Bend residents will likely get a chance to vote whether to directly elect their mayor. That’s after a meeting Wednesday where councilors voted in favor of putting the issue to voters. At the same meeting, councilors rejected the idea of instating a ward system to elect city leaders.
All seven of the city councilors are in favor of a citizen-elected mayor, but they disagreed on some of the details about how to put the issue to voters. Currently, the city council appoints Bend’s mayor from among their own ranks, and that person serves for two years. A volunteer committee had earlier recommended that the issue go before voters in May so that Bend residents could vote for mayor in November 2018.
Resident Nancy Boever testified that she’d prefer to have the mayoral election coincide with the presidential election, when voter turnout is higher. That was a perspective shared by some of the councilors. “For the mayor to truly represent Bend, this election deserves the benefit of the highest voter participation,” said Boever.
If Bend voters approve of a directly elected mayor, he or she would serve a four-year term.
Councilors unanimously rejected the idea of a voting some councilors in by a ward system, which was proposed as a means to encourage more geographic diversity on the city council. Bend’s city leadership is often dominated by candidates from the wealthier west side of town. But councilors and some citizens expressed concern that a ward system would foster leaders who are looking out for their neighborhood’s interests instead of those of the whole city.
Resident Laurie Gould testified against the ward system, “As a voter from the east side of Bend, I don’t want my access to the city council reduced to just a few people. I want all of you to have to work for my vote.”
City leaders were working with recommendations from a citizen committee that worked on this for much of the past year. That group recommended that Bend directly elect its mayor and that the city adopt a geographic ward system for electing some city councilors. The group also favored increasing pay for city councilors and the mayor.
In fiery testimony during a council work session, committee co-chair Brent Landels expressed frustration over the imbalance of east Bend representation on both the city council and on council-appointed citizen committees that make recommendations about city governance. “We are codifying Bend into a city of haves and have-nots,” Landels said. He emphasized that the ward system is an important step toward greater representation from lower income east-side residents.
Councilor Nathan Boddie expressed concerns that ward races could increase campaign spending and create “soft target” candidates that special interests could influence.
“What we’re after is more inclusivity … I’m not sure that this ward system does that for us,” said Boddie.
Councilor Barb Campbell questioned the notion that campaign financing discourages a more diverse set of candidates. “The problem is that this is a really, really bad job,” said Campbell. She said that if pay were a little higher than the current $200 a month, more people might be willing to take on the role of city councilor. “I think we have so many folks that need that additional little bit of income.”
Councilor Sally Russell indicated that she’d welcome more discussion, but that there were too many questions and issues that remain to be worked out before the idea could get her vote. “I feel like we’re not even close on wards,” said Russell.
Councilor Boddie applauded the community involvement on the issue, given the topics.
“This is pretty in-the-weeds, policy level, nitty-gritty stuff,” said Boddie. “Bend’s an engaged community. That’s at least one good thing.”
City leaders voted 5-2 in support of removing the $200-per-month pay rate from Bend’s charter. Removing the exact amount from the charter opens the door to the possibility of pay increases for councilors in the mayor. A discussion about how any potential increase and appropriate amounts will be taken up by a future committee.
Mayor Casey Roats applauded the discussion and the citizen involvement on all three issues and emphasized that these are complicated topics.
“In a community growing as fast as Bend is, there’s no making everybody happy,” Roats said.