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Eugene Weekly : News : 7.24.08




Managing Eugene

Ruiz talks cops, pits and taxes in divided city

By Alan Pittman

In the wake of officer sex abuse scandals, will Eugene’s new Republican City Manager Jon Ruiz hold city employees accountable to the public?

The public may never know. “When people are disciplined, for the most part, we don’t want to make those a public spectacle,” Ruiz told the Eugene City Club July 18. “You may or may not hear about that accountability,” Ruiz said. 

Ruiz said he hopes the community will come to trust him enough so that when it comes to holding police and other city employees accountable in secret, “you absolutely believe that I’ve been very appropriate and fair both to the employee and to the community. That will take some time.”

Hired from an assistant city manager job in Fresno, Calif., Ruiz has been on the job for three months and recently bought a house in southeast Eugene. “I love being here,” he said.

Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy praised Ruiz in introducing him. “He’s a problem solver, he’s open to new ideas, he has a can-do spirit.”

Ruiz said he understands the importance of holding police accountable. “There’s very few professions in which we allow people to arrest us, to detain us and, in some circumstances, actually shoot people.”

Eugene’s previous city manager, Dennis Taylor, opposed an independent police auditor that wasn’t under his control; but the council and voters passed the measure authorizing the auditor. Ruiz said, “I am very much a full supporter of an independent police auditor.” 

“Will I be holding the organization accountable? Yes,” Ruiz said.

The city has spent $2 million on design and PR work for a $150-million new City Hall but has backed away from asking voters to pay for it. “I don’t think it’s doable for our city in the next foreseeable future,” Ruiz said, adding that the city should focus on repairs to the existing building.

Ruiz, a former public works director, said increasing taxes for street repair is a personal priority. The City Council is considering an $81 million pavement tax, the biggest tax increase in the city’s history.

Ruiz said he understands people are struggling with rising gas prices and falling home values, but “despite that we still need to ask each of us to invest in our public infrastructure.”

The recent mayoral primary and tie council votes show Eugene sharply divided between conservatives and progressives. But Ruiz said, “our diversity of views is a strength.”

“Our eight councilors, I think, represent their constituencies very well,” Ruiz said. “I don’t think we want 8-0 votes, solid, as we go forward, because partly what that would say is we are not bringing all the interesting perspectives to the table with that.” 

Ruiz said he hopes the community will “come together on visions in the community we can agree on.”

Past managers have been criticized for usurping power from elected officials by withholding information, ignoring the Council and making their own policy. Ruiz said he’s worked under both strong managers and strong mayors. “I do support both forms of government.”

He said that the strong manager form can allow professional staff to implement policy decisions in a “non-political way.” But he added, “I’m not naive enough to believe that in an organization of 1,600 employees that politics isn’t a part of our discussions also.”

Ruiz said he will be “very proactive” in giving recommendations to the council, but “I don’t think it’s my role to be argumentative in public with our elected officials.”

Ruiz wasn’t elected, but at times his speech did sound like that of a politician. He called for a variety of policy priorities that the City Council has not discussed, including “reading readiness at kindergarten.” 

The city manager said he will work to change the city staff’s culture and put “customer service first.” The city of Eugene should be “a can type of organization rather than a cannot type of organization,” he said.

Ruiz said he will also try to increase trust that funds are not misused. “Part of that is being open,” he said of city information.

Asked about resistance to a park downtown because of fear of street people. Ruiz said that shouldn’t “drive” the decision. If Eugene wants a park downtown, “we need to figure out how to make that a very pleasant, safe and secure family-friendly place to be.”

“We’re making some great progress downtown,” Ruiz said of the Beam project and proposals to fill the Sears pit. “Very soon we’re going to have both psychological and physical pits filled.”

Ruiz admitted that the city may need to do some work to create a more substantive redevelopment plan downtown. “We have these random acts of revitalization that occur,” he said. “Any conversation around that would be positive.”

Ruiz may have been one of the few local Republicans to attend the recent Oregon Country Fair. To applause, Ruiz showed off some juggling he’d seen at the fair. “I’m learning to juggle between the elected officials, the staff and the council,” Ruiz said.