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Why Did Jack Have to Go?

How politics and power grabbing killed an effective agency

On April 26 The Register-Guard ran a story about efforts to re-invent the Lane Metro Partnership as the South Lane Economic Development Corp. The article claims the Lane Metro Partnership had to go away because its director, Jack Roberts, was “not producing meaningful results,” and his board of directors had become “disenchanted” with him because he was not “doing enough to bring new business to the region.” None of that is true. Job performance had nothing to do with why Roberts had to go or why Metro is being replaced.

The Metro Partnership was torpedoed because of personal vendettas against Roberts combined with petty jealousies and unrealistic expectations about how economic development agencies work. But, most damaging were the relentless, continuous attacks from Lane County as it moved to try to take over the regional economic development functions for itself.

Metro was an organization funded on a shoestring with a budget a fraction of virtually any other similar economic development agency in Oregon. Roberts had a staff of two (1.5 FTE). No other economic development agency in Oregon operated as efficiently as Lane Metro and with so many significant accomplishments. Lane Metro was among the most productive economic development agencies in Oregon.

Williams (Franz) Bakery would not still be here were it not for Roberts’ work to help them expand here. The same for Grain Millers; they came close to leaving the area and likely would not be here were it not for Roberts’ Metro. There were significant recruitments like Royal Caribbean, but the bulk of the work of Metro was to help hundreds of local companies grow and expand and create thousands of jobs here. The list includes Molecular Probes/Invitrogen (now Life Technologies), Ninkasi and Hop Valley Brewing, Toby’s Family Foods, Bulk Handling Systems, Tyree Oil, GloryBee Foods, SO Delicious and many more.

I watched as the backstabbing played out in secret closed-door meetings and confidential emails. In a letter to his board, Jack said, “No one told me why they wanted me gone or why they were unhappy with my performance.” I believe Roberts’ weekly column in The Oregonian created some powerful enemies, especially after he supported Ballot Measures 66 & 67 passed on to voters by the Legislature to help fill a budget gap by increasing the taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals.

Meanwhile, there was an ongoing power grab by Lane County Administrator Liane Richardson. She likely figured with Jack Roberts and Metro gone, Lane County could take over the role of Metro and capture the funding and work load for the county staff. She made it known that Lane County would continue to fund Metro only if Roberts was gone. Commissioner Jay Bozievich carried that message to a Lane Metro Board meeting.

In March of 2013, Roberts met with Richardson, Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz and Springfield City Manager Gino Grimaldi after Grimaldi and Richardson had told Roberts the funding for Metro would not be included in their respective budgets. Roberts wanted to know if they would fund the Metro Partnership if he resigned.

Eugene was in for its full $50,000 regardless. Grimaldi indicated Springfield could provide $25,000, half of its historic level. Richardson agreed the county would fund to its historic level of $100,000, but only “with a change in leadership.” So, in a letter to his board, Roberts said, “My feeling then and now was that it was better for me to leave than for a 27-year economic development partnership to die. Therefore I agreed to leave.”

But then, Lane County changed the game. In an April 11, 2013, email to the Metro Board, the county demanded not just the elimination of Jack Roberts, but the complete purge of the Metro staff with the county ready to take over Metro staff functions. The county advised Metro to condition any severance packages on them “not engaging in ANY response to stakeholders, particularly the press.” The county also offered to create messaging “to describe this transition in a positive light.” The severance deal was rejected out of hand by Roberts, and, in the end, the Metro staff “resigned,” and the Lane Metro Partnership continued in name only until now.

I had the honor of working closely with Jack Roberts for the better part of a decade. We worked on a lot of economic development projects together and he was directly responsible in creating thousands of good jobs for our community. Certainly, he deserved far better than the disgraceful treatment he received from his “partners.” Luckily, Lane County was not successful in its bid to take over the Metro functions, but it was successful in doing what Jack Roberts had tried so hard to prevent: the death of a 27-year economic development partnership.