Who Wants to Be Springfïeld’s Next Mayor?

Oregon’s ninth largest city has been without a mayor, but two councilors are making their cases to be appointed 

For more than four months, Springfield has been without a mayor — ever since longtime mayor Christine Lundberg abruptly resigned in August. Council President Joe Pishioneri took on acting mayoral duties, but a new mayor will be appointed sometime in January 2021. The person stepping into the largely ceremonial role can set a political vision for the city as it deals with big issues and experiences a change in demographics. 

The city charter prohibits a special election to replace Lundberg, so the next mayor could be one of two councilors: Ward 4’s Leonard Stoehr, who was elected to council in 2016 and re-elected this year, and Ward 1’s Sean VanGordon, a councilor since 2011. Pishioneri applied but after community pressure, he said he would withdraw to focus on his ward. 

Stoehr and VanGordon are hoping to guide the city as it addresses police reform, economic development and a pandemic-affected budget. They offer different paths: Stoehr says he’d deviate from Springfield’s pro-development path and keep the city affordable and not favor projects that could displace residents. VanGordon says he wants to keep the city on the path it’s been on for the past decade, saying he envisions keeping its spirit of creative solutions and partnerships. They both support some sort of police reform and transparency measures. 

Stoehr says the city is encouraging business interests to the point that it’s excluding Springfield’s residents. The city has always been a blue collar town, he says, but it’s facing gentrification, and some long-term residents are being forced out. 

“I would use, for example, the Patrician Mobile Home Park, whose landlord was asking to rezone his mobile home park, so he could sell it to a developer,” Stoehr says. The owner of the mobile home park wanted to sell the property regardless of the rezoning happening, but the developer who bought the land is making development inevitable, he adds. “So the long-term ramifications of that are going to be the residents will be displaced.” 

Stoehr says lower income residents in Glenwood were threatened with the indoor track, a multi-use athletic building whose proposed location was in the area. The project didn’t receive enough support from members of the Springfield Economic Development Agency and is on hiatus. And there’s been talk of a conference center. He says he’s not against the projects as long as they don’t negatively affect local neighborhoods and housing affordability, but the problem is that they would have an immediate adverse effect on neighboring residents. 

But Stoehr says he isn’t against development and looks to the Main Street renaissance as a model. “What we did largely was to get out of the way,” he says. “In terms of incentives and tax breaks, they were minimal. I would contrast that with enterprise zones we have granted to larger corporations that took advantage of the tax break and when it expired, they went off to other cities.”

Over the next six to nine months, VanGordon says the city has a lot to grapple with: COVID-19, the budget, recovery from the Holiday Farm Fire, the economy, politics from the mayoral vacancy and policing. It’s a lot of work to get back to normal, but he says he wants to make Springfield a community of choice. 

“This is a diverse community, and it has room for everybody in it,” VanGordon says. “I want to do the hard work to work with the community and really create a home. We want people to have their careers here. We want people to start their companies here.” 

VanGordon says the city has some serious financial problems ahead. He’s been a part of council during previous budget hardship periods, and he says it requires some difficult conversations and putting some projects on hold. 

But it can be an opportunity for creativity, and the city has a track record of accomplishing a lot through creative means, he says: From buying used street lamps for downtown from San Diego for a third of the cost of new ones to finding money for library cards for children not in the city limits, he says he wants to keep Springfield on the creative solution path. 

“The last 10 years was a great foundation for the next 10 years,” VanGordon says. “It’s going to look and feel a little bit different for people. That doesn’t mean we’re going to lose the spirit of the community, the practicality or the ‘say yes’ attitude that makes Springfield a special place.” 

Mayoral duties include tie breaking, delivering the annual “State of the City” and setting agendas in consultation with the council president, according to the city charter. 

The next mayoral term is considered vacant 10 days after Jan. 4, 2021, when elected officials in Springfield are sworn in. City spokesperson Amber Fossen says the council could vote on appointing Stoehr or VanGordon immediately after Jan. 14 or at the next regular meeting, Jan. 19. The next mayoral election would be in 2022. Whoever is appointed will leave a vacancy on the council, which won’t be filled until March 1 at the earliest, according to Fossen. 

Pishioneri applied for the appointment, but at an Oct. 19 City Council meeting, he said he wouldn’t pursue it because his ward had just re-elected him. His decision came after several community members questioned whether the Brady-listed former law enforcement officer should be mayor, referencing his resignation from Lane County Sheriff’s Department after the county district attorney’s investigation said he probably committed theft and misled investigators. 

Community members speaking out about Pishioneri came shortly after the city began its investigation into police conduct at a Black Unity protest in the Thurston area, a chapter in the city’s ongoing conversation on police reform.  

VanGordon says he recognizes the difficulty in talking about reform in a city where there is a lot of support for the police. But he says the city should offer its residents transparency and be clear on police procedures. As an example, he references the police body cam program, which starts February 2021. “One of the questions people have is they want to have a clear answer to what the policies surrounding them are,” he says. “When those policies are ready, let’s just put them on the website.” 

According to Lane County Election’s precinct data, the 2020 November election saw a large increase in voter support for the Democratic presidential candidate, suggesting the city could be in the midst of a demographic change. 

That doesn’t translate into support for huge changes in police reform, Stoehr says. But he adds that speakers at City Council meetings are calling for accountability, transparency and the 8 Can’t Wait reform measures endorsed by former President Barack Obama. And it’s not coming from people who live in Eugene attending the meetings. 

“I’m encouraged in my belief that the younger people that are speaking in favor of police accountability are the younger generation and will be taking a more active approach in public affairs here in Springfield,” Stoehr says.

This article has been updated