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At What Cost? Record-breaking contributions raise questions about the role of campaign cash 

If money, as the Supreme Court tells us, is the equivalent of free speech in politics, then some of the local special interests were doing

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If money, as the Supreme Court tells us, is the equivalent of free speech in politics, then some of the local special interests were doing a lot of talking this past election.

According to the Secretary of State's Office, the Central Oregon Builder's Association (COBA) and the Central Oregon Association of Realtors (COAR) poured more than $100,000 into local elections in Deschutes and Crook County.

The record-breaking spending comes during a serious downturn in the building industry when many contractors are hanging up their hammers. But even as builders went bankrupt and banks lined up for a bailout from their failing sub-prime mortgages, the local housing industry's political action committees were opening their checkbooks at an unprecedented rate for candidates who supported their agenda.

COBA's political action committee, called Central Oregonians for Affordable Housing, contributed $87,900 to local candidates and ballot measures, almost $50,000 of that cash going directly into the campaign coffers of Jeff Eager ($15,420), Tom Greene ($8,542), Kathie Eckman ($12,042) and Don Leonard ($12,621). Greene and Eckman ultimately unseated incumbents Peter Gramlich and Linda Johnson. Leonard was the only challenger who lost to a current city councilor, Jim Clinton. But Clinton is a well-recognized name in Bend city politics who was endorsed by this paper and the local daily. He defeated Leonard by the widest margin of any candidate - 67 percent to 33 percent.

COBA officials say they were simply exercising their right to freedom of speech, and that their interest was in assisting candidates who wanted to curtail the days of free spending by the Bend's city council and who promised to focus on tightening the city budget to make sure that Bend once again became a well-managed city.

"The current city council mismanaged the city to the brink of financial ruin," COBA Executive Vice President Tim Knopp said. "I think the citizens of Bend need to be protected. This city council showed a complete disregard for the citizens of Bend by spending money frivolously, on buses that didn't work, for instance. They weren't paying attention while funds disappeared or were mismanaged at the visitor's bureau under their watch, and there were countless other issues where there has been poor management. They needed to be replaced, and we have confidence going forward that there will be tough decisions made by the new city council and city manager, and that they will do a good job."

Not everyone agrees. Critics say COBA is interested only in seeing that local developers and builders are able to continue making as much money as they have over the last several years at the expense of good planning and community sustainability.

"I think what's happening is, because of the housing crash, the builders and developers in Bend need to make sure that they can continue making the same amount of money they've made in the past, and the only way to do that is through the rapid expansion of the city's urban growth boundary," said Keith Quick, Deschutes County Organizer for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, which worked on behalf of three of the four losing candidates.

"The urban growth boundary was the key issue this year," Quick said. "In the Bend City Council race, there was a clear line between four progressive candidates going up against four pro-growth candidates. The pro-growthers believed in expansion, and the other four progressives believed in a more sustainable approach to growth in Bend."

The most notable difference in campaign spending came in how Eager, Eckman and Greene used their finances for advertising. Each of them had enough funding to spend on televisions ads, as well as newspapers and radio, and that focus made all the difference in the 2008 general election, said Jodie Barram, vice chair of the Bend Urban Area Planning Commission who lost the race for Bend City Council seat one to Eager.

"Advertising is not free by any means," Barram said. "As non-incumbents, Jeff and I had an uphill battle getting our name recognized. In this race, especially, the difference came down to financing and being able to afford those TV ads. I chose to go with radio and print ads because that's what I could afford. Jeff was able to afford plenty of TV ads, which got his name and face in front of another audience that I was not able to reach."

Quick said the TV ads had more of a dubious effect on the outcome of the elections than simply expanding name recognition.

"The real fear about this election from a citizen's perspective is that not only were Bend's citizens duped into voting for pro-development candidates, the TV ads made them look like change candidates, or candidates that cared about the environment and the livability of Bend," Quick said. "They have a lot to prove once they get on the council. I don't think we will see them supporting livable communities like they said, but we'll see. The real fear here is that special interests gave so much money to three of the four candidates who won, those special interests stand to gain monetarily from decisions the city council makes. That's the real scary part here - the special interests, especially the Central Oregon Builders Association, bought those city council seats and now these councilors are going to owe them something. That's really concerning to the OLCV and it should be concerning to other citizens in Bend who care about keeping the city council an independent body."

Knopp, however, said expansion of the UGB is long overdue. By law, Bend is required to have a 20-year allotment of buildable land, and the UGB has not been expanded since 1981 when the city had just about 10,000 residents and was still considered rural. However, the city annexed all of its UGB less than a decade ago, adding thousands of acres in raw land to the city and roughly doubling the size of Bend overnight as county residents became city residents. While builders chewed through a good chunk of those lands in the recent halcyon days of the industry, there remain almost 3,000 buildable lots inside the city limits and roughly a year's supply worth of homes on the market and the rate of absorption has slowed to a virtual stop.

Builders and developers, however, say they are looking at the big picture and not the current slowdown from which they expect to rebound.

Knopp said that those who assert that COBA was out to buy the city council sound like nothing more than a bunch of sore losers.

"If they have a problem with us, then they have a problem with the law," Knopp said. "Our biggest interest is in a well-managed city. There is nothing specific that we are asking for, but I can tell you this - the city needs to get spending under control. The new council will have to make spending cuts that the current council has been unwilling to make in order to save the city budget."

A lawyer who worked as a staffer for Greg Walden before entering law school, Eager came into the election with limited local government experience having served on a city urban renewal commission and the county's families and children's board, but Eager was able to secure the backing of deep-pocketed interests, including COBA, the local realtor's association and the Bend Chamber PAC. And he raised more than $28,000 in cash contributions. By way of contrast, his opponent Barram, who has served for several years on the city's planning commission and has been deeply involved in the UGB expansion, did not have the support of the building industry. She raised just under $10,000 in cash contributions.

Campaign cash notwithstanding, Eager said he isn't beholden to any single interest group.

"I don't think that the builders or anyone else bought any of the races," Eager said. "I think the voters made a decision based on the issues. No one who gave me money has asked me to do anything for them yet," Eager said.

Eager said he will be listening to all of his constituents, regardless of whether they were a contributor to his campaign.

"I firmly believe one of the most important things I can do as a city councilor is to have an open door policy and meet with anyone who wants to meet with me and get their input on issues before the city council. One thing is for certain - I'm not going to give additional weight to people who gave contributions to me or to anyone else in the race," Eager said.

The issue of spending money in an election strikes people the wrong way, but as long as campaigns are expensive to run candidates are going to need to raise money in order to compete, said Bill Robie, government affairs director for the realtors association. It's simply a reality of the times we live in, and the fact that Bend is not a small town anymore. There is a lot at stake, which is why so many people threw their hats into the ring this year to run for office, he said.

"I don't know how you buy an election," Robie said. "The voters vote and the voters spoke in this election, and we are grateful that they supported the candidates we were supporting. I think that reflects what's going on with the economy and what has been happening locally as opposed to how much money was spent on local campaigns. Barack Obama far outspent John McCain but you don't hear anybody saying he bought the election. Spending money in a campaign is no guarantee you're going to win. I think ultimately the results of any election have more to do with how people perceive leadership. We need the city to get back on track financially and that's going to take time."

But councilors who relied on campaign contributions from those groups are going to need to maintain transparency throughout their terms, said Barram, who is one of the finalists being considered for appointment to the Bend City Council seat that opened with the recent death of long-time councilor and former mayor Bill Friedman.

"I am concerned," Barram said. "Hopefully I will be appointed and be able to be in a position to work with the individuals who were elected. I hope the public and the councilors make sure those people who were elected are honest when it is time to vote on some issues and that they declare any conflicts of interest. The public should be made aware if they are favoring those groups because of those PACs," she said.

And while Barram doesn't necessarily like the outcome, she acknowledges that money is part of politics - even at the city level.

"I don't know that the election was bought by COBA, but I would say that it was strongly influenced, but that's a PAC. They have a right to contribute to whomever they want," Barram said.

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