Bettman steps down but keeps going on city reform
Story by Alan Pittman | Photo by Todd Cooper
Bonny Bettman delivered quite a jolt to City Hall during her eight years on the Eugene City Council.
Before stepping down this month, Bettman had more impact on the city of Eugene than almost any other elected official in recent decades. Without her there probably wouldn’t be an independent police auditor; the district attorney and jail would be millions of dollars poorer; the city would have millions of dollars more in potholes; and the city wouldn’t have roughly $30 million in reserves. She’s filled up more time in City Council meetings and more space in newspaper pages than any other councilor in the last eight years.
That’s won Bettman a strong following of supporters, not to mention enemies. A farewell party at Tsunami book store drew scores of applauding fans. At the State of the City event this month, she won some of the loudest cheers of the evening. She’s also been the target of ugly caricatures from developers and the police union and a derisive email from a top city executive.
Bettman may have decided not to run again for councilor, but she’s still going and going on reforming city government. In a long exit interview with Eugene Weekly, the activist councilor let loose about her insights on how the city really works, her many ideas for reform and her future plans.
“I never envisioned a career in politics,” Bettman, 56, said. A high school drop out, Bettman said she worked as a mechanic, Hoedad tree planter and single mom, and she had a pizza booth at the Saturday Market and the Country Fair. She later went to LCC for an associate degree and a nursing career. She became a leader in the Friendly Neighborhood association and helped form Citizens for Public Accountability. And she jumped into a City Council race in 2000 after becoming frustrated that no one else was running.
Bettman said she found that in Eugene, the elected council has “all the responsibility and none of the power,” whereas the unelected city executive staff have “all the power and none of the accountability.”
The council serves mostly as a “bureaucratic bumper” to take the blame from the public for staff mistakes, according to Bettman. “The council buffers the organization.”
“That is the biggest fallacy that the council makes the policy,” she said. “Policy is being made by staff.”
Councilors are kept clueless by staff, according to Bettman. She compared a revolving cast of elected officials, working for below minimum wage without support staff, to an Ani DiFranco song describing goldfish without memory. The fish are surprised each time they see the little plastic castle in their bowl. “By the time somebody realizes how it works, they’re gone,” she said of councilors.
Bettman said she found herself increasingly frustrated with the lack of accountability of city executive staff. “The more knowledge I gained over the years, the more I disagreed.”
Bettman called top city staff “utterly unaccountable.” She provided a number of examples:
• The police chief and city manager refused to provide a complaint to the police auditor as required by city law, Bettman said. “The chief and the city manager blatantly violate city code, which is the law, and nothing happens.”
• The council twice voted to spend flexible transportation money on fixing potholes rather than on new projects; but she said staff ignored the direction, spending $5 million on an airport cargo facility.
• The staff withheld key information on Hynix appealing its taxes before a council vote on whether to give the corporation $1.6 million a year in additional tax breaks, Bettman said.
• City staff could have saved millions by buying the Amazon headwaters years ago but instead let the property slip away to a speculator who charged many times more, according to Bettman.
• The city staff refused to conduct a full internal investigation of other officers’ roles in failing to respond to complaints against officer Roger Magaña, convicted later of sexually assaulting a dozen women.
• A city executive was caught sending an email regarding Bettman saying, “She’s Baaaack,” referring to a horror movie.
Bettman said city executives have a pervasive disrespect for voters and elected officials and are focused more on serving themselves than citizens. “It’s more like a cult than an organizational culture,” she said. “They are aggressively defensive.”
But Bettman said the council bears some of the responsibility for the lack of accountability. “The council has power they choose not to use,” she said. For example, her motion to require an internal investigation of the Magaña scandal was rejected in a council vote.
“The progressive majority is a myth,” said Bettman. She said she’s particularly frustrated with Mayor Kitty Piercy for not supporting Bettman’s efforts to shore up the police auditor system against resistance from city staff.
She said that, in referring needed reforms to a committee, Piercy “is taking us the same direction Jim Torrey would have taken us, only it’s a little slower.” Bettman said the committee is “diluting and destroying” the police oversight twice passed by voters.
“The lack of progressive leadership” and cohesiveness among progressives is “a major reason why I decided to step down” as a councilor, Bettman said.
Bettman said she was also frustrated with the staff’s control of information while she was a councilor.
As a critic, “I felt walled off, like a tuberculosis,” she said.
“Most of the machinations of the organization are hidden from the public and from the City Council,” Bettman said. “Everything I’ve ever accomplished with the city, I’ve accomplished by overcoming the resistance of the staff,” Bettman said. “You get all the research in the world if the staff agrees,” she said. “But if you’re trying to do something they disagree with, you are left to wander the wilderness alone.”
With no staff and paid only about $1,000 a month for what she found to be a full-time job, councilors have little ability to generate their own independent information, Bettman said.
Councilors should be paid a living wage, perhaps set at 35 to 50 percent of the city manager’s salary, Bettman said. That would enable them time to work independently for citizens rather than serve some conflicting profit motive or act just as a “rubber stamp” for the city manager or development interests, she said.
“This organization embraces public relations instead of reform,” Bettman said, pointing to the six PR people working for the city. She said the city views the goal of the police oversight system not as actual oversight but an illusion of oversight that will increase public trust in the police department.
Rather than the “council/manager” form of government, Bettman said that Eugene has a “managing-the-council form of government.”
Bettman said an idea she had for “opportunity siting” that would trade neighborhood support of increased density for development design standards is being distorted into density without standards. “They morphed it into a vehicle for destroying neighborhoods instead of saving neighborhoods,” she said.
Bettman has a list of reforms she’d like to see.
The city needs a fully staffed, in-house city attorney’s office rather than contracting out almost all its legal work to a private law firm, Harrang Long Gary Rudnick.
“The firm has multiple clients that pose a conflict of interest,” Bettman alleged, citing work for Hynix, PeaceHealth and tobacco companies. “Of course these contracts influence their decision making.”
Until the city gets its own attorney on staff, “I think the City Council right now has the power to contract for a legal opinion” from an independent firm, Bettman said. “The [existing] attorneys would disagree with that. They disagree with anything that’s not in their own financial interest.”
Bettman alleged that Harrang Long also clearly works for the city manager, not the city’s elected representatives. The manager awards the firm its contract and signs the checks, she said. “They know which side of the bread has their butter.”
Working for the manager, “the attorneys have consistently interpreted the [city] charter for more power to the city manager,” Bettman said. The manager’s attorneys “definitely dictate policy; they tell you what you can and cannot do.”
Bettman would also like to see the council finally implement the independent police oversight system the citizens voted for twice.
Bettman said she hopes the system will prevent a repeat of the Magaña officer sex abuse scandal. But that might not happen if the district attorney continues to try to block it, she said.
The Lane County Commission should vote to create a similar oversight system to prevent abuse by the county DA and the sheriff’s department, Bettman said. Such a system will save money in lawsuits, she said.
Bettman said she’d also like the city to create a full-time independent performance auditor to investigate the city budget for waste, fraud and abuse. Portland and other cities’ independent auditors “save lots of money for the taxpayers.”
Bettman said the city’s murky budget process needs lots of light shown on it. “You don’t know where to cut if the organization’s budget is not transparent,” she said.
For example, Bettman said the city has never revealed line items for how much staff spend on travel and other perks.
The City Council “has never seen a line item budget,” Bettman said. She said it took her six years to figure out that staff were setting aside $6 million a year in funding for vacant positions outside the budget process to “divvy up, kind of by staff whim.”
Each year the council spends hours arguing about small additions and subtractions to the budget without looking at the budget as a whole, she said.
“It makes the actual budget process pretty irrelevant,” Bettman said. “We have never done bottom-up budgeting.”
Bettman said she fears that with the recession forcing deep budget cuts, the staff’s strategy will be to cancel funding for popular programs like the library and parks to force people to vote for tax increases to fund them.
“The ones that people really cherish are the ones they’re going to cut,” Bettman said.
A big budget priority for staff is building a new police station, ignoring three citizen votes against it, according to Bettman.
She said staff still “covet” diverting a $30 million facility reserve saved up for a new City Hall for the police station. Bettman said the council twice voted to instead use the money to repair the existing City Hall and hire more patrol officers, but staff have not acted on the council direction.
Bettman said although the police station was recently reported to be part of the city’s request for stimulus money from the Obama administration, the council never voted on that.
Bettman said the staff also favor moving the police building outside of downtown, which will hurt the struggling area.
Two years ago, Bettman said she urged the council and budget committee to create a tax expenditure report of tax breaks, similar to what the state Legislature has done. But she said the transparency measure was voted down.
Bettman said Lane County has a dozen urban renewal districts diverting millions from city, county and school funding for questionable projects and developer subsidies. If the county really needs more jail beds and prosecutors, the County Commission should use its power to veto some of the districts, Bettman said.
Bettman said the city and county should also rein in the huge enterprise zone tax breaks that went to Hynix and other companies.
Bettman calls the millions the city has given to developers in the university district “a complete misuse of taxpayer dollars.” The tax breaks for apartments make sense in the underdeveloped downtown and Trainsong neighborhoods, but not where high demand means they would be built anyway, Bettman said.
The university district projects divert development from downtown and create an incentive to “tear down those historical houses and build six-plexes,” Bettman said.
Instead of unfairly giving tax breaks to select businesses and hiding the cost of reduced services and increased taxes on other taxpayers, Bettman argues, the city should put such subsidies to a public bond measure vote.
“It’s up to the government to sell the idea,” Bettman said. “Voters should have a choice.”
Bettman points out the recent failed vote for an urban renewal subsidy for a big chain store and parking garage development downtown. “When people get to vote on the urban renewal district, they don’t support the tax giveaways,” Bettman said. “That vote demonstrates just how out of touch some councilors and city administrators are with the community.”
Bettman is off the council but still going and going on city issues. She is a regular at meetings on the police auditor.
On Feb. 13 she’s scheduled for an address to the City Club. Bettman said progressives need their own proactive agenda for reform. “You can’t react to what the city manager puts on the table, or what the Chamber puts, or the developers.”
Bettman says she has a solid record in passing city charter measures and has some ideas for new citizen reform measures, but she is playing her cards close to her chest.
She said she hasn’t ruled out running again for office, perhaps in the Legislature if a position opens up. She said she might consider running for mayor if the position were paid better and less weak and frustrating.
In any case, Bettman is not going away. “I love living here, I don’t plan to move.”