streets to apply for city funds to help pay for connections.
“While it is far from a final solution or a final product, I think it’s a good start,” he said. “I hope it works, and I hope in the end it was a good thing.”
As mayor, Roats often called on his colleagues to put politics aside when making decisions. He said he never saw politicizing what the city did as beneficial and particularly objected to councilors using city staff, who aren’t allowed to talk back or express political opinions, to make their points.
“Councilors who are elected are going to be inherently political, and if they wanted to disagree vociferously, fine by me,” he said. “But I drew a line because it puts our staff in such an awkward position to be given loaded ‘gotcha’ questions for the sake of making a councilor’s point.”
Roats has stayed true to the main principle behind his public service — making Bend a city where his two young daughters, as well as others, can afford to live and thrive — since he first began campaigning in 2014. Over the years, though, Roats said he has become more moderate in his positions.
Despite describing himself as a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights, he attended Bend’s student-organized March for Our Lives to listen to local students join teenagers around the country in calling for stricter gun control laws. He’s come around to supporting city actions on climate change that resulted in Bend saving tens of thousands of dollars on electrical bills. And in one of his last actions on the City Council, Roats cast the deciding vote to enact a citywide ban on most plastic grocery bags.
“If you don’t change your views and opinions after four years on a governing body, you’re probably not being as intellectually honest with yourself or the community as you could be,” he said. “You are exposed to so much information and so many points of view. If you just come and never change your points of view, you’re an awfully rigid person, and I don’t believe I’m very rigid.”
Roats said he’d leave it up to others to judge whether he changed in a good way.
One person who believes Roats grew — and was impressed with that — is Councilor Barb Campbell.
The two were elected in the same year, and they got off to a rocky start when Campbell’s partner, political activist Foster Fell, sued Roats in Deschutes County Circuit Court, contending he wasn’t actually a resident of Bend. While running for office, Roats temporarily lived with his parents outside of city limits between selling his Bend house and constructing another.
By the end of their final December meeting together, Campbell said Roats had become a “real statesman for the community.”
Roats said he wants to return to local office at some point, be it the City Council, the Bend Park & Recreation District board or the Deschutes County Commission. He considered applying for the upcoming vacancy on the City Council but decided against it because he didn’t feel it was appropriate to seek an appointment to an open seat when he chose not to run for re-election.
Also off the table: a run for state office. Roats’ name had been tossed around as a potential contender for the Bend-based 54th House District, but he stressed that he is not looking to run for higher office.
“I found it challenging just to make it down to City Hall,” he said. “For me to go to Salem for months on end with my life right now would not even be in the cards.”
Roats said his focus is now on his business, which has doubled in size over the past four years, volunteering and — most of all — spending time with his daughters.
“I’m hoping that my Wednesday nights have a lot more swim meets and dance practices,” he said.
— Reporter: 541-633-2160; firstname.lastname@example.org