Bend Mayor Sally Russell, saying she had “never been more attacked or bullied” after choosing to appoint Chris Piper to the City Council, faced an occasionally hostile room of fellow Democrats on Valentine’s Day who questioned her decision.
Russell, who defended her actions for an hour, said she had received multiple emails that said “shame on you.”
“This is really difficult,” Russell said. “You are an aggressive, angry room. I am a human being.”
The standing room-only crowd at the Bend Environmental Center on Thursday evening included many people who had supported other finalists for the council seat that became vacant after Russell won the city’s mayoral election.
They described feeling betrayed by Russell’s decision to pick Piper, a Republican.
“I think the sense of outrage is that Chris Piper had never even been to a council meeting,” Bend resident Connie Peterson said. “We don’t even know who this person is.”
Russell said she and the rest of the City Council tried to bring more transparency to the appointment process that didn’t exist in previous appointments.
“You got to read all the applications,” she said. “You got to see every deliberation right in front of you. You got to see all the interviews.”
Russell said she decided Piper was the only one of the six finalists she could support because he had strong personal communication skills, experience managing diverse teams of people and has committed to Bend by raising his family here and volunteering in local schools.
Emails and texts obtained through public records requests by The Bulletin and later posted online in their entirety by local activists showed that representatives of the city’s business community lobbied Russell and other councilors to support Piper.
Eileen Kiely, vice chairwoman of the Deschutes County Democratic Party and a 2018 state House candidate, said she was disturbed by a text message exchange between Russell and Karna Gustafson, vice president of government affairs at the Central Oregon Builders Association. In it, Gustafson and Russell discussed the “perfect place” for finalist Kerani Mitchell, what Councilors Barb Campbell and Gena Goodman-Campbell were “going to pull” between interviews and the vacancy vote and whether Mayor Pro Tem Bruce Abernethy supported Mitchell for appearance’s sake only.
“I found that conversation really upsetting because that’s indicating there’s already been a decision, that there’s considerable lobbying going on between one of the most powerful political organization in Central Oregon (and Russell),” Kiely said.
Russell contended that her text messages had been taken out of context. She said she sought information on other finalists, including Piper, because she was receiving what she thought were form letters about Mitchell.
“We had a lot of emails, and the emails I received personally in my inbox were virtually identical,” Russell said. “They had four talking points.”
The bulk of the emails received by city councilors between the day applications were due and the vote, supported Mitchell. Most of the people who wrote about her described personal experiences they’d had working with her. Nearly all of those emails contained points Mitchell made in her application and interview about how her experiences as a woman of color, a renter and someone who has gone through bankruptcy would help her represent Bend.
Russell said she’s committed to ensuring that principles of diversity, equity and inclusion are embedded in the city’s goals, and she will support changes to the city’s charter to prevent another instance of councilors appointing a replacement because a councilor is elected as mayor. She said the Democrats questioning her needed to learn from the process as well.
“When you don’t understand why the decision got made, ask the questions,” she said. “There was information that really got spun out that was very far from the truth.”
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