Is Oversight Over?
Council balks at voters’ will on police review
By Alan Pittman
The Eugene City Council continues to balk at implementing independent external review of police, despite three years of waiting and two ballot votes in support, most recently by a 2-1 margin.
On Dec. 8 the council voted 6-2 against hiring an independent attorney to advise on how to implement the independent auditor charter amendment passed by 65 percent of voters last month.
On Nov. 17, the same six councilors — Mike Clark, Jennifer Solomon, George Poling, Chris Pryor, Andrea Ortiz and Alan Zelenka — voted against quickly changing the code to implement the charter measure. Councilors Bonny Bettman and Betty Taylor voted for the police oversight rules.
The votes leave the future of the independent police auditor and civilian review board in question. The key architect of the popular police reform in the wake of police sex abuse scandals, Councilor Bettman, is finishing her last term this month.
Bettman has led the fight on the council to implement independent police oversight, confronting three years of resistance from the police union, the city manager, police chief, district attorney and council conservatives.
The council majority voted last month to set up a 15-member committee to study independent police review and bring back recommendations to the council in four months.
Unlike the original committee that proposed the independent oversight system passed by voters three years ago after a year of study, this new committee will include many of the strongest opponents of independent police review.
Eugene Police Union President Willy Edewaard and police union Vice President Erik Humphrey will serve as voting members. Edewaard and Humphrey attacked the council in a Register-Guard op-ed this year, calling council members an “infested bunch” guilty of “either bias or corruption” for a “tainted, manipulative” decision to support the police auditor.
In earlier op-eds the police union leaders dismissed the tens of thousands who voted for the auditor, saying their “constituency” was the police.
It’s unclear whether the 15-member committee has a majority in favor of a strong, independent police oversight system. The committee also includes the police chief and two councilors and two police commission members who opposed quick implementation of the charter amendment.
The council did not provide a clear charge to the committee, limiting it to implementing or strengthening independent review.
After the council vote this week, the sole legal advice the committee will get for keeping the police auditor independent will come from a city attorney who’s not independent.
Bettman pointed out that the city attorney regularly does legal work for the police and regularly represents the department against complainants in lawsuits. “They have untold conflicting interests.”
Bettman also noted that the city attorney is not independent but works for the city manager. “The city manager writes the contract and signs the checks for the city attorney,” Bettman said.
Two years ago, the city attorney and City Manager Dennis Taylor, an opponent of independent oversight, clashed with the council over control over the auditor’s staff. The council relied on an outside legal opinion to overrule the manager and his attorney and keep the auditor independent.
New City Manager Jon Ruiz clashed with Bettman over her effort to get independent legal advice for the independent auditor.
Ruiz said the council hiring an independent attorney may violate the city charter and a contract a previous city manager signed with the city attorney law firm Harrang Long Gary Rudnick to give that firm “sole legal authority” over most of the city’s legal advice.
Bettman said Ruiz’s charter and contract legal concerns in opposing her motion to hire an independent attorney were unsupported by a legal opinion. “It puts a cloud over the viability of the motion without substantiation, and that’s just a tactic and it’s unforgivable,” she said.
“I know in the past, managers have used contracts when they wanted to get something done,” Bettman said. But the councilor said the city charter does not allow the unelected city manager to use a contract he writes with a private party to dictate public policy.
Councilor Zelenka voted against Bettman’s motion. But he said, “I’m troubled by the city manager’s comments” incorrectly claiming that the charter allowed the unelected manager to trump the council with his private contract. “A contract with the city manager shouldn’t prohibit us from doing something that we think is in the best interests of the city,” Zelenka said.
Ruiz disputed whether his attorney had a conflict of interest as prohibited by Oregon law. “My understanding is that kind of conflict is a much narrower conflict.”
Bettman said that Ruiz should not be relying on the city attorney law firm to interpret its own contract with the city and decide whether or not it has a conflict of interest. “That is a blatant conflict of interest.”
Ruiz argued that the council should wait to get an opinion from his city attorney on the independent auditor issues before considering hiring an independent attorney for advice. “We should at least get the opinion from our own attorney before wanting to get a second opinion.”
Bettman said the manager’s attorney has had “plenty of time” to give advice but has failed to do so. At the council meeting three weeks ago the manager’s attorney “refused to answer questions” on the issue, she said. “Their performance on Nov. 17th was pretty scary,” she said.