The Bend City Council unanimously rejected recommendations to elect councilors from geographic wards during a contentious meeting Wednesday.
But Bend voters will likely get to decide whether to directly elect the city’s mayor and make it easier to adjust council pay.
The decision on wards followed more than an hour of comments from Bend residents, most of whom opposed electing four of the remaining six city councilors from wards. That recommendation, as well as directly electing a mayor, was the result of months of work from Bend’s charter review committee, which also recommended that the city remove a reference to councilors’ $200-a-month pay from the city’s charter and instead have an independent committee recommend council pay.
Any changes to the charter, which functions as the city’s constitution, need to be approved by voters. Councilors are trying to decide what yes-no questions to send to voters during the May election, and they’ll go over draft language during a Jan. 17 meeting.
The mayor recommendation, supported by Mayor Casey Roats and councilors Bill Moseley, Justin Livingston and Bruce Abernethy, stipulates that voters will decide during the May election whether Bend will directly elect its mayor or continue having councilors select the mayor from among themselves.
If voters decide to elect future mayors, they’d be elected to four-year terms.
Other logistical issues, including what happens if an elected mayor resigns, won’t be settled until that Jan. 17 meeting.
Mayor Pro Tem Sally Russell and councilors Nathan Boddie and Barb Campbell advocated for pushing all decisions to January, giving councilors more time to debate the proposed changes. But Abernethy, who served as the council’s liaison to the charter review committee, and Livingston, who filled in for him at some committee meetings, said they needed to make a decision.
“There’s no sense in having the committee if we’re just going to rehash everything,” Livingston said. “I won’t be in support of having another meeting.”
While councilors were split on portions of the elected mayor recommendation, including whether the mayor should be chosen in lower-turnout midterm election years or higher-turnout presidential election years, they all supported the concept of electing a mayor.
Most commenters did as well, but Bend resident David Paulson said a directly elected mayor won’t necessarily serve as a representative voice for Bend. Especially if multiple people run for mayor, a candidate could win without support of a majority of voters, he said.
“On almost every issue, Bend is a divided society,” he said.
Most councilors sided with the residents who opposed ward elections, rather than the charter review committee, which unanimously agreed to move to some form of council wards. Livingston and Moseley, the two most vocal proponents of wards on the council, ended up voting against a final motion to adopt a ward system after Boddie amended it to require voting citywide, instead of from wards.
“It’s like us electing the representatives of a different state,” Moseley said.
Laurie Gould, a former chairwoman of the Deschutes County Democratic Party, said she has spent a long time trying to get people to vote in local elections. Shifting to a ward system, in which residents would vote for just four of the seven council members, decreases incentives to vote, she said.
“Right now we all vote for all of these positions,” she said. “We can hold our local representatives accountable for the decisions they can make. As a voter from the east side of Bend, I don’t want my access to the city council to be limited to just a few people.”
Most voters haven’t been following the charter discussion, Bend resident Marlene Barnett said, and they may be surprised when it comes time to vote for city councilors. She said any changes should wait until after the 2020 census, when ward maps could be drawn based on more accurate population estimates. She also opposed the committee’s recommendation to elect ward councilors in 2020 and the mayor and two at-large councilors in 2018.
“There will be many voters that don’t participate in the midterm elections, who don’t participate in nonpresidential elections, and then in 2020 will be asking when they gave up their right to vote for all their representatives,” Barnett said.
Most residents who spoke against the ward recommendation are from the west side of Bend, charter review committee co-chairman Brent Landels said. Many city committees are disproportionately made up of residents who live on the west side of town and it shows in decisions like a planning process that concentrates more dense multi-family housing in the southeast part of town, he said.
“We are codifying Bend into a town of haves and have-nots,” he said. “That is the damage that has been done. That is the echo chamber.”
Charter review committee member Don Leonard also chairs the Boyd Acres Neighborhood Association. The board of his association in northeast Bend all supported the charter review committee’s recommendations, he said. Critical comments during the council listening session just did more to convince him that the city needs wards, he said.
“We have a lot of the so-called silent majority out there that wants local representatives elected in the wards,” he said.
Ward proponents argue that electing councilors from smaller geographic areas could lower barriers to election by allowing them to spend less to campaign, and ensures geographic representation.
Councilors voted 5-2, with Moseley and Livingston opposed, to recommend removing council and mayor pay from the charter and instead have an independent committee recommend pay that would be set by ordinance. If it remains in the charter, pay could be changed only by a citywide vote.
In other business, the City Council unanimously agreed to have voters decide in May whether to renew a five-year local levy for fire and emergency services.
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