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Ch-Ch-Chaaaaaanging the City Charter 

Bend's city charter hasn't been changed in 22 years. Now on the table: the possibility of an elected mayor, plus dividing the city into wards


he quintessential elements of Bend's governance—mayors, city council members and pay— are ruled by the City of Bend Charter, last reviewed more than 22 years ago when the City had around 30,000 residents. On Oct. 24, the citizen committee established to review the charter suggested the city divide into geographical sections—or wards. The 10-person committee is deciding between a three- or four-ward system, to be decided during two meetings before Dec. 4.

"A lot of the conversation was around what are the 'lenses' through which councilors view the issues facing the city," says City Councilor Bruce Abernethy, a liaison for the citizen committee.


The committee also contemplated electing a mayor— for a yet undecided two- or four-year term—which may include a pay raise. Currently, councilors and the mayor earn a $200 monthly stipend. The committee also agreed to limit the elected mayor's powers, suggesting the mayor should not be able to veto City Council decisions, for example.

"From last review, we've gone from 30,000 to a mid-sized city of 87,000," said Don Leonard, president of the Boyd Acres Neighborhood Association and member of the citizen panel.

Richard Ross is a member of the panel that recommended the City review its charter. With his 30 years of experience in community planning and 15 years as staff support to two Gresham mayors, Ross says the issues are different now. "Bend is facing more complex problems than the good old days," he said.

Splitting the Difference: Wards


ost of Oregon's 10 largest cities elect councilors from geographically divided wards. Some locals have voiced concerns that Bend's growing east side is underrepresented on the current Council. Only two of seven councilors—Barb Campbell and Justin Livingston—live east of Third Street.

"We aren't necessarily trying to model ourselves after a particular city, since most have had their systems in place for decades," says Citizen Committee Co-Chair Bill Galaway. "We wanted to look at comparable communities with strong city managers and mayor councilors." Galaway, who lives on Bend's southeast side, says he sees firsthand the city's inattentiveness. "We're in areas where sewers still haven't been put in, county roads that are crumbling."

Galaway says he doesn't think, "current council members really have the bandwidth to go out, get out and understand parts of the city they are unfamiliar with." Wards, he argues, would change that.

Medford, with a population of over 81,000 and Hillsboro, at roughly 105,000, elect councilors from ward systems. Medford has four wards, with two city councilors elected from each. Hillsboro has three wards, electing two councilors from each. Both cities stagger the four year terms for councilors, which some experts say brings stability to the council. Hillsboro allows the entire city to vote across the ward system; Medford doesn't.

"I personally go back and forth on how to do it," says Galaway, noting that if Bend moved to a three- or four-ward system, it would have approximately 20,000 to 30,000 residents in each ward. "If we stay true to national polling numbers and only 50 percent vote, or are eligible to vote, than it comes down to a pool of about 15,000 or even less. You may have a less than desirable candidate."

Eugene is the state's third largest city, according to U.S. Census data released in 2016, at approximately 166,000 residents. It has eight wards with approximately 20,000 residents each, giving residents access to representatives who can vocalize specific issues.

Galaway also points out that contrary to an Oct. 15 Bend Bulletin editorial stating wards could open themselves up to "gerrymandering," the Oregon State legislature has specific rules on how boundaries are set. Cities are "not allowed to set rules on where incumbents live, party affiliations, you can't break up neighborhood where they have significant population of minorities and so on," he says. The proposed ward maps were generated and obtained from the City of Bend.

Electing a Mayor, and For How Long?


eing mayor is a tough job–it takes a lot of time and emotional energy," says Abernethy, who served as Bend's mayor in 2007 and 2008, and is supportive of a two-year program rather than four years. "It's asking a lot for someone to sign up for four years without very much compensation." He adds that for those worrying that electing a mayor every two years would continue the pendulum swing of the City between Democrats and Republicans, "My hope is there will be an incentive to have that person move to the middle and be acceptable and supported by the 'silent middle"'majority."

Both men add that the current mayoral pay rate encourages, as Galaway says, the position to be taken up "by the indecently wealthy or retired." Abernethy, whose views on pay have changed over the years, says he's supportive of an increased pay for mayor and ambivalent for increased council pay. "The scope of the job has increased significantly in recent years...(but) in all instances, that decision of how much compensation is appropriate should be determined by an independent third party."

Galoway says the citizen committee has contemplated taking the pay rate out of the Charter completely. "One idea was for us to take the median annual salary in Bend and divide that by 50 percent and pay the mayor a part-time rate such as that....but it makes more sense for it to be taken out completely and then City Staff can perhaps deem what is appropriate."

An elected mayor would do little to change the power dynamic. The city manager would still run the day-to-day operations, prepare biennium budgets and regulate city staff and departments. The mayor would be responsible for appointing citizen committees, approved by other city councilors. If a councilor seat became vacant it would go to a vote, rather than being appointed by the mayor.

Galaway notes this is in line with the current thinking that the mayor is meant to be the "strategic visionary for the city," while the city manager "implements the details."

The recommendations, if approved, would be on the local ballot in May 2018.

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Magdalena Bokowa

Freelancer at the Source Weekly

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