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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 4.24.08

 

Ruiz Reigns

New city manager packs political power, mystery

BY ALAN PITTMAN

Asked if he's the king of Eugene, Jon Ruiz, who took over as Eugene's new city manager last week, laughed.

"Well, I don't know," Ruiz said. "Here's how I view the system. The elected officials are elected to make policy for the community. I get hired by the City Council to implement that policy in the best way I possibly can."

But critics have long said the huge, unaccountable political power vested in the city manager by Eugene's City Charter is no laughing matter. Roger Magaña, the Eugene police officer recently sentenced to 94 years in prison for raping or sexually abusing a dozen women over a five-year crime spree, was not under the supervision and control of any elected official. Under the charter the manager is sole master over 1,600 city employees, hiring, firing, promoting, demoting, transferring and reorganizing them without the requirement to even inform the City Council. If an elected official objects to his personnel actions outside of a public meeting, the manager can have him or her thrown out of office by a court. There is no similar provision for removing the manager if he interferes in politics or policy decisions.

Next time you wince at the jolt from a pothole, think of the city manager post. There was never a policy decision by elected officials to run up a $170 million road maintenance deficit. That was largely the decision of past city managers. Under the City Charter the manager has de-facto control over 99 percent of the city's half-billion-dollar budget, including all city contracts. With the exception of occasional bonding or urban renewal decisions, only a few thousand dollars a year of spending are ever debated or voted on by elected officials.

Wondering where Eugene's downtown is? There was never a council policy decision to kill it and leave it full of pits and abandoned buildings. The shopping malls and sprawl that sucked all the retail out of downtown were due in large part to the decisions of past city managers.

With all this power, Eugene's city managers have had little accountability. Angry voters can't recall the city manager. They can vote the mayor out, but that post is largely ceremonial. The council can theoretically fire a city manager, but that highly disruptive action has only happened once in the city's history.

Firing a city manager would also require the City Council to know what's going on. Past managers have held a tight cap on all city information, especially when it involves wrong-doing by city staff. At the same time, managers hired from hundreds of miles away know next to nothing about Eugene. Ruiz never had to knock on a single door in Eugene, shake a single hand or give a single public speech to win all his political power.

So who is this guy that now holds all this king-like power in Eugene?

He's largely a political mystery. Ruiz won't say if he's a Democrat or a Republican or who he wants for president in November.

Eugene voted two-thirds Democrat in 2004 and this year is on fire with the race to replace Bush. But when it comes to the city manager's political affiliation, "I don't think it's relevant," Ruiz said.

Ruiz will answer many other questions about his background and how he will manage Eugene. Here's a look at the former Army colonel from Southern California who City Council conservatives installed in Eugene's top political job.

 

L.A. to Eugene

Ruiz, 49, grew up in Los Angeles. His grandfather spoke Spanish at home, but his father didn't, and pronounced Ruiz as "Reese." His mother was from upstate New York.

"I can remember from maybe fifth or sixth grade on wanting to be a forest ranger," said Ruiz. L.A. doesn't have big forests, but Ruiz said the desire came from his attraction to the outdoors. "I like the outdoors and camping and hiking, all those things."

Ruiz went away to Colorado State University to study forestry in Fort Collins. He came through Eugene briefly while on a forestry field trip, but said he doesn't remember much of the city.

In college Ruiz met his wife who now works with kids as a naturalist and environmental educator. Ruiz has been married for 27 years, but has no children.

After graduating in 1980, Ruiz went into the U.S. Army for six years of active duty. He continued to serve in the Army reserves until retiring as a colonel in 2006.

Ruiz said he chose the Army because his father was in the military and, "I think it's an honorable profession."

He served in Europe, studied with the Army War College and commanded a tactical communications company, but was never deployed to fight in the Iraq wars.

Ruiz said he thought the invasion of Iraq five years ago "was appropriate." But, "I've reconsidered that now."

He went back to school in 1988 for a MBA at the University of Colorado in Boulder. From 1989 to 1995, Ruiz worked on streets, economic development, school and neighborhood issues for the city of Fort Collins, population 100,000.

In 1995 he took a job as public works director in Ogden, Utah, population 77,000. There he helped convert a military base to a business park, worked on a rails-to-trails conversion and managed a variety of municipal projects including a renovation of the historic municipal building and a whitewater kayak park.

After eight years in Ogden, Ruiz moved to Fresno, Calif., population 480,000, to take a job as public works director in 2003. The next year he switched to a position as one of two assistant city managers for the city, working on land use, economic development and budget issues.

 

Developers Gone Wild

Fresno isn't Eugene. The city has a reputation as California's armpit. The San Francisco Chronicle profiled the sprawling, "corrupt," "depressing" city at the millennium as "a cautionary tale of planning gone wrong and development gone wild." The paper described a city with a booming population, high unemployment and high crime rate and a dizzying array of shopping malls, fast food chains and freeway exits spread over 100 miles of prime farmland in the central valley between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The reputation continues. "By every conceivable measure, Fresno, Calif. is a royal craphole," wrote a Fresno refugee in The Portland Mercury last year.

But Ruiz said the town has been given a bad rap for wanton sprawl. "I think that's been reversed in the last couple years." He said Fresno is now focusing on denser development and alternative transportation to fight bad air pollution. He said he doesn't think developers still run the town.

But a 2006 Fresno Bee editorial blog stated that developers still "call the tune at City Hall." The newspaper faulted an effort Ruiz was leading to raise street and other systems development fees for builders so taxpayers wouldn't have to continue to subsidize developers. "City staff has been allowing the development community to run the show," the paper complained about years of delay. The Fresno Bee said the inaction was "one more example of the city being cozy with the building community."

Ruiz disputed the account. He said developers had pushed for quickly doubling the fees to get out of the ten-fold or more increase that was really needed and eventually imposed by the city after the proper legal justification could be prepared. "The policy was they should pay their fair share," he said.

Fresno is more conservative than Eugene and was slower to come to the environmental movement, Ruiz said. "Admittedly it doesn't have the history you have in Eugene." But he said the city is moving in that direction with a Green Plan including a large solar installation at the airport, a large alternative-fuel fleet and plans for denser development.

Ruiz said he helped hire consultant Peter Calthorpe, a well-known proponent of denser cities, to plan a 1,500-acre city expansion onto farmland. Calthorpe's plan includes a walkable, transit-oriented new-urbanist mix of housing and businesses.

"It's amazing," Ruiz said of Calthorpe. "I think he'd be great to bring to Eugene."

Ruiz also traveled to Portland to examine the city's downtown streetcar as a way to spark redevelopment of Fresno's failing downtown.

"I thought it was fabulous," Ruiz said of the streetcar. He said a streetcar, perhaps connecting the UO to downtown, could also help redevelop Eugene's troubled city center. "Eugene is big enough," he said. "I'd love to do it."

Ruiz said he'd also like to use the UO as part of an economic development strategy for Eugene focusing on the "creative class." As a scenic university town with a livable lifestyle, Eugene can attract architects, programmers and other "knowledge worker" professionals who are free to move anywhere and set up businesses, according to Ruiz.

Tax breaks to attract new companies are sometimes appropriate, according to Ruiz. But the city manager doubts Eugene wants to attract "large industrial users" as an economic development strategy. "A healthy environment is critical."

Ruiz was hired for his Fresno job by then City Manager Daniel Hobbs. Hobbs, himself a finalist for the Eugene job, was forced to resign from his manager job in Fresno, according to media accounts. The Fresno Bee reported that Hobbs "clashed at times with unions and council members" and allegedly "did not include the council in his decisions." But Ruiz praised his former boss. "He's a great guy."

One thing Hobbs did was pay the Pacific Institute for "high performance training" of city staff. The training, involving videos featuring motivational speaker Lou Tice, has been criticized by some as a simplistic waste of money.

Ruiz praised the motivational training for "sharing with people how your mind works." He said he wouldn't require it of all Eugene staff but might use it "in certain cases."

 

Eugene's Thorny Throne

Ruiz said he was attracted by the top city manager job in a city interested in the sustainability, livability and downtown rehabilitation interests he shares. Ruiz said he and his wife were also drawn by the hiking, biking and camping amenities the Eugene area offers.

Ruiz may share that passion with many in Eugene. But he doesn't own any Birkenstocks or tie-dye. He said he drives a little Mazda Miata convertible, has been active in his Protestant church and plays golf only poorly.

Ruiz said he likes the passionate, diverse citizenry in this logging/college town. After talking to a wide spectrum, he said, "I haven't found anybody yet" that he can't work with.

In hiring Ruiz, Eugene's City Council was largely split along conservative vs. progressive lines. Conservative Councilors Mike Clark, Jennifer Solomon, George Poling and Chris Pryor backed Ruiz. Council progressives Bonny Bettman, Betty Taylor and Andrea Ortiz voted against hiring him. But progressive Councilor Alan Zelenka voted for Ruiz. It was the first such sharply divided vote for a city manager in the city's history.

With the manager throne comes a lot of thorny issues that Eugene is grappling with.

Former City Manager Dennis Taylor was criticized for failing to launch an independent investigation of officers who failed in the hiring and supervision of Magaña and who failed to respond to years of complaints of sex abuse from his victims. Asked if he would launch an independent investigation, Ruiz appeared bewildered. After prompting from the city's PR handler Jan Bohman, Ruiz said, "I'll talk to the [police] chief about it."

Ruiz said that unlike Taylor he would not oppose the city's new, voter-approved independent police auditor. "I'm not going to fall on my sword over it," he said. "I support the concept."

Asked how he will deal with Eugene's bristly police union which at times has seemed at war with voters over police accountability, Ruiz said he has successful experience in "interest-based bargaining" with police unions.

As for city reformers' calls for an independent performance auditor to increase city efficiency and provide elected officials and citizens with unbiased information, Ruiz said he's undecided if he will oppose the reform.

Ruiz said he's also undecided about long-standing calls for the city to save money and reduce perceived conflicts of interest by hiring its own in-house city attorney. The city now contracts for almost all its legal work and advice with an outside private firm that also works for businesses and other clients that may be at odds with the city. "I wouldn't rule it out," Ruiz said of hiring an in-house city attorney.

City surveys have shown that although developers want growth, most citizens would like Eugene to stay about the same size.

"It's an economic development question to me, not a growth question," Ruiz said. "I don't think a community can just stagnate," he said. But, "I don't think Eugene should be sprawling." Ruiz said it is possible for a city to have economic growth without a lot of population growth.

But the city manager said it's important for people to have job opportunities and said Eugene has more capacity for growth. "We're not topped out."

Ruiz said he's committed to transparent, open government. But asked for his business card, Ruiz refused. He said he wanted all calls to go through his PR handler, Jan Bohman. When told that a city business card was a public record under state law, Ruiz said he'd send it later.

Ruiz said he would continue the city's long-criticized practice of withholding virtually all information on staff wrong-doing. "I believe most personnel actions should remain confidential," Ruiz said.

Some information could be released in certain extraordinary cases, Ruiz said. But he declined to say if he would release information on discipline for a hypothetical city employee who violently injured a citizen. "It's still case by case," he said.

He said he didn't understand enough about Taylor's controversial "one city one voice" policy of controlling information to want to change it. Ruiz did say he is open to organizational change for the city staff. "I'm not a status quo kind of guy."

Ruiz said he wouldn't withhold information from the City Council. "We have a responsibility to provide them all the information they need," he said. "I'm not in the manipulating business."

Former city managers banned city staff from answering councilors' direct information requests. Ruiz said he won't do that. "I will not be the Wizard of Oz, the gatekeeper of all information."

When it comes to council decisions, "it's not my job to debate whether or not it's good policy," Ruiz said. But he added, "I do think the council hires someone to use their best professional judgment."

Ruiz said he will follow council direction. "This is not about where Jon Ruiz wants to go," the city manager said. But he didn't appear open to calls for the council to make policy decisions on where the city should prioritize its limited and expensive police services. "We do pay the chief to figure these things out," Ruiz said. "I don't think the council members really want to micromanage."

Ruiz said he sees potholes as a top city priority. That's a view held by conservatives and the Chamber of Commerce. But last year voters dismissed a gas tax for potholes by a wide margin and told pollsters they would also likely reject a property tax for potholes.

"There will be times I'm going to disagree with the Chamber [of Commerce] and The Register-Guard," Ruiz said. "You're not going to find me on the extremes." He added, "I won't be captured in someone's camp."

"I'm really not a guy that's committed to building a power base and a kingdom," Ruiz said. "The community at some point will say [thumbs down gesture]," Ruiz said. With city managers, "that's how it is."

As for where he stands politically, "I think at the end of the day, people will be surprised," Ruiz said.

According to voter registration records in Fresno, Jon Ruiz is a Republican.