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Eugene Weekly : 2.1.07

ANDREA ORTIZ REPRESENTS

A Q&A with Ward 7's councilor

BY SUZI STEFFEN

When Andrea Ortiz was elected to the Eugene City Council in May of 2004, garnering 59 percent of the votes and beating incumbent Scott Meisner, progressives rejoiced. Not only did mayoral candidate Kitty Piercy beat Nancy Nathanson during the same primary, but Ortiz's votes would likely create a 4-4 split on the council between conservative and progressive votes — and with Piercy to break the tie, some long-desired progressive agenda items might actually get passed.

Ortiz, a clerk in Sacred Heart's Emergency Room, grew up in Riverside, Calif., and moved to Oregon when she was 19. She spent time serving on the Bethel School Board and on the City of Eugene's Human Rights Commission before she ran for the council in Ward 7. With about 40 family members in town, including her husband, three sons, three of her five sisters and their children, her job and council duties, Ortiz stays busy. And it's not like she has someone organizing her council work for her while she's at work. "I could use just two hours a week of a city staffer's time to help me control my time," she says.

It's been just over two years since Ortiz took office, and she has succeeded Jennifer Solomon as the president of the council (a rotating and mostly honorary position). She has helped vote down city support for the West Eugene Parkway, and she has learned about the frustrations of trying to get an independent police review board. She's studied quality of life issues for her constituents, and she's thought about how sustainable business practices would include not only eco-friendly practices but also family-wage jobs. EW sat down with Ortiz at Café Perugino early this week to talk about her time in office and how she feels during her "hump year" — the halfway mark of her term.

So, let's get right to it: Are you going to run again?

I don't know yet. It's not that I don't enjoy the work, but I truly believe in sharing the wealth. So if other community members who want to do it and who have a passion like I did come forward, then I think I should give other people that chance. There might be other people out there who want to run, and after all, you burn through a lot of personal capital in this job.

Such as?

Well, I spend mine on the goals I have, and I'd have to think about how to do justice to my family, my relationship, my job and my council time for another four years.

Let's talk about your goals. When you ran, you seemed passionate about the environment, education, Latinos …

And it's funny, we did a voter survey, and fewer than 10 Latino women are registered to vote in my ward. I don't think people are hanging back because they're not educated about the importance of voting, but sometimes they're not registered because they're not here legally.

But my goals included clarity around government, a more inclusive process of getting people involved, supporting public servants but also having them be accountable on their practices. I think I've done that; at least, I can see movement in my goals there.

The biggest challenge is the railroad yard. We make one tiny inch forward, and then we stop; they get new people in different positions. In my first year, I went to Salem with [former City Councilor] Gary Papé, and we tried to have a conversation with [Union Pacific], but they have a quadrant from Seattle to San Francisco. Eugene's just a little tiny blip along the way, and they're not accountable to us; they don't have to have a conversation with us. But they have 300 acres in the middle of the city core, and we don't know what they're doing or what their plans are.

What about economic development and downtown Eugene?

With me being a blue-collar worker, I think other people have a bigger picture of what economic development means statewide and nationwide, but I see jobs for my constituents, family-wage jobs so moms in my ward only have to work two jobs, or, heaven forbid, one job, to take care of their kids and have health care. But some of the taxes and tax breaks are a state issue: We're just giving the state away, and we don't even have enough money to educate our kids.

How do you feel about the split in the City Council? Is it frustrating?

It's balanced, and I'm OK with that. It's funny, I look at my voting bloc [Bonny Bettman, Betty Taylor and Alan Zelenka], and it's interesting how we get to the same conclusion but from different paths. Whatever Bonny's philosophies are or Betty's, or now Alan's, they're not the same priorities or views as mine, but we tend to get to the same place. … But I don't usually have interactions with anybody outside of council meetings. Jennifer [Solomon] referred to "the other half of the council" the other day, and I was like, hold on! We're not bosom buddies, we don't go to lunch, we don't hang out.

What about the other "other half of the council" (Chris Pryor, George Poling, Mike Clark and Jennifer Solomon)? Do they hang out?

I have no idea, and I don't need to know.

I've been to a few council meetings lately, and the tone seems so cordial. How do you feel about the tone of the council with your two new members?

It's great, and I know it's because of the mayor. With the new councilors, I'm so happy with the way they were treated. When I was elected, I didn't feel welcomed; it was painful with all of the rudeness and the sarcasm at the table. I was so appalled at the behavior in the council meetings. I'm very glad for Alan and Mike to be welcomed with open arms. Mayor Piercy has set a tone that everyone is welcome, that we are all peers on the council. I didn't know what to ask for when I was elected, I didn't know what I needed, and now I know the tone and expectations have changed. The City Council and the mayor have given a different direction to the city staff.

What do you hear from your constituents about their goals and desires for the city?

Well, I have six neighborhoods — which, by the way, is unmanageable — and I try to make neighborhood meetings, but I apologize to the neighborhood leaders for not being able to make it more than 50 percent of the time. I have a family and a job, and sometimes I want a day off! Anyway, in the River Road/Santa Clara area, I'd say annexation is their biggest issue. We've had conversations with the leaders out there. [Former Assistant City Manager] Jim Carlson found a 1982 document about annexing those folks, and I can understand the city's point of view, wanting to have the tax base necessary to provide core services out there. Of course, do they want those core services? Do they want to be part of the city? I believe in letting voters speak, asking the people outside the city if they want to be inside or not. If we talk about annexing, they're not my constituents yet, but that's 10,000 more voters. I think the River Road area is willing to be in the conversation, but Santa Clara's not willing to have that conversation yet.

Downtown, people are concerned about public safety. They want more police presence; I think they'd be happy to have a beat cop. In Trainsong and Active Bethel Citizens (ABC), there's the railroad and pollution to deal with. In Whiteaker, the community is looking at developing a quiet zone, not only for the whistles, but a more complex plan that might involve closing a couple of the railroad crossings. In Trainsong [where I live], there's a lack of neighborhood involvement, and we have a lot of pollution with Baxter and quality of life issues. In some of the houses, there are generations of people living with no hope. It's urban blight. The other day, [Register-Guard reporter] Ed Russo said, "I was in your neighborhood, and it looks pretty rough down there."

What about the new City Hall plan? Do you support it?

I think if voters are willing to pay for it, I'm all for it. Our building is in disrepair, and we need to get the Police Department out from underneath the basement. Where and how, well, I'm not as detail-oriented as some of my peers. I could use some storage, and I would look forward to having a staff person for everyone.

What do you hear is happening in downtown development? What would you like to see?

Well, people are holding their cards close to their chests, so I don't know what is happening. I'd like to know! I hear whispers, of course. I'd like to see more people living downtown, be it subsidized or low-income, that's great, but we also need something to make people want to stay downtown. We need places to work and to shop, services like grocery stores where working families can afford to shop. I want it to be diverse, truly diverse, not just in thinking but with actual different minorities present down here.

Speaking of race, how do you think white progressives in Eugene are doing around issues for Latinos?

Well, a lot of white progressives have their hearts in the right place and want to help. But unless you've been in a country where you're the minority or you've been through white privilege training, it's hard to begin to understand. I grew up in Riverside, where every family was Latino and had eight to 10 kids, and we all went in a herd to Catholic school and church. I knew everybody I saw would be a friendly face. Raising kids up here, I didn't know that experience of racism, didn't understand what my three sons were going through. My boys are blue-collar workers, chewing tobacco, working in the mills — just guys, but people see them as Latino first. It's a really challenging, complicated issue, and for [progressive] people who say "I don't see color," I'm like, "Are they for real?" Brown-eyed boys and brown babies — they're the bomb! [Laughs.] Obviously, we all have our personal biases, that's very human, and for people not to acknowledge those biases is not the best route; instead, we need to educate ourselves and go from there. When you start out saying you don't have any biases, part of the story is not being told.

 

So how is the city doing around race and who's in power?

The city is making efforts, having some conversations around race, taking baby steps. But who's in power? Well, I like to think the people who vote are the ones who are in power. I'm told there are other people who think that the people with money are the ones in power. …

I was at an LCOG (Lane Council of Governments) dinner the other night to present David Kelly an award, and we're in this room of about 75 or 100 people. They were all wearing suits, and they all don't look like me.

Do you feel like you have to be a role model?

Yes. When I was running for council, I was like, win or lose, this is a step in the right direction. I was going out to schools and encouraging kids to be involved, to follow politics, register to vote, speak their minds and participate.

What are the strong points of Eugene, in your opinion?

I think about Riverside and Oregon vs. California values and what's been done to communities. It scares the hell out of me that people [there] have raped the environment and grown at an unmanageable pace. I hope here, we don't forget our sense of community, our desire to be a healthier community and sustain growth for children and our grandchildren — but not at a cost to the environment. I think the mayor's Sustainable Business Initiative is really going up the right path. … It's a safe place. [With a wink at her empty latte cup:] We've got good coffee! No, really, the quality of life is second to none. I'm humbled when I think about how different this community is from where I was from and what I grew up with. We put such a high value on humans, how we live our lives, the quality of education and the environment. People are willing to make sacrifices to have that, to take some inconvenience for preserving our quality of life. That kind of conversation doesn't happen in Riverside at all — we were just living. Here, it's like, how well do we want to live?