City Club of Eugene
Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy
December 9, 2016
MY TWELVE YEARS AS MAYOR OF EUGENE, OREGON
I thought today I'd share some of the inside story of my twelve years of being Mayor. Some of this you may have forgotten and some you probably never knew. In any case this is some of my perspective of the last twelve years.
It's hard to remember how it was in 2005. We had had a twenty-year community disagreement over the West Eugene Parkway and it had become a litmus test for which side of the community anyone aligned with. It was a daily reminder of our city’s reputation for contention.
Our downtown was virtually empty and had two long-term pits and the general consensus was that downtown was never coming back.
There was a lot of negative talk about our community, and people questioned whether it was possible to get anything done. Our community was often described as anti-business.
Our road infrastructure had been neglected and potholes were everywhere.
We had a lot of people living in poverty and our local economy was not strong.
We were still recovering from the Lara Magana case when two officers were jailed for abusing the public they serve. Distrust between the public and EPD was high.
Councilors fought. Staff hunkered down and council meetings were difficult. City hall was not open to everyone. The public forum was often angry and the public objected that they were not given time to speak. Relationships with governing partners were strained and often hostile. Neighborhoods felt unsupported and unable to fully participate in community decision-making.
We had frequent riots in the campus area that included property destruction.
And, this was before the recession.
Then I ran for office. I had an economic plan in hand thanks to advice from a sociologist and an urban planner. This plan included investing in our physical and social infrastructure; a Sustainable Business Initiative; initiatives to strengthen our local and regional businesses; downtown revitalization; strategic land use; and improving our business climate. I have been operating from this plan for twelve years.
I believed that the best way to bring us together and move forward was to work on the triple bottom line of sustainability: social equity, economic development, and the preservation of our great natural resources. We all love the beauty of this place, care about our neighbors and need to make a living so we can raise our families. I decided to aim for the future we wanted, building on our community strengths.
This was not a friendly environment as a new Mayor, especially a liberal one. I was barely tolerated at city hall and encouraged not to be around much. So I asked to have the dark ceremonial furniture removed and a real working desk brought in. And, I came to work every day.
At some meetings such as at the Chamber of Commerce, I was avoided and subject to many snide side comments.
I went right to work.
I consulted with sustainability experts and launched the SBI, the Sustainable Business Initiative, to encourage the growth of businesses that produced sustainable products and utilized sustainable practices. This was my first step toward my economic goals.
I discussed the SBI with the then city manager. He said the city had neither the staff nor resources to undertake such an initiative. They could not even supply a minute’s recorder. I turned to my university connection: Bob Doppelt and his students helped organize and implement the SBI. This felt, in my mind, a bit like The Little Red Hen story. I would do it myself.
As good fortune would have it, Rusty Rexius came to visit me about a sustainable product invention and consequently agreed to co-chair the SBI with Dave Funk. He was the board chair for the Chamber of Commerce at the time and it was brave of him to do it. Dave and Rusty proved to be excellent leaders and good friends. They helped give the SBI credibility. We organized a broad based committee of community leaders from across the political spectrum. We had roundtable sector meetings and the SBI completed a report with a number of recommendations that council accepted.
Out of these recommendations came our Sustainability Commission, our Climate and Energy Plan, and one of the strongest climate ordinances in the nation. I attended every meeting and learned a lot about the strength of perseverance. I also proved I had some chops.
The ordinance developed because school children asked me what they could do to inspire council to more action and to do their part to protect our planet from climate change. My advice to them was to come to council to express their concerns for their Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy Eugene City Club December 8, 2016 3 future. They did an incredibly good job of this. I also advised them that surveys showed strong community support and that they should ask for something big. They did and proposed turning our climate and energy plan into an ordinance with teeth.
Just three months into my tenure, you may remember, LTD had a bus strike. I ordinarily would not intervene in the decisions of another government body, but this was a matter of social equity. How would transit dependent people get to work, to services and to the grocery store? I agreed to put together a group of community leaders, including me that would mediate this strike. We spent days at the Hilton going between labor and management. The good news is we were able to settle with the help of a number of highly skilled community members and people could get back on the bus. It could have gone the other way. It taught me that it’s important to do what is right; even taking the chance I could fail.
Transportation issues became a huge part of my work and some of the most difficult. I did what I had promised and ended the West Eugene Parkway dispute. Many people and public partners were angry with this, and not just a little. This was understandable. A lot of time and money had been invested and non-binding votes taken. I felt that it was the right decision in terms of protecting our natural resources for future generations and because it had never met federal environmental approval. An official came to see me and told me, "Little Lady, the WEP might not be the best thing to do but we are going to do it." He was wrong. People said ODOT would never allocate funds to Eugene again. I was committed to continue to strive for collaboration, even in the face of great opposition.
I brought together those who had fought each other over the West Eugene Parkway and formed the West Eugene Collaborative. The funds were cobbled together from a variety of private sources to pay for facilitation since we had no approval to try this. We received help from Oregon Consensus.
Former adversaries took a fresh look at the area, seeing it as a neighborhood, not just a through way. They developed deep respect for each other and even did presentations together. I attended and participated in every meeting. It's because of this work that ODOT asked me to co-chair the Oregon Passenger Rail preferred alignment NEPA process and to work on the Oregon Rail Plan.
I am a strong supporter of transit and EmX. I believe we cannot meet our Envision Eugene goals, our economic goals, our access goals or our climate goals without a great system. The commitment to such a system was made decades ago and yet the West 11th location proved to be hugely controversial. Part of the choice about that segment was in response to the findings of the West Eugene Collaborative and a commitment to deal with traffic issues in the area. I used a lot of political chits on this one, and was sometimes a lone voice. EmX is part of the evolution of that part of the city with improved access and new neighborhood connections.
I have to give my colleagues on council and the voters full credit for two successful road bonds and a raise of the gas tax that has allowed us to make huge progress in our road infrastructure. It was a smart decision for the bond to be modest and limited and to tell the public exactly what would be repaired. This is the most road repair ever in the history of our city: real investment in our infrastructure.
In the first four years we also passed an ordinance to put an independent police auditor in place and a Civilian Review Board. Many initially saw this as anti-police. The then city manager strongly opposed the auditor reporting to council rather than to him, and he was angry with me when it passed. He thought his powers were being usurped. We have now had three auditors and the position is well established, working well with the public, civil rights advocates, and EPD.
In the second term the Occupy movement occurred and had a great deal of support in Eugene. A protest grew into an awareness of homelessness as part of the financial inequities of this nation. Police Chief Pete Kerns and City Manager Ruiz decided to try reduce any potential conflict and the inherent costs of conflict through open communication and many meetings with activists, which I participated in.
I promised to continue to work to reduce homelessness and improve shelter options in our community and formed a broad committee, which we dubbed “Opportunity Eugene.”
Out of that work came recommendations including a village concept. All our pilot programs for rest stops and Opportunity Village came out of this work with strong innovation and support from the community. People showed up at our council meetings over and over. We now have frequent visitors from across the state and nation to learn about these innovative pilot programs. Their success lies with partnerships of religious leaders, citizens, un-housed folks, non-profits and local governments. We all recognize these are temporary solutions to a large, yet unresolved housing issue.
We have built hundreds of units of affordable housing, the latest being a hundred units in North Eugene at Bascom Village, but the unmet need is great.
In 2015 I undertook Michelle Obama’s Mayor’s Challenge to house all our homeless vets. It was clear that federal resources would be provided for this work and strong partnerships could be developed. Working together we housed over 404 vets. That work continues and serves as a template for other efforts.
The deep recession provided an opportunity for all local partners, such as schools, universities, chambers of commerce, and governments to work together on a Regional Prosperity Plan. This resulted in identifying and prioritizing the clusters that could be game changers for our regional economy. We had two very productive summits.
I served on the Regional Solutions advisory board and through this worked regionally to develop RAIN, the Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network. RAIN brings together cities, universities and the business communities, with legislative support, to create an innovation ecosystem to foster the development of new technology businesses. It has been a success thus far with 418 of those businesses in our area, a nationally recognized hub (the Silicon Shire).
The reinvigoration of downtown has occurred filling pits and storefronts that were dormant for close to 40 years. It’s still new and it’s still fragile and will require focused attention for years to come. We lost one urban renewal vote in the process but we just kept on going until we got it right, with public private partnerships. There is now over $300 million invested in our downtown.
There are a lot of other stories along the twelve-year trail, including the Mayors Prayer Breakfast, which was on the front page for at least four days. In my support for all faiths and my commitment to separation of church and state, I declined to have a Mayors Prayer Breakfast. It now continues as Lane County Prayer breakfast and is a non-governmental event.
And, there were the Amazon headwaters, paid sick leave, and others.
The life of a city is iterative. There is no beginning and no end. It is ongoing.
Governance has been very interesting. As you know, we have a city manager city council form of government. So then what does a mayor in this form of government do? What makes this job such a hot election ticket?
The mayor is the highest local elected official and speaks and acts on behalf of the city.
The mayor prepares an annual State of the City to report on the past year’s government activities and to advocate for future goals.
The mayor and the city manager construct the council agenda. The mayor facilitates meetings.
In my tenure I have worked hard to establish respectful relationships with and between council and staff. I think council meetings go quite well and each councilor uses his or her voice in deliberation.
I have worked hard to create meetings where the public voice could be heard and people treated each other well in the public process, a place that is safe for everyone. I have never had to have any person removed from council chambers.
Our manager and staff have given us great professional service, always striving to help the council have the information to make good policy decisions. I am proud of them.
The mayor is also a tiebreaker but I endeavor to help the council find agreement on direction.
The mayor can form committees to pursue initiatives. The mayor makes council committee assignments and recommendations for some committee members.
The mayor represents the City at many state and federal meetings and lobbies to obtain funding for important city needs.
As a member of the MPC, I help make transportation policy decisions and I helped form the Area Transportation Commission. I have served on the Lane County Poverty and Homeless board steering those efforts locally.
The mayor speaks to groups, supports local organizations and businesses, meets with school Superintendents, and visits schools.
I belong to the U S Conference of Mayors, working in tandem with Mayors across this nation on a number of important issues. I am a member of Mayors for Peace and Mayors against Illegal Guns.
The role of mayor is a big one that has a huge impact.
That is why it can be a million dollar race here in Eugene, Oregon.
In the last twelve years we have survived hard economic times intact and with the continued provision of services. We have made strides in every area. We have not solved every problem but we have taken strong steps foreword.
There have been disappointments: the quality of Capstone; the endless saga of the city hall; the failed school levy; the loss of the Eugene Celebration; and the continuing lack of a public shelter.
The mayor does nothing alone and all in partnership with others. I believe in respecting people of all political persuasions and working with them when it is possible. I have striven to never take a public potshot at anyone. And I have never strayed from my core values. I have always been willing to lose my elected position over an important issue.
Even down to the wire, I am meeting with the Governor this afternoon about the state budget, and striving to help council make a decision regarding city hall.
It has been my honor to serve. I look forward to the next mayor with great anticipation.
Here are my takeaways:
If you get it wrong, keep working on it.
Keep your hands on the wheel when you want to go somewhere.
Model what you’d like to see.
Ask for and expect the best.
Take chances and strategize.
Keep your sense of humor.
Surround yourself with wise and kind people.
Have a team at your side and be a good team player.
Help others attain their goals.
Work through frustrations and get on with it.
Listen carefully to all perspectives.
Find the win/win whenever possible.
Never begrudge your time.
Keep a good scorecard.
Ask for the help you need.
Celebrate your successes.