Lyndsie Leech. Photo by Todd Cooper.

Fresh Eyes

Ward 7 interim City Councilor Lyndsie Leech is a new figure in Eugene politics, and she wants to keep her seat in May

The Eugene City Council’s newest member, Lyndsie Leech, has the least amount of local political experience, but she says that may bring a much-needed fresh take to city policy making. 

“If I don’t know how it’s been done for X number of years, I don’t know how it’s supposed to be done, so I can go in and say, ‘Why? This doesn’t make sense to me,’” Leech tells Eugene Weekly. “Someone who’s really entrenched in the system, they can go along with the status quo because they know it.” 

The City Council appointed Leech to represent Ward 7, a district whose territory includes the Whiteaker, Santa Clara and River Road, in December 2022, replacing former Councilor Claire Syrett after she lost a Sept. 6 recall election. 

Leech has already voted on two high-profile issues — City Hall and a natural gas ban on new residential buildings. She’s running in the May 16 special election to finish out Syrett’s term, which ends 2024, and she wants to find ways to address the city’s mental health crisis. 

For the past 12 years, Leech has been working in the behavioral health field in the Eugene area. With experience in the nonprofit world, Leech didn’t know anyone in the local politics scene, but she applied to serve as interim councilor in November anyway to be more involved with policy making.

“I thought, ‘There’s got to be better policies that can make it easier for people to have a family in this town,’” she says. “I’ve got a lot of ideas on how we can improve behavioral health for families and for people in general, and improve the workforce development piece where we just are not seeing enough mental health providers here in Oregon overall.”

Leech has been the executive director for WellMama for the past two years, a Eugene-based nonprofit focused on providing resources for new and expecting parents. One of the ways the nonprofit helps mothers is to provide guidance in dealing with postpartum depression, something that she says she’s dealt with. 

“My experiences with postpartum depression and anxiety have made me a more empathetic and effective advocate for working families,” Leech says. “In my role as councilor, I hope to normalize talking about mental health and wellness and work towards supportive policies for families.” 

While at WellMama, Leech says she’s been involved working with various stakeholders, including county and state agencies. And one of the biggest challenges she’s found is that there is a lack of mental health providers. 

“Some people might become homeless because of mental health challenges,” she says. “But what we know is once you become homeless, your mental health challenges are going to increase by a significant amount because you’re dealing with trauma, you’re in fight or flight constantly.”

After visiting homeless shelters and sleep sites through Eugene and talking with nonprofits, Leech says what she’s hearing is that there’s trouble hiring mental health workers. 

According to a 2022 report by national nonprofit Mental Health America, Oregon ranked overall 50th out of 51 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia, which includes data for adults with any mental health disorder, thoughts of suicide and mental health workforce availability. 

Leech says she’s still figuring out ways for the city to implement mental health-related policies in the community. “That’s part of what a fresh perspective can do, going in and asking, ‘Why can’t we do this?’” she says. “If we’re really saying this is one of our biggest challenges facing our entire community, then there’s got to be something that we can do.” 

As an interim councilor, Leech has already voted on issues that have long been debated by the council, such as finding a permanent home for City Hall. “Not having any of that historical perspective actually gave me a fresh take,” she says. “I didn’t have any emotional feelings about whether we purchase it or not.” 

Another long-debated subject that Leech voted on was the ban on natural gas in new residential constructions. For the past few months, the council had discussed and held community forums on the subject. 

Leech says she’s spent more than half of the time she’s been on council researching materials and listening to the community regarding the regulation on natural gas. Although she says that the council heard more people in favor of the ban than those against it, she’s concerned about the consequences of divisiveness on the issue. “I do hope that we can work together as a community to have more innovative and creative solutions rather than regulation,” she says. 

The upheaval in the Ward 7 seat that led to Leech’s appointment began in August 2022, when opponents of the MovingAhead program, a joint effort by the city and Lane Transit District to propose transit ideas for the area, targeted former Councilor Syrett with a recall election. Syrett, who voted to research options for MovingAhead, lost a low turnout post-Labor Day recall election. Syrett initially pursued a legal challenge to the election but decided against it, leaving office when the election results were certified in October. 

After a drawn-out decision process of considering eight applicants for appointment to a monthslong interim term, council voted 5-2 to appoint Leech in December 2022. 

Now that she’s in office, Leech says that all but one of the applicants for the position are backing her for the position. The only one who isn’t is her sole opponent as of Feb. 16: Janet Ayres. At her first town hall meeting for Ward 7 residents, Leech says Ayres announced she intended to run against Leech for the council position in May.   

Despite Leech’s newness to the political scene, she has received public and financial support from Syrett. According to OreStar, the state’s campaign finance website, Leech received $3,500 from Syrett. She also received $250 from former state Rep. Phil Barnhart and $200 from environmental activist Dylan Plummer. And Mayor Lucy Vinis is scheduled to speak at Leech’s Feb. 18 campaign kickoff party. 

“I’m not a politician, and I’m very open to my own experience and struggles,” Leech says about gaining the support of the city’s political leaders after a few months as interim councilor. “I think my experience and empathy lend itself well to this position. I have a huge heart for this community, and I don’t have any other motivation for doing this.”  ν

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