• The debate over the city services fee has generated a renewed awareness and interest in how our fair city is managed, and that’s a good thing. Letters to the editor this week offer suggestions on how budget priorities can be adjusted. Our city Budget Committee members are getting public input and have ideas on how funds can be reallocated. Budget Committee Chair Laura Illig suggested this week that the city use one-time money that originated from the General Fund (but was set aside for projects such as a new City Hall) to pay for vital services now while the committee and city staff take the next year to take a deep, critical look at the budget. That’s smart.
But whatever decisions the committee recommends will require more detailed information than we have seen previously from the city manager’s office. We were told 100 positions have been cut, but were those warm bodies or vacant positions? Were lower-paying positions or higher-paying positions cut?
Related to future budgets are broader management questions: Why does Eugene have 390 more employees (full-time and part-time) than Salem, a city the same size? Why were non-union staff given raises in recent years even though a budget deficit was looming? Why doesn’t the City Council, rather than the city manager, negotiate with unions on pay, benefits, working conditions and overtime?
Speaking of Salem, that city held meetings from January to May to work on its budget. Compare that to Eugene’s Budget Committee, which started discussing the upcoming budget May 23 and will deliver its recommendations to City Council June 5. Even with the uncertainty of the May 21 vote, the committee should have had much more time to prepare.
One big question remains: What fundamental changes do we need to make in our city structure to deal with the growing complexity of city government? We have outgrown our weak council/strong manager form of government, but are we big enough for a mayor/council form of government? Our current city councilors are forbidden by law from any involvement in the daily management of our city, while our unelected city manager oversees a bureaucracy of 1,712 employees. Our councilors tell us they sometimes feel like kids in car seats with toy steering wheels while “dad” drives. Cities our size have different models of governance, but it’s clear that democracy would be better served if we had a full-time mayor and council and a better balance of power when it comes to planning, public safety, social services and other key city functions. We may get there eventually; meanwhile we can pursue incremental changes through charter amendments, such as an independent performance auditor, more oversight powers for our councilors, more pay, staff aides, etc.
• Friends of David Oaks organized an event May 18 at the Eugene Hotel that raised $4,500 toward a goal of $80,000 to help Oaks meet ongoing medical expenses. This was a lively, good-natured and memorable community effort that brought out hundreds of caring people for an evening of music and speeches. Oaks is the founder of MindFreedom International who broke his neck in a fall and just returned from a rehabilitation center in Colorado. David Zupan, one of the organizers, tells us, “The highlight was David giving a particularly moving speech thanking everyone for coming and making clear that despite his spinal cord injury confining him to a wheelchair, he will continue working as an activist and called for a nonviolent revolution around the world.” A video about Oaks can be found on our blog this week or see SupportDavidOaks.org
• Here’s to a little more hope in Oregon for the birds and the bees … and for healthy kids and any other beasties romping around on state lands. On May 28 the Oregon Legislature, with prodding from feisty local group Beyond Toxics, passed HB 3364, which calls for integrated pest management (IPM) for the state of Oregon. This means that pesticide use on state lands, from forests to roadsides to universities (a school IPM bill passed in 2009), will be minimized and other biological and mechanical controls, will be considered. And it means that sometimes, a few natural weeds and bugs are acceptable. People eat dandelions, don’t they?
• Memorial Day has come and gone with the obligatory images and stories in the media about fallen soldiers and heroes from wars past and present. That’s fine and we honor our citizens in uniform and their sacrifices, but we also need to maintain a broader perspective. Some of our wars have been justified but many others in recent times have been motivated by twisted ideology and the corrupted interests of commerce and industry. We don’t have a draft these days to suck the unwilling into foreign policy debacles fueled by war profiteering, but we do have something just as effective: economic disparity that makes the military an attractive option to poverty. Rich kids go to college; poor kids go to boot camp.