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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 5.1.08

 

Mayor's Race

Torrey vs. Piercy choice could shape Eugene's future

BY ALAN PITTMAN

The position of Eugene mayor is often viewed as largely ceremonial with the city manager and council majority holding the real power.

Then why have developers, gravel, construction, timber and other pro-sprawl and freeway interests already poured a record-breaking $180,000 into Jim Torrey's campaign to unseat Kitty Piercy?

It turns out that who wins the political clash for mayor could have a dramatic impact on shaping the city's future. With the City Council often split down the middle on sprawl vs. livability and the environment, the mayor will make important committee appointments and cast key tie-breaking votes on a host of vital issues. Will Eugene sprawl with a big urban growth boundary expansion or grow carefully with greener and more livable density? Will the city focus on global warming and alternative transportation or more freeways? Should we cut libraries, parks and other popular services to fund pothole repair and police? Do we want to focus on green jobs?

"This is a pitched battle for the future of Eugene, and they are pulling out all the stops," said Piercy of the development interests outspending her almost 3-1 in the mayor's race.

 

Backgrounds

On the surface Torrey and Piercy appear to share a lot of the same positions. Both say they support kids and education, street maintenance, public safety and jobs. Both support improvements to Beltline highway, locating a hospital in Eugene, tax breaks for Hynix and recently failed votes on downtown urban renewal tax diversion, an increased gas tax for potholes and the county income tax.

Both Torrey and Piercy have lived in Eugene for more than three decades and are parents and grandparents. But beyond that their biographies look quite different.

Torrey went to high school in Waldport, attended the UO but did not graduate and went to work as a grocer before starting a career in outdoor and billboard advertising. He served on the Eugene City Council from 1994 to 1997 and as mayor from 1997 to 2005. In 2006 he ran as an anti-abortion Republican for state Senate but was defeated.

Piercy grew up in Virginia, Ohio and Michigan and graduated from Western Michigan University with a teaching degree. She served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia teaching high school English and later taught elementary school in Eugene. Piercy was elected to the state House of Representatives as a Democrat from 1995 to 2000. She lost a race for Lane County commissioner in 2000 before working for five years as public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of southwestern Oregon. In 2005, she won election as Eugene mayor.

 

Sprawl

Torrey has attacked Piercy for not supporting a developer-backed move to loosen local sprawl regulations. Last year the Oregon Home Builders Association, backed by Springfield officials, rammed a bill through the state Legislature to split the Eugene/Springfield urban growth boundary (UGB) in two and force Eugene to conduct an early buildable lands inventory. Developers hope the bill and inventory will force Eugene to expand the local UGB that limits sprawl.

"We will be required to expand our urban growth boundary," Torrey said in a recent debate.

Surveys show strong support in Eugene for growing more slowly and densely and retaining the growth boundary rather than allowing sprawl. Sprawl can increase taxes, pollution, congestion and housing costs while reducing livability, studies have shown.

But Torrey said the city should change its decade-old growth management policies that support holding the UGB.

Piercy said the city is now conducting the land inventory studies Torrey and developers want. If the studies show the city can't legally meet land supply requirements with density, she said she will "very carefully and intentionally" consider a UGB expansion.

"I'm not an anti-development person. I'm just a person who wants it to be in the perspective of what a great place this is," Piercy said.

Torrey faults Piercy for alienating Springfield over the bill. He dismisses criticism from sprawl opponents saying that it was actually the other way around with Springfield alienating Eugene.

Piercy says she has a good working relationship with Springfield officials. She points to a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. when she stood in for Springfield officials when they couldn't make the trip. "We are good partners."

Torrey faults Piercy for being an overly "divisive" mayor and said he will do a better job at bringing people together.

But when Torrey was mayor, he had a reputation as a fierce partisan. He broke a dozen tie votes to reliably take the conservative stand on sprawl and other issues, according to an EW review of votes from 1999 to 2004. In 1997 he backed police pepper spraying nonviolent tree sitters downtown.

In 2000 Torrey told The Register-Guard that a progressive majority on the council would conflict with him and other conservatives and create a "train wreck" that would make it "practically impossible for any meaningful discussion." When a local developer secretly bankrolled "Gang of 9" attack ads against progressive councilors, Torrey went on conservative talk radio to join the attacks.

 

Environment

Piercy is endorsed by the Oregon League of Conservation Voters (OLCV) and the Oregon Natural Resources Council Action PAC and has a strong record of working for environmental issues as mayor. She launched a Sustainable Business Initiative to reduce the city's global warming and environmental impact and support and encourage local green businesses.

Torrey said he supports sustainability. But local OLCV organizer Meredith Shield said, "That's just obviously not true by votes he's taken and money he's taken from developers."

Torrey had an "awful" environmental voting record as mayor, Shield said. "He voted against the environment every time he had a chance," she said. "It's scary to think about what it would be like if he's mayor again."

Similar to now, Shield said Torrey also received big donations from anti-environmental interests when he unsuccessfully ran for the state Senate in 2006. "He got over $200,000 in campaign donations from polluters," she said, citing big contributions from timber barons and logging companies.

More than $28,000 of Torrey's money in 2006 came from companies with recent fines for breaking federal or state environmental laws, according to Shield.

 

Big Money

In this election Torrey has continued to rake in big donations from pro-sprawl, anti-environment timber, sand and gravel, developer, land speculator and construction interests, according to state filings.

Torrey's top contributors include sand and gravel companies also involved in construction and land speculation. Wildish gave $11,000, Babb/Delta $10,000, and Egge $5,000.

Other top contributors include Hamilton Construction of Springfield $8,000; the Korth development and shopping mall family $6,500; and Murphy plywood $6,000. Contributions of $5,000 each came from: the Zip-O old growth logging company; real estate speculator Donald Tykeson; construction machinery mogul Randy Papé; Monaco RV CEO Kay Toolson; land speculator and winery owner Ed King; and Kendall auto and development group executive Paul Skillern. The Chambers (development, media and construction) and the Giustina (development, land, timber and real estate speculation) companies each gave Torrey $4,000 contributions.

Piercy has reported $71,000 in contributions, mostly in smaller contributions from pro-environment individuals and labor and environmental groups.

Torrey's big donors stand to make huge profits from city actions. Land brought into the UGB can increase in value by a factor of 10 to 40 times, according to city appraisals. Land approved for mining can also make big profits for sand and gravel companies. New freeways involve contracts for hundreds of millions of dollars of construction, sand and gravel.

Piercy said that Torrey's big donors "would like to see the urban growth boundary removed and expanded, and anything that keeps them from growing and developing as fast as they can, they want out of the way."

Torrey's $180,000 and still growing war chest funded by large donations is on an unprecedented scale for local elections. But Torrey said if elected he will "absolutely not" be influenced by the money.

Local labor leader James Jacobson said the big money means Torrey won't represent working people if he's elected. "Jim Torrey is not going to represent them; he's going to represent big developer and big money people," said Jacobson, who heads the Service Employees International Union local. "Follow the money."

Republican

Torrey now claims he's an Independent running a "nonpartisan" campaign. But two years ago the Republican Party and party leaders were some of the biggest backers of Torrey's failed campaign for the state Senate as a Republican against incumbent Democrat Vicki Walker.

In the mayor's race Torrey has continued to get donations from big Republican donors who support President George Bush. Babb, Papé and Toolson, for example, have given thousands of dollars to both Torrey and Bush.

Piercy is backed by donors who have supported other Democrats and is endorsed by most local Democratic elected officials.

During his Senate campaign two years ago, Torrey said in a debate with Democrat Vicki Walker that he supported President George Bush and the Iraq War. In 2004 Torrey donated $2,000 to Bush's re-election campaign, the maximum allowed. In 2004, Eugene voted 67 percent for Democrat John Kerry.

Torrey refused to say whether or not he'll vote Republican for president this year, though he praised Barack Obama in an opinion piece in the Oregon Daily Emerald.

Piercy said she's "definitely going to vote for the Democrat." At an anti-war rally last month, Piercy said, "We must end the war and bring the troops home."

 

Parkway

Torrey will say that unlike Piercy, he would have voted for the West Eugene Parkway (WEP) had he been mayor.

The freeway through wetlands, a controversy for two decades, passed narrowly in a nonbinding election after development and construction interests spent heavily to campaign for the measure. Piercy was openly opposed to the wetland freeway when she ran for mayor, but voters still supported her.

As mayor, Piercy cast a key vote against the WEP, and afterwards the state and federal highway agencies canceled the project. Piercy said regardless of her vote, the highway would have died anyway due to a big funding gap and the lack of approvals from federal environmental agencies.

Piercy said her vote helped stop the city from continuing to waste time and money on the doomed WEP and instead focus on alternative transportation solutions for west Eugene.

"It looked like 20 more years, it wasn't going to get built," she said. State and federal officials "didn't believe it was ever going to get built, but they didn't want to take the blame" for canceling the project, Piercy said. "I thought someone needed to show some leadership and move us forward."

After the decision, Piercy helped form a diverse group of WEP opponents and supporters, the West Eugene Collaborative, that is studying possible solutions including sprawl controls, reconfiguring West 11th and a bus rapid transit line.

In an interview, Torrey agreed with Piercy that the WEP may not have been built anyway due to federal environmental issues. But he said Piercy should have let state and federal highway officials "carry the burden of its failure" instead of the city. Torrey said that by voting against the project, Piercy annoyed ODOT officials who will now refuse to fund other Eugene road projects. "We as a community have to pay for it," he said.

But in 2006 ODOT spokesman Joe Harwood refuted the charge by WEP supporters that the state agency will somehow punish Eugene for failing to approve the WEP. "That's ridiculous," he said.

 

Potholes

Torrey said another leading transportation issue in his campaign is potholes. Torrey has favored higher gas taxes for street repair in the past. But now Torrey says he opposes tax increases for potholes and wants increased funding to come from cutting $3.5 million a year in other city services in the general fund.

"Where can he responsibly do that — fire, police, libraries?" Piercy asked.

Since March Torrey has repeatedly declined to say or even hint at which city services he will cut for potholes. "I'm not going to tell you," he said in an interview.

Torrey said he will reveal his proposed cuts sometime before ballots are due May 20 but won't say whether that will be before most people have voted by mail. While running for the state Senate, Torrey made similar proposals for dramatic increases in spending without tax hikes but never said what other programs he would cut to pay for it.

While mayor for eight years, Torrey faced the same road maintenance shortage but did not propose cutting city services for potholes.

Piercy said she inherited the city's street maintenance backlog from when Torrey was mayor and has been working to address the issue. She supports diverting some of the general fund money the city has saved for a new City Hall for potholes. She said some services could be squeezed for funding, but she would not support major cuts in important city programs to fund potholes.

Outgoing acting City Manager Angel Jones this week proposed using $4.5 million from the City Hall reserve for potholes over the next three years.

Piercy said she would also consider a proposal to refer a bond measure for street repair to the voters.

In her budget message, Jones described the city finances as tight with no room for added spending without corresponding cuts or revenue increases. Jones and her staff predicted that without new revenue, the city will exhaust its reserves in the next two years and face budget deficits of up to $2 million a year.

 

Police

Torrey said he would also like to increase police and jail spending by $3.5 million a year by cutting other general fund city services. But again, he has refused to specify exactly what he will cut to fund the budget increase without raising taxes.

Torrey said the council could decide to refer to voters a tax increase to restore funding for his proposed $7 million in budget cuts to fund potholes and police.

Piercy said she has supported increased police staffing as mayor as well as drug and mental health treatment programs to reduce crime. But she said city police officers cannot be increased in a vacuum without the county prosecutors and jail beds to support them. "He's not paying attention to the needs of the whole system," Piercy said. "It's much more complicated."

Both Torrey and Piercy said they support the city's new independent police auditor. But Torrey said he would consider budget cuts to the auditor function.

Torrey also accused Piercy and the council of unfairly criticizing the police department for the Magaña sex abuse scandal. Piercy and the council "have not treated the police department with respect," he said.

But critics have said it's the police that lack respect for the citizens of Eugene and their elected officials. The Eugene police union, which continues to strongly oppose the independent auditor despite a strong public vote, has endorsed Torrey for mayor. In January, police union leaders attacked Piercy in a Register-Guard op-ed, describing her State of the City address as a "bizarre ordeal" and "three-ringed circus." In another op-ed last month, the union called the mayor and council an "infested bunch" guilty of "either bias or corruption" for a "tainted, manipulative" decision to support the police auditor.

Piercy said she has worked to restore trust in the police after it was "left in shreds" by the Magaña/Lara sex abuse scandal. "I know that these two were the exception and the vast majority of our officers serve our community with honor."

Roger Magaña was convicted in 2004 of raping or sexually abusing a dozen women over five years as a police officer. After a federal judge found evidence that other police officers had for years ignored multiple complaints from victims, the city paid millions of dollars to settle their lawsuits. Victims' lawyers accused the police of failing to discipline or independently investigate other officers for failing to respond to the repeated complaints about Magaña.

Many of Magaña's crimes and the police failure to respond to them occurred while Torrey was mayor. A city consultant who reviewed the Magaña scandal faulted city leadership for failing to oversee the police department. Torrey played a role by pushing to delay the appointment of a new permanent police chief for a year, according to city documents.

Torrey denies any responsibility for the scandal. "That's a fabrication," he said.

 

Jobs

Torrey said he'll do much more to create new jobs than Piercy. He said under Piercy, regulatory burdens have prevented job creation by businesses.

But Piercy said her Sustainable Business Initiative has successfully emphasized job creation. She cites business friendly recognition the city has received while she's mayor. The city was recently chosen the number one green city in the country by National Geographic's Green Guide and the number five green city by Popular Science, she said. Forbes recently ranked Eugene among the "200 Best Places for Business and Careers," and Fortune Small Business included Eugene on its 2008 list of "100 Best Places to Live and Launch a Small Business."

With all the progress made on creating a greener economy, Piercy said, "it would be a shame to roll backward."

"We are nationally recognized as a place that protects its livability and is a great place to do business," Piercy said. "This will bring more jobs."

Piercy points to statements by developers that the city is now better off in the current housing slump because holding the UGB against sprawl kept it from overbuilding. "That has turned out to be a great thing for our local economy."

Torrey and other conservatives have long said Eugene should emulate Springfield's weaker sprawl regulations to promote jobs. But according to the U.S. Census, Eugene has done a far better job at jobs. Almost two-thirds of workers in Springfield work outside of Springfield, most likely in Eugene where incomes are 26 percent higher, according to the data.

Torrey's actual record on creating jobs isn't positive. While he was mayor, the local jobless rate increased, not decreased.

While Torrey has the backing of big business owners represented by his big donors and the endorsement of the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce board, which he once chaired, Piercy has the backing of labor groups.

The local firefighters, transit workers, teamsters, service workers and government workers (AFSCME) unions have all endorsed Piercy. Torrey supports big business, not the jobs of working people, according to SEIU's Jacobson. He praised Piercy's support of a living wage and healthcare. Torrey "has never been a friend of working people."

Piercy said she's "hopeful" she can retain the mayor's seat despite the big developer interests backing Torrey and outspending her almost three to one. "Most people don't want to see elections bought."