Where the Rubber Meets the Road | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

May 21 election asks voters to put their money where their mouths are

On it's face, it's a pretty quiet little election. Not many candidates (see our Boot on the opposite page), and no hot button measures. But though it may be humble, the May 21 election is hard working. Two major funding initiatives, the 911 levy and the school district bond, test our willingness to pay for critical services. And the folks we elect to parks and the school district will guide community policy for years to come. It's an election to take seriously. Ballots due by 8 pm on Election Day.

Bend Parks & Recreation District Director Position 1: Dan Fishkin

Position 1 on the parks board was vacated in January by Dallas Brown. Local attorney Dan Fishkin was appointed to fill that seat, and has been doing a good job learning the ropes since. This experience, his past work on the district's budget committee, and his approach to his role on the board, make him the better candidate for the job.

Fishkin's opponent, Foster Fell, is an activist with an important job to do in this town—rouse the rebels and hold the district's feet to the fire. He's done that well on issues such as the humane discouragement of the goose population and pushing for more transparency at the district. During his endorsement interview with the Source, Fell told us that he believes district Executive Director Don Horton is "disingenuous" and that the parks board merely "rubber stamps" issues. While critical thought is important, disdain for an organization is the wrong frame of mind for one of its leaders.

Consider the two men's approaches to the United Senior Citizens of Bend. That group claims the district owes it nearly $1 million after a failed partnership at the Bend Senior Center. Fell wants the district to enter potentially legally binding mediation with USCB. Fishkin takes a more neutral approach, saying the district needs to tread carefully in dealing with the group. We want to see the district deal fairly with USCB, but it is the job of a director to protect the interests of an organization, not open it wide to a $1 million loss.

Finally, Fishkin is the right candidate to oversee the rollout of the many projects included in the $29 million bond measure voters approved in November. Fishkin has managed significant financial resources before after 10 years as counsel for House of Blues and after serving on the district's budget committee from 2008-2011. He'll expect accountability without an antagonist approach.

Bend Parks & Recreation District Position 5: Craig Chenoweth

Craig Chenoweth is a planner with the city of Bend. He is also a father of two small children who regularly uses the parks services. He peppers his campaigning with words like "collaboration" and "community." More directly, he does not believe in "silos"—bureaucracy-speak for when organizations or agencies work alone and don't share the sandbox well with others. He believes that the inability of the city and parks district to collaborate in the past has led to missed opportunities and tensions. He said he's running for the parks board to help turn that around.

And, it is clearly Chenoweth's experience with the city—and his desire to collaborate—that makes him a particularly strong parks board candidate. But, it is also that role—his job at the city—which leads us to deeply question whether he should have ever run for this position in the first place. He will most certainly deal with ethical gray areas over conflicts between his role at the city and a role on the parks board (see our story below for a full analysis of this question).

All questions about this conflict aside, Chenoweth is clearly the pick for this position. As the district embarks on completing a slate of major projects affiliated with a $29 million bond measure passed last fall, Chenoweth will be a helpful voice at the table. He says he will know the right questions to ask to ensure timelines and budgets are met—and such clear-eyed assessments will be an important voice in the decision-making process.

Chenoweth's opponent, Justin Gottlieb, is an intrepid community activist. He claims to have knocked on more than 1,000 doors as part of his campaign, but he also says he doesn't participate much in district programs. While we admire his dedication, his values are not aligned with our own. He would like to keep Mirror Pond. We would not. He thinks the district should have been more vague about bond measure projects. We want to see even more specificity. He believes the bond money should be used to help fund a four-year university. We find that notion out of step with the role of a recreation district.

Chenoweth will help keep the district's bond measure projects on track. He is not gunning for this position because he has specific agenda, but appears to be an entirely reasonable decision-maker interested in collaboration. He is open to a range of options on Mirror Pond and he understands the role of parks in the community, particularly as a father of children using district services. The choice is clear—Chenoweth for Position 5.

Conflicted? Parks candidate Chenoweth walks the line

Parks district director candidate Craig Chenoweth's day job at the city of Bend is facilitating the development of large projects in the city—projects like, say, many of those on the park district's to-do list after the passage of a bond measure last fall. This, Chenoweth said, is one of the reasons he would make a great candidate on the all-volunteer parks board.

"I have a good handle on exactly what processes those projects need to go through," Chenoweth said of his job at the city of Bend, which is separate from the parks district. "It would be great to kind of help them get through the process, just like anybody."

But what on its face sounds perfectly reasonable should be setting off alarm bells with voters, with the parks district and with Chenoweth's employers at the city of Bend.

To us, serving as a watchdog and decision-maker at the city's planning department while serving as an elected official for a district embarking on $29 million worth of planning-related projects smacks of potential ethical conflict.

Certainly we are not accusing Chenoweth of any ethical violations, but we are pointing out that he is stepping into shadowy territory, and his paid job responsibilities with the city could clash—or be unduly aided—by his role on the district's board.

Almost every meeting of the Bend Park & Rec board so far this year has touched on topics of importance to the city of Bend. These include a city-district partnership on finding a solution to the siltation in Mirror Pond; a conflict with the United Senior Citizens of Bend over the Bend Senior Center, which the city granted to parks in 1999; the redevelopment of the Bend Senior Center, plans for which must be approved by the city; the development timeline of the city-owned Juniper Ridge where the district has plans to build a park, but must put those plans on hold until the city makes progress on that development; and a new district comprehensive plan update that reflects city standards and codes.

Chenoweth is optimistic about his ability to draw clear lines between his work for the city and the district, saying he would recuse himself on questions related to his day job.

"It's high on my mind as far as people's perception," said Chenoweth, "[but] I wouldn't have any direct conflicts."

Still we can't imagine that during the discussions of issues such as those above that Chenoweth will not feel the pull of divided allegiances. Doing either job well in this scenario becomes an issue of very real concern.

"It means he needs to be careful," said Gary Firestone, assistant city attorney, who added that the city cannot control Chenoweth's decision to run for office. Firestone said Chenoweth must avoid doing district business on city time or using city resources, such as printers or faxes or even paper clips.

Recognizing this could be an ethical gray area, Chenoweth approached the city's legal team before throwing his hat in the ring. He learned that Oregon Revised Statutes define a conflict of interest very narrowly. Conflicts of interest basically only relate to decisions by public officials that could financially benefit that public official.

In this narrow sense, Chenoweth may never break the law, but the potential for swayed decisions and the perception of ethical conflicts would persist.

Mel Oberst, community development department director and Chenoweth's boss, says this won't happen. The city will require Chenoweth to sign an agreement that "he would be unable to work on any project" related to the parks district.

"There would be a clear line," said Oberst. "Those two paths can't cross."

Still, city and district officials said it will be up to Chenoweth to recuse himself should any potential conflict arise.

While we endorse Chenoweth as the best candidate for the position, we certainly hope he is prepared to vigilantly walk the tight rope he has strung up for himself and that staff at both the city and the district will be watching closely for slips.

Measure 9-93: 911 levy

Vote Yes

Voters could be forgiven for being confused about the 911 levy. But that's no excuse to write it off.

It's a critical levy that must be passed.

Here's why:

Deschutes County 911 isn't just about taking 911 emergency calls, though it does take nearly 60,000 a year of those. The dispatchers at 911 also are responsible for directing officers from most every law enforcement agency, fire department and medical emergency service in the county. In total, it dispatches for 14 agencies and also communicates with the U.S. Forest Service, Airlink, Oregon State Police and any other agency that needs plugging in to the safety and medical needs of the community.

So, on a busy Saturday night when the Bend Police Department is trying to manage DUII calls, domestic disputes and bar fights, and the Bend Fire Department needs to respond to a heart attack and a house fire—it's the 911 dispatchers coordinating the whole show.

And in the next two years alone, district officials expect the number of calls from law enforcement and the public to increase by 8 percent.

There's no doubt about the need for competent, fully funded 911 service. It is critical to the safety and stability of the community. Furthermore, this levy is actually a reduction in the tax rate currently assessed by the 911 district.

So, why the confusion over this levy? It comes down to the numbers.

Right now, 911 collects 39 cents per $1,000 of the assessed value of a home. That amount comes from a permanent 16-cent levy and an additional 23-cent levy approved by voters in 2008 to build a new 911 center and upgrade technology. The temporary levy expires in June.

Just a few months ago, district officials wanted voters to simply reapprove the current 39-cent structure, but then a vigilant citizen dug deep into district finances and raised a red flag. He pointed out that the district had rather large reserves for its $7.5 million annual operating budget. After carrying surpluses for years, 911 has a contingency fund approaching $10 million and an equipment reserve fund of over $2 million.

This citizen, whose name is Larry Fulkerson, met with district officials who admitted they were asking for more than needed to run the district, but said they were worried if they lowered the temporary levy now voters wouldn't approve a higher tax in the future. In the end, officials decided to lower this May 21 request by 3 cents.

It was a good decision and voters should now approve this levy with confidence.

If it fails, the district will be required to deplete that $10 million reserve, which could mean a reduction in some services. If future levys continue to fail, the district will be in dire straits. It's a completely unacceptable reality.

Pass this levy.

Measure 9-92: Bend-La Pine Schools Bond

Vote Yes

The voter's pamphlet tells the story—not a single argument in opposition to this measure, but half a dozen in favor, including letters of support from business owners and politicians at the regional and state level. They urge the passage of this $96 million bond. So do we.

Stakes are high when it comes to Bend's schools. A driver of economic development and the foundation for the workforce of Bend's future, district funding is critical to the future of this community. This bond measure will build two new schools, helping to keep class sizes reasonable in a district expecting a 20 percent increase in students over the next 10 years. The bond also covers the cost of maintaining existing facilities, improving access to technology, and renovating art, science, foreign language and career classrooms that haven't been upgraded in decades, according to a co-sponsor of the measure.

If that isn't enough, the measure is also an easy sell because it won't increase taxes. As the debt from previous bond measures is paid off, bonds will be sold from this measure, creating a seamless financial plan for accommodating the growth of the district. In a perfect world, districts wouldn't need to come hat in hand to the public to manage this sort of smart development. In Oregon, however, bond measures are the way we are forced to pay for schools after the passage of several anti-tax measures in the '90s locked in low permanent taxing rates for school districts around the state. Don't penalize students for our need to fund their schools through bonds. Approve the funding our schools require.

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