A sharply divided Eugene City Council voted 5-3 Saturday night to select Jon Ruiz as the powerful city manager of Eugene. The vote marks the first time in Eugene history where the city’s top official was chosen on such a divided vote.
Council conservatives voted as a block for Ruiz, a retired Army Colonel who was criticized in a California newspaper for being too cozy with developers in his work as assistant city manager of Fresno. Councilor Alan Zelenka provided the swing vote to back the conservative’s candidate.
Progressive Councilors Betty Taylor, Bonny Bettman and Andrea Ortiz voted against hiring Ruiz. Zelenka and council conservatives Mike Clark, Jennifer Solomon, Chris Pryor and George Poling voted to hire Ruiz.
The council majority made the job offer contingent on Ruiz passing more formal background and reference checks and agreeing to a salary offer.
Councilors Bettman and Taylor said they favored Joe Lessard for the manager job. Lessard has worked as a consultant with an interest in progressive planning since leaving an assistant manager job with the city of Austin, Texas. (EW reported recently on the manager candidate backgrounds.)
“I thought we had an outstanding candidate in Lessard, and I’m very disappointed that we didn’t choose him,” councilor Taylor said. Taylor and Bettman praised Lessard’s intelligence, honesty and experience.
Lessard has environmental planning and conflict resolution experience in a large city with similar issues and politics to Eugene, according to Bettman. Fresno “is nothing like Eugene,” she said.
Bettman said that while Ruiz came across as personable, Lessard offered experience and intellect that Ruiz couldn’t match. “Style versus substance is what we got. They went for the style,” Bettman said.
Bettman said Ruiz was the favorite candidate of city executive staff and she expects the new city manager to make few of the reforms in city accountability, transparency and planning that she says are needed.
“Ruiz to me represents more of the same,” Bettman said. “The majority of councilors defended the status quo into the future.”
Council conservative Mike Clark declined to comment on his vote. Other councilors and the mayor quickly left the meeting before they could be interviewed. The elected officials did not state the reasons for their votes during the three minute public meeting after the council met for eight hours in closed session at the Eugene Hilton board room to interview and discuss the candidates.
Earlier, many elected officials had said the vote would likely be one of the most important they would make as elected officials. City managers are not democratically elected but wield most government power in Eugene, controlling all information and making all hiring firing, contracting and discipline decisions. Part-time elected councilors vote to hire and fire the city manager.