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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 6.12.08

 

What Lies Ahead

Truth spins out in mayor race

By Alan Pittman

From police to potholes, slippery spin abounds in the tight race that continues on to November between Jim Torrey and Kitty Piercy. 

What follows is a guide to rhetoric and reality

for voters to avoid the hazards to truth on the road to the run-off election for mayor.


Rhetoric: The mayor should get all the blame or credit.

Reality: The council and staff have more power than the mayor.

Explanation: Under Eugene’s city charter, the mayor does not have executive or administrative power. The city manager and his or her staff have that power. The City Council sets policy, with the mayor only voting in case of a tie. Thus, the mayor cannot take blame or credit for everything the city does. But right now, the City Council is closely divided along conservative vs. progressive lines, which is why there’s a big fight for the mayor’s office. 

Rhetoric: Torrey won the May primary.

Reality: Piercy had more votes, but fell short of avoiding a runoff. 

Explanation: Piercy beat Torrey by 797 votes. She had 48.8 percent of the vote compared to Torrey’s 47.4 percent. Piercy fell 690 votes short of getting the just over 50 percent of the vote she needed to avoid a November runoff. Torrey spent $9.50 per vote on the primary. Piercy spent $4.69 per vote. 

Piercy actually won 30 percent more votes this May than when she first won in May 2004. But due to the heavy turnout, it wasn’t enough to avoid a runoff.

Rhetoric: Piercy isn’t the mayor for all Eugene; Torrey is.

Reality: Eugene is bitterly divided.

Explanation: Eugene has a sharp liberal vs. conservative split reflected by the razor-close election between the two candidates. Piercy had more than two-thirds of the vote in the three council wards in south Eugene. Torrey had two-thirds of the vote in the two North Eugene wards and in the Bethel ward.

The two candidates roughly split the vote in Ward 8 in southwest Eugene and in Ward 7, which sprawls from the Whiteaker neighborhood far north to River Road and Santa Clara. Generally, Piercy won the precincts closer to downtown and the UO, while Torrey won the votes in the newer subdivisions on the edge of town.

Torrey criticized Piercy for not appointing enough people from the more conservative parts of town to serve on city committees. But Torrey was accused of stacking committees by not appointing enough people from more liberal wards while he was mayor. Also, more liberals than conservatives tend to volunteer for the unpaid committee spots.

Backed by hundreds of small contributors, Piercy has a wider funding base than Torrey. About three-fourths of Piercy’s money has come from people who gave less than $1,000. In contrast, three-fourths of Torrey’s money came from donations of $1,000 or more, mostly from developer, gravel pit, construction and other pro-sprawl interests. Torrey spent a record $260,000 on the primary, twice as much as Piercy.

Rhetoric: Piercy wants to pay too much for the Amazon headwaters.

Reality: Under Torrey, the city missed chances to pay far less.

Explanation: This year the city of Eugene appraised the Green property in the Amazon headwaters for $3.8 million. While Torrey was mayor (1997 through 2005), the city missed at least three opportunities to buy the rare, pristine forest for far less. In 2001, owner Munir Katul offered to sell the city the 40 acres of land as part of a purchase of adjacent property that the city was purchasing for about $14,000 per acre, but the city declined. In January 2004, the city offered $300,000 for the property, but Portland developer Joe Green out-bid and bought the property for $325,000. Six months later in August 2004, Green offered to sell the property to the city for $600,000, but the city failed to close the deal. Kitty Piercy did not take office until January 2005 and has supported buying the property for as little as possible.

Rhetoric: Piercy created the pothole problem. 

Reality: Piercy inherited the potholes from Torrey and has done more to solve the problem.

Explanation: During Torrey’s eight years in office, the city’s street repair backlog grew from a few million dollars to almost $100 million. To address the problem, the council and Torrey backed a 3 cents a gallon city gas tax to raise $2 million a year. In Torrey’s last months of office, Torrey, the Chamber of Commerce and the council supported a 2 cent increase in the tax to 5 cents but left it for the new mayor and council.

When Piercy took office, she and the council passed the 2 cent gas tax proposal they inherited from the previous mayor and council. Last year that tax increase was referred to voters by gas station owners and repealed.

While mayor, Torrey and the council also supported and passed a $7 million a year road fee, mostly paid by businesses. Torrey and the council repealed the fee after business interests opposed it. 

While mayor, Torrey opposed efforts to shift money from spending on new roads to serve urban sprawl developers to maintaining existing streets. In 2003 he spoke against a council resolution to divert the new road money to preservation. On a regional planning body (MPC), he voted for the new road spending after an amendment to divert the money to preservation failed.

Both Piercy and Torrey now support increased spending on potholes. Piercy supported recent moves by the City Council to spend $2 million from reserves for a new City Hall on street maintenance. In addition, Piercy has supported an effort to swap $4.5 million in city reserves in exchange for county road fund money for city potholes. The City Council is also now considering referring to voters an $81 million property tax bond measure for road repair.

During the primary, Torrey mass mailed a flyer claiming that the city is “spending virtually nothing on roads” maintenance. A May 16 press release from the city’s Public Works Department states, “More than 46 lane miles of streets in Eugene are scheduled for overlay or slurry seal repairs this summer as part of the city’s $5.5 million 2008 pavement preservation program.”

 

Rhetoric: Piercy split Eugene from Springfield.

Reality: Developers split Springfield from Eugene.

Explanation: Developers and Springfield, not Eugene, went to the Legislature to force the split of Springfield’s urban growth boundary from Eugene. The bill for the split was initiated “at the request of Oregon Home Builders Association,” according to the Legislature’s official ledger. Piercy offered to compromise by backing a buildable lands study for Eugene, but the developers and their supporters didn’t respond.

 

Rhetoric: Piercy is to blame for the downtown pits.

Reality: The pits were created under Torrey.

Explanation: Developer Ed Aster demolished the old Woolworth’s building on Willamette in 2001, leaving “Aster’s hole” behind. The city of Eugene demolished the Sears building in 2005 after the building had been largely vacant and unmaintained for eight years under Torrey.

Both Piercy and Torrey supported the failed recent urban renewal measure to subsidize redevelopment downtown. But Torrey said during the campaign that he opposed the purchase options that planning staff said would make the redevelopment possible.

Piercy personally helped clean trash from the Aster pit. Recently, she and the council cut a deal with Beam development to redevelop the Aster pit and adjacent Centre Court building.

 

Rhetoric: Torrey can make money for cops and potholes magically appear.

Reality: Diverting funds will require cuts to popular programs.

Explanation: Torrey has said he would spend an additional $3.5 million from the general fund on cops and an additional $3.5 million for potholes. But other than saying he would increase spending without increasing taxes, he’s offered few specifics on how that could work. Torrey told the City Club he opposed spending from the city’s reserves. According to the city’s budget, the city will exhaust its reserves in the next two years and face budget deficits of up to $2 million a year. Adding spending without new revenue could require cutting popular library and kids’ recreation programs.  

Rhetoric: Torrey supports the police auditor.

Reality: He said he doesn’t support an independent police auditor.

Explanation: On June 4, Jim Torrey told the R-G that “he believes she [the auditor] should report to the city manager, not to city councilors.”

The whole point of the new police auditor was that the office was independent of the city manager and under the City Council. The 2005 charter amendment creating the function stated: “This measure would amend the charter to allow the City Council to hire and supervise an independent police auditor and to appoint a civilian review board to investigate or oversee investigations of complaints involving police employees.”

Under the old system, a nonindependent police auditor reported to the city manager along with the police chief. Under that system, EPD officers sexually abused more than a dozen women despite years of complaints that EPD officers ignored. The abuse happened while Torrey was mayor.

The 2005 auditor measure was opposed by the police union, which made the same argument as Torrey that the function should be under the city manager. The measure to create the independent auditor passed with 57 percent voting yes.

Now the union is one of Torrey’s biggest financial backers, and Torrey says he’s against the independent police auditor.

 

Rhetoric: It’s Piercy’s fault PeaceHealth left for Springfield.

Reality: PeaceHealth decided to leave while Torrey was mayor. 

Explanation: PeaceHealth announced that it was moving to Springfield in 2001 while Torrey was mayor. Conservatives have claimed that the then City Council drove the hospital out of town by threatening to rezone the Crescent site in north Eugene to prevent the hospital from moving from downtown. But the council did not take that action until June of 2001. That’s two months after PeaceHealth had partnered with the Arlie development company, loaning it $4.2 million to buy 94 acres of land at RiverBend, the site of the new hospital, the R-G reported.

Both Piercy and Torrey support locating a new McKenzie-Willamette hospital in Eugene but admit that the decision is up to the hospital. “It’s true that McKenzie-Willamette will get to make this choice on their own,” Torrey said at a Fox TV mayoral debate.

Rhetoric: Torrey is a uniter, not a divider.

Reality: Torrey didn’t have that record as mayor.

Explanation: Torrey wasn’t a uniter when he was mayor. He broke a dozen tie votes from 1999 to 2004, always for the conservative side. In 1997 he backed pepper-spraying tree-sitters downtown who hoped to delay a clearcut for the Broadway Place development until a public hearing the next day. In 2000, he told the R-G that if progressive councilors were elected, he would create a “train wreck” on the council that would make it “practically impossible for any meaningful discussion.” When progressive councilors suffered personal attacks from anonymous “Gang of 9” caricatures, Torrey went on conservative talk radio to join the attacks.

 

Rhetoric: Kitty Piercy killed the West Eugene Parkway.

Reality: It would have died anyway.  

Explanation: Even Torrey acknowledges that the WEP might not have been built anyway due to federal environmental problems with building the highway through protected wetlands. Torrey has said he will not try to resurrect the project.

Piercy said she voted against the WEP to take leadership and end decades of debate so the city could move forward and work on other west Eugene traffic solutions. Torrey faults Piercy for not letting state and federal highway officials “carry the burden of its failure.” He said the state will somehow punish the city for Piercy’s vote against the WEP. But after the vote in 2006, ODOT spokesman Joe Harwood called that theory “ridiculous.”

 

Rhetoric: Torrey is non-partisan.

Reality: Torrey gave money to Bush and ran as a Republican.

Explanation: In 2004 Torrey donated $2,000 to Bush’s re-election campaign, the maximum allowed. In 2006, Torrey ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate as a Republican. During this campaign, Torrey has emphasized he’s a political independent running for a nonpartisan office. But that may be more about political strategy than any sudden shift in politics. Two-thirds of Eugene voted for John Kerry for President in 2004. In Eugene, more than twice as many people have registered as Democrats than as Republicans. With the close Democratic presidential primary, 82 percent of registered Democrats voted compared to 69 percent of registered Republicans. If Torrey had run as a Republican as he had two years earlier, Piercy might have won outright.

 

Rhetoric: Torrey is a moderate.

Reality: Torrey is far more conservative than most people in Eugene.

Explanation: Torrey ran for the state Senate as an anti-abortion Republican and backed Bush in a year when two-thirds of Eugene voted for Kerry. According to the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, a moderate environmental group with wide support in the state, Torrey has an “awful” voting record, siding against the environment every time on key votes.

In contrast, Piercy has taken a middle road on many issues, at times disappointing some of her progressive supporters for backing downtown developer subsidies and tax breaks for Hynix.

 

Rhetoric: Torrey is “business-friendly;” Piercy is not.

Reality: Both Torrey and Piercy have supported business.

Explanation: Both Torrey and Piercy have supported huge tax breaks and subsidies for big business and big corporations.

Piercy’s support of the tax breaks and subsidies won her praise from the Chamber of Commerce after she was elected. Chamber President Dave Hauser said in 2005 that he was “not sure exactly” how Piercy was any different than Torrey. “I think she’s doing a good job.”

After she took office, Piercy and the council backed re-establishing the city’s suspended enterprise zone tax break program for Hynix with few restrictions.

Both Torrey and Piercy also supported big taxpayer subsidies for the failed Whole Foods, Connor Woolley and KWG redevelopment schemes downtown. Some local small businesses opposed the schemes as unfairly subsidizing their competition and forcing them out of the area.

 Piercy also pushed the council to create a Sustainable Business Initiative focused on helping nurture local green business. Forbes magazine 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.”

Torrey has argued that if he’s elected he will create more jobs. But while he was mayor, the local jobless rate increased.

Rhetoric: Piercy doesn’t give police enough respect.

Reality: Piercy respects cops, but cops don’t respect progressives.

Explanation: Police officers lost respect from the community when they failed to respond to years of complaints about sex abuse from officers Roger Magaña and Juan Lara. Piercy said in a campaign speech, “I know that these two were the exception and the vast majority of our officers serve our community with honor.” Piercy has repeatedly supported big increases in the police department budget.

EPD critics have said that it’s police officers that have shown a lack of respect in recent months. In January, police union leaders attacked Piercy in an R-G op-ed, describing her State of the City address as a “bizarre ordeal” and “three-ringed circus.” In another recent op-ed, the union called the mayor and council an “infested bunch” guilty of “either bias or corruption” and “tainted, manipulative.” The union recently posted an ugly caricature on its website of Councilor Bonny Bettman along with a horror movie quote (“She’s Baaaaaaack!”) and a counter to when her “Reign of Terror” ends. Torrey initially told the R-G he had no problem with the police action, but after strong public criticism, he later supported the police union’s decision to remove the personal attack.