B end’s Great Gas Tax Fiasco occurred more than three years ago, but it continues to haunt city officials as they prepare to ask voters for road money once again. So spooked are they by the ghost of 2016 that they worried about hiring Hubbell Communications to work on the current funding effort because a Bend-based Hubbell employee played a high-profile role in the earlier effort. The work went to a different firm, Barney & Worth.
The city’s impulse to steer clear of former Bend 2030 Executive Director Erin Foote Morgan is understandable. It’s also disingenuous. The 2016 tax did not fail as the result of anything Morgan said or did. It failed, rather, because Bend City Council bungled the election. And it will bungle the next one, too, unless it learns from its own mistakes.
Morgan’s role in the city’s contracting decision surfaced on April 12 during a meeting of the Local Contract Review Board Subcommittee. The discussion focused on the work that communications firm Barney & Worth is expected to do on the transportation funding effort. The work, for which City Council agreed Wednesday to pay up to $108,050, is fairly wide-ranging and includes a “public education component” to sell voters on a funding package next year.
There were two finalists for the contract, and the other was Hubbell. However, City Manager Eric King said during the April 12 meeting, the city was concerned with a member of Hubbell’s team. This admission followed a comment by another official to the effect that the city wants “to be careful about using vendors that were maybe associated” with the losing effort in 2016. They were clearly discussing Foote Morgan.
After catching wind of this exchange, Hubbell Communications President Ward Hubbell penned a letter to King and members of Bend City Council. Hubbell pointed out that Barney & Worth also did work related to the failed gas tax effort and questioned the city’s selection effort. King, in response, defended the process and the subsequent committee discussion, noting that selection criteria included “relevant experience of potential team members, which in our view supports the validity of the questions and discussion” April 12.
Hubbell, not mollified, wrote in a follow-up email that his company “really felt we got thrown under the bus,” referred to the 2016 effort as a “gas tax debacle” and called King’s comments about Foote Morgan “unBendlike.”
All of this is pretty entertaining as far as government business goes, and you really can’t blame city officials from wanting to distance themselves as thoroughly as possible from all things 2016. Consider, though, what it is Foote Morgan actually did back then, especially in light of actions taken by city councilors. Problem is, the city can’t decline to hire itself.
Foote Morgan’s great sin took place during a July 2015 City Council work session when, making a transportation presentation on behalf of Bend 2030, she gave councilors some election advice. Fall 2015, she said, would be a better time to ask voters to pass a gas tax than May 2016, when a crowded presidential primary would draw large numbers of Republican voters.
This contributed to the larger narrative leading up to the 2016 vote that the city was trying to raise taxes by gaming the election. But there was nothing shocking in what Foote Morgan said. Elected bodies routinely schedule funding votes in order to maximize the chances of success, and in doing so they consider a number of factors. These include likely turnout as well as other things that might be on a given ballot. Pity the city that places a gas tax on the same ballot as a huge school bond.
The real blunder was council’s decision to avoid the May 2016 election by spending tens of thousands of dollars to stage a special election only two months earlier. Foote Morgan says that idea did not originate with either her or Bend 2030. And in any case, it was City Council that actually did the deed and spent the money. Voters, apparently appalled, crushed the gas tax by a huge margin.
The ghost from which Bend should be running isn’t that of Foote Morgan’s tenure at the head of Bend 2030. Bend’s real boogeyman is the public perception that city leaders will do anything — anything — to hustle a tax increase by their constituents. They’ll lavish taxpayer money on a completely unnecessary election. Heck, they’ll even wring their hands about engaging a consulting firm three years later because it hired one of the city’s most ardent allies during the earlier effort.
There’s cold, and there’s Bend City Hall cold.
A six-figure sum ought to buy Bend City Council some expert advice in its effort to put together a transportation package that appeals to voters. Here’s hoping that advice sounds something like this, which is offered here for free:
Avoid any behavior that suggests to voters that you’re manipulating the process, and create a transportation package that gives the most people what they most need. Increased road capacity is a good place to start.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.