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Bend council debates charter issues, ride-share rules


The still-fairly-new Bend City Council spent hours Wednesday night discussing two big topics with plenty of devilish details – proposed changes to how the city’s mayor and councilors are chosen, and rules to set the stage for ride-sharing businesses like Uber and Lyft to finally come to town. They made good progress on both issues, with more work ahead.

During a work session, a citizen panel sponsored by Bend 2030, the Bend Chamber of Commerce and the City Club of Central Oregon presented the findings of their public forums last fall, looking at whether the city charter, last updated 22 years ago, should be reviewed and proposed changes go to voters, detailing two specific changes that drew support.

One would be to have voters directly elect a mayor, rather than the long-held current system in which councilors choose the mayor from among their colleagues. The other is the notion of not electing all seven councilors in citywide elections but to have some or all elected by geographic zones, known as wards, in a bid to possibly cut the rising cost of running for office and to better balance geographic representation that often seems to favor the higher-income Westside of town.

Since the last city charter update, Bend has grown from 30,000 to 87,000 residents – from a city smaller than Corvallis or Medford to one bigger than both combined, said Don Leonard, a 30-year resident, former planning commissioner and chairman of the Boyd Acres Neighborhood Association. And the latest estimates are that Bend will grow by another 40 percent by 2028 making the issues confronting the city even more complex, even daunting.

Councilors appear ready to do as proposed and form a charter review committee to study the issue.

The citizen panelists also urged the council to take the thorny issue of what to pay part-time councilors for their time (now a $200 monthly stipend) and consider it separately. The panelists noted that many cities don’t have council salaries in their city charters, and deal with it in other ways.

There’s already early support for the elected mayor and ward system from the Central Oregon Association of Realtors, who in a submitted letter said they also don’t support an increase to the councilors’ monthly pay.

Of course, the citizen panel recommended a lot more surveys, forums and public involvement as the process proceeds. But they also offered an “optimistic” timeline of a public vote as soon as this fall, and councilors’ initial reaction was positive to putting the ideas before voters to weigh in.

Returning Councilor Bruce Abernethy said he’d “flipped” from his earlier opposition to both an elected mayor and council election by wards, and is now “totally supportive” of sending a new charter pro to voters.

“Rightly or wrongly, I think it’s what the community wants,” Abernethy said of an elected mayor. But he added it might be “overly rosy” to think it’ll be a guaranteed improvement: “It can be better people, but maybe not.”

Councilor Nathan Boddie said he isn’t sure on the ward issue, and echoed others who said the perceived lower cost to run a campaign might not come to fruition. Colleague Barb Campbell later noted that you can’t run TV, newspaper or radio ads by ward, for example.

Councilor Sally Russell said, “From my experience in state and local politics, often the most expensive races simply have to do with coveted seats that might shift the perceived balance one way or another.” And new Councilor Bill Moseley said his experience has been that “particular issues get the community to swing one way or another.”

Mayor Casey Roats echoed Abernethy’s view of the uncertain benefits of a change, but said, “I can tell you from my short time being mayor, I may be your loudest proponent for electing one. I do think it would be good for the community to have that face. But it isn’t an answer to all ills.”

Campbell asked colleagues if they were willing to consider spending limits, noting that some recent campaigns raised as much as $90,000 and $120,000. That sparked little discussion, but Campbell said Pasadena, California moved to election by wards, in a bid to curb the cost of campaigns, and “got the opposite result.”

City Attorney Mary Winters said of the councilor pay issue: “You can’t just set it aside. It’s something you have to grapple with.” Whatever is sent to voters, if approved, “won’t change for a long time'” she added.

Councilors debate ride-sharing rules

A bit later, Assistant City Manager Jon Skidmore and Associate City Attorney Ian Leitheiser presented the first draft of proposed city code to replace the current “taxicabs” section with one about “vehicles for hire,” or as they are referred to by government, “transportation network companies.

Knowing they were likely to tackle a host of issues – and indeed, the mayor struggled to keep the discussion moving forward – the city staff suggested waiting for a first reading of the proposal at their next meeting in two weeks.

The staff had their own issues to flesh out, on things like the personal information gathered in background checks. Leitheiser said it likely would be best to require access to that information, but not that it all be provided, which would then require a “very high degree” of protection.

The plan is to move from background checks by police, as is done for taxi license-holders, to require that it be done by the companies involved. One plus is that such checks would be nationwide, and not just in Oregon, as is the case now.

Councilor Justin Livingston had several issues, and first asked if Redmond – which is working with Bend on the rules – will allow the ride-sharing drivers to pick up and drop off at Redmond Airport. Redmond City Manager Keith Witcosky said they will create a separate access agreement and a “geo-fence” where a TNC driver has to wait outside until hailed by a smart phone to a separate, dedicated pickup spot.

Bryce Bennett, Uber’s Oregon general manager, answered questions, such as about the third-party background check service they use. He said the proposed city language “is standard to what we use nationally,” such as forbidding drivers who are a registered sex offender, on a terrorist watch list or convicted of violent crimes. Asked by Livingston whether someone convicted of a non-violent felony would be allowed to drive, Bennett said it depends on the specifics.

City staff noted, as they did at previous meetings, that while the proposed code language is more detailed than the simpler tax regulations, it’s less lengthy than others, while trying to level the playing field as much as possible between taxis and the new ride-sharing offerings.

When Boddie mentioned that New York City requires fingerprints, Leitheiser said. “We looked at lots of codes in lots of places, some with less, some with a lot more. We tried to come up with a model that strikes the right balance.”

Boddie saw other issues to address, in the area of transportation planning. He said it’s “not necessarily” true there will be fewer cars on the road, as there “might be more downtown – at First Friday, there could be thousands of cars circling downtown. … What does this look like for downtown, the Old Mill, for rural areas where nobody might be driving?”

Roats, trying to keep things from going astray, said he was trying to avoid a whole bunch of wordsmithing. I advocate moving ahead,” and soon Moseley moved for a first reading, seconded by Abernethy.

Moseley suggested an amendment exempting “horse- or human-drawn vehicles,” out of concern the $1 million liability insurance requirement might be too onerous for a small business. That brought a new round of debate, as Russell mention concerns that arose with the “Cycle Pub” that was “very, very disruptive to certain areas, blocked traffic, loud, litter.” And there also was a concern of city liability, should there be an accident with those types of vehicles and there’s no city rules for oversight.

So the amendment failed, and the discussion continued — before and after a unanimous vote to table the ordinance until the next meeting on Feb. 15. But there was unanimous support for Livingston’s proposal to add school buses used for student travel to the ordinance.

Abernethy said he’d heard “three main issues,” such as making sure the TNCs inform the city when background checks are flagged. Boddie’s proposals to require an insignia on the vehicle or fire extinguishers inside also failed to get a nod of heads from a majority of colleagues.

“This is turning into a mess,” Roats sighed — but it only took a few more minutes to finish narrowing down the issues, to the point where staff said they can return to the next meeting with a refined proposal.

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