The Bend City Council was inundated with emails supporting one applicant for an open council seat, but councilors chose another candidate supported by key members of the business community, public records obtained by The Bulletin revealed.
The City Council stunned many last week when it voted 4-2 to appoint Chris Piper, a white Republican businessman without government experience, to the seat left vacant after Sally Russell won the mayoral election in November.
Piper will be sworn in Wednesday morning.
Since the Jan. 16 vote, public reaction has been overwhelmingly negative. Russell, who cast the deciding vote, has taken the brunt of the criticism. She debated accepting a police escort to her car when leaving that meeting, and a Facebook post explaining her vote garnered more than 80 comments, many from supporters who said her vote for Piper betrayed the progressive values she ran on and the liberal volunteers who helped her get elected.
“It’s really easy after a decision is made to go back and second-guess what happened and make all sorts of assumptions and stories about it,” Russell said. “It’s important to know that at least for me walking into any council meeting, I’m never fully sure what’s going to happen next.”
The Bulletin requested all emails and text messages received and sent by city councilors about the vacancy between Jan. 4, the day applications closed, and Jan. 16, the day of the final vote. During that period, nearly 40 people emailed all or some of the councilors to support Kerani Mitchell, a 33-year-old renter, woman of color and telecommuting accounting associate with extensive community experience.
While emails were flooding in about Mitchell, other conversations about Piper were happening behind the scenes Jan. 15 and 16. Text messages reflect conversations Russell had with former Mayor Oran Teater, Bend Chamber of Commerce President Katy Brooks, Chamber board President Vic Martinez and Karna Gustafson, vice president of government affairs for the Central Oregon Builders Association.
Also on Jan. 15, Russell called Councilor Gena Goodman-Campbell and ended with a pitch for Piper, Goodman-Campbell said.
“I was kind of surprised, honestly, because his name hadn’t come up in previous discussions with her and other councilors,” Goodman-Campbell said.
Only Councilor Justin Livingston originally selected Piper to move on to interviews, though Russell during that meeting Jan. 8 said she was interested in Piper because of his volunteer work.
Martinez texted Russell the morning of Jan. 15, saying he knew the mayor would make a good decision in “someone who will support your vision and help develop your legacy.” He followed up a few hours later asking for Councilor Bruce Abernethy’s cellphone number, and said he would call Abernethy to advocate for Piper.
Martinez said he thought appointing Piper would keep the ideological pendulum of the City Council from swinging too far to the left.
Piper’s appointment means the City Council will continue to have four registered Democrats and three registered Republicans, as it has since 2017. Council seats are nonpartisan and national party politics do not map easily onto city decisions. Split votes on the City Council often don’t match party lines.
“We just felt that Chris was probably the most experienced one and more of a moderate,” Martinez said. “We thought that Chris would be the most balanced one.”
Brooks, meanwhile, texted Russell and sent Goodman-Campbell an email advocating for Piper.
“Feedback from the Chamber Advocacy Council and board members was they were most impressed by Chris Piper,” Brooks wrote to Goodman-Campbell. “Seems like he has a good perspective that lends balance to the council, will be a productive member and an advocate for solving some of the growth-related issues. I know you were leaning toward Kerani, but our impression is that she may be an incredible asset in another capacity that is housing focused.”
Gustafson, in text messages to Russell, also suggested Mitchell would be a better fit on the city’s affordable housing committee, or the Bend Economic Development Advisory Board. Gustafson wrote she thought Mitchell had been surrounded by people with similar mindsets and needed some “exposure to the other side.”
Gustafson told The Bulletin Friday she hasn’t met or spoken with Piper. But his interview with the city council, done over video call from Las Vegas, impressed her.
“Once I saw who he was, I thought it would be a good fit,” she said. “It was his personality that came through, being collegial, willing to work hard, and he had made some references that he had read the budget of the city.”
Teater said he spoke to Abernethy and Russell because they were friends, and Teater, who served on the City Council for 10 years, has opinions on city business. He said he didn’t advocate for any individual candidate, but he wanted the city to make a “solid, balanced appointment.”
One other person, Kim Gammond, emailed Russell and Abernethy to support Piper. Gammond is the spokesperson for the Central Oregon Association of Realtors, but she said she was not writing in her capacity with the association.
She wrote that Piper would be a good choice because he represents telecommuters and didn’t have the baggage of an election, personal relationships to councilors or ties to special-interest groups.
Abernethy said he had conversations with Martinez, Teater, Russell and Livingston about Piper, then talked to Piper by phone the morning of Jan. 16. He said his two top choices remained Mitchell and Kathy Austin, a member of the city’s affordable housing advisory committee who was the mayor of a small California city.
“I was pretty public who my top two choices were, but Chris was someone I felt comfortable voting for, and even more so after talking to him,” Abernethy said.
Early on, councilors received several emails supporting Kori Sparks, a finalist for the seat who ultimately withdrew for health reasons. In her letter withdrawing from consideration, Sparks said she wholeheartedly endorsed Mitchell. A few people, including former Bend affordable housing manager Jim Long, emailed supporting Kathy Austin.
Several people emailed opposing Andrew Davis, a finalist who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council seat won by Goodman-Campbell. Those emails argued that appointing Davis would be a rebuke to Bend residents who voted for Goodman-Campbell by a two-to-one margin.
Davis, in his interview, said voters sometimes are faced with two good choices. He’s seeking one of two open positions on the city’s planning commission.
Emails demonstrated how some councilors made their decisions. Goodman-Campbell created a rubric with points for service, city experience, new perspectives the candidates could bring to the City Council and their focus on priorities, including transportation, affordable housing and the implementation of Bend’s urban growth boundary.
Emails show that Piper, who Russell did not include in any of the lists of top candidates she shared with fellow councilors, was present in the periphery.
Rebecca Mehra, who was Russell’s communications director during her mayoral campaign, sent Russell an email Jan. 7 with notes on each applicant and numerical rankings on a scale of one to five. Piper received a 4. The list of five candidates Russell wanted to interview had Piper listed under a heading of “Others considered.”
Between Jan. 9 and Jan. 15, Russell had at least two phone calls with Piper and exchanged more than 20 texts with him. She also helped him connect with Brooks.
“I think it’s important to know that I was looking to fill in information gaps,” Russell said. “I had a lot of information coming on Kathy Austin. I had a lot of information coming in on Kerani.”
“We are making a lot of decisions that affect our entire community,” Russell said. “I feel it’s important that the community see a relatively balanced council with a breadth of viewpoints and skillsets that have the capacity of working together.”
— Reporter: 541-633-2160; email@example.com