Bend voters elected Melanie Kebler with 55% of the vote in November after she served two years on the City Council. The Bend-raised attorney's platform focused on increasing affordable housing, environmentalism and a transportation system that increases access for pedestrians and cyclists. Shortly before she was sworn in, Kebler sat down with the Source Weekly for an interview. Listen to the full interview in full at the "Videos and Podcasts" tab of our website, bendsource.com. The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
Source Weekly: Something we think about is, as the community grows, and these positions remain, basically volunteer, how does someone balance a career, a family, the civic engagement and stepping up now with responsibilities as a mayor?
Melanie Kebler: I think that's one of the conversations I want to have in the next couple of years is looking at how to professionalize City Council a little bit more, so that people feel supported to run for that job even if they have a lot of other pressures or family obligations. Because it can be pretty hard to show up in the community and to go to all the meetings and to do all the prep that you really want to do to be an excellent counselor or mayor, if you still have to work a nine to five and get your health benefits and support your family. What I think ends up happening is, you know, I have some privilege of a partner who has a steady, well-paying job, we've got a house and so I have the freedom to do this. But not everybody has those same privileges. And we'd like more people to have the opportunity to do this work. I think that's a conversation that's coming. The process for us locally would be to appoint a committee of citizens and residents to answer a couple questions for us and make a recommendation. And then anything we decide would not go into effect till the next election. So we couldn't raise our own [pay]. But we could set a course for the future.
SW: Now that you've achieved at least the initial goal to be our next mayor, what are you looking forward to? What are some of your goals for the coming year?
MK: I'm really excited to get into our goal-setting process that we do every two years with the new council that comes on. I really want to focus on building this council together as a team that works well together with staff, and that we set some real clear priorities and goals for the next couple of years. I think a lot of them are going to build on what we've been doing the past couple of years. I'm excited about the progress we've made, but want to keep moving forward and refining or redirecting as we need to from what we did last time.
SW: When you're looking back at the goals, how do you measure if you were successful or not?
MK: We've been talking about that a lot and talked about having a dashboard online that has each goal. When we set some of our goals, we tried to put numbers on them. We wanted 1,000 new affordable units in the pipeline. We wanted 500 shelter beds, so we tried to do something that we could measure. And I think that's what we need to talk about, again this time, is how do we set priorities and goals? And then how do we have actual performance indicators, things that we can measure along the way so that we can adjust as we need to through the years.
SW: How did you do on those two numbers?
MK: We've got 800+ affordable homes in the pipeline right now. And our biennium actually starts in June, so we're actually in the last kind of six months of the biennium. And then I think we're at 400+, or maybe close to 400 shelter beds total. I think we knew those were aspirational numbers, but we wanted to set a target we could aim for and really push ourselves to try to achieve.
SW: One of the next steps of that is how many people have we converted from having overnight shelter to permanent housing, and those numbers are still pretty low. I suppose that's probably part of your goal setting as well.
MK: I think we came in as a council and had a priority around, can we just get the basics of having an overnight shelter year round? Can we just get some of this navigation center stuff set up? Now that we've sort of achieved that milestone, I think we need to look to all the other parts of the housing spectrum, and especially there are folks staying at that overnight shelter, they have jobs, they have incomes, if there was a cheap apartment for them, that's where they would go, but there isn't. So that next step is a lot of what I think the focus needs to be on.
SW: We're always looking at things like NextDoor and, if you were on there, you might have assumed that this council was on its way out. That's just not really reality when it comes down to voting, which is kind of fascinating, to just see what the rhetoric is on a certain platform and how that does or doesn't play out.
MK: In my campaign, you know, I had a social media presence. But for us, it was more about being on the ground talking to people at their doors, getting ads in places where people will see them versus a Facebook ad, making calls and actually talking to people about what the values are that they support. I think too, I mean, a reality of our mail-in voting system, it's so convenient and easy. And a lot of people just sit down with their voter pamphlet and make their choices. So, it's important to make sure your values are clearly stated there as well, but it's hard. Sometimes you can feel like, wow, this post got a lot of comments or a lot of likes, and it feels very real. But what I've experienced is that there's kind of two different realities: online versus not.
SW: Knowing Bend's nonpartisan election, there's been a growing progressive slate that's been supported. And all indicators are that this, this purple community is leaning a little darker shade of blue. What does that mean for you, as you come in as a mayor? And what do you think it means for the future of Bend politics?
MK: A lot of that just speaks to some of the core values of our community, which I think cross both sides. And a lot of it has to do with why people live here, which is our amazing outdoor amenities and our resources. And despite the growth in size, and growing to 100,000 people, it's still a little bit of that small town feel and that community connection. I think a lot of people really value that no matter which direction you think the city should go. For me, it gives me hope that we're on the right track with what we've been doing the past couple of years. I think we felt we had some of that mandate coming in a couple years ago. And so, we really went for it. To see the voters say, 'Yes, we want more of that,' is great, because then we can just really dig in and try to move forward on those values. I think Bend can be a leader in a lot of different ways. I think we already are on things like housing policy, affordable housing, but things like climate action and transportation and transformation of our system, we can really be a leader. And we're kind of unique over here on our side of the mountains, all by ourselves, not part of a metro area. We have a chance to kind of step out and show people how some cool new things can be done. And I'm excited about that.