For more than 11 years, Jon Ruiz has worked as Eugene’s city manager. As he looks at turning 61 in October, Ruiz says he’s stepping down as city manager because he’s at a stage in life where he’s interested in pursing other interests. He says Eugene needs a consistent leader to take the city through its next development period.
His work as city manager hasn’t gone without criticism. A city employee, he’s been said to strongly influence city policy and has been said to be in charge of the elected councilors.
Ruiz’s long tenure and positive performance reviews from the City Council have led to a substantial paycheck. When Ruiz started as city manager, he received an annual salary of $162,150. A decade after council-approved raises, he now receives $241,000, earning an hourly wage of $115.94.
Despite being one of the longest-serving city managers in the city’s history, the Sept. 5 email announcement of his Oct. 18 retirement date gave the council little notice of his departure, especially when contrasted with the six-month notice former Springfield City Manager Gino Grimaldi gave of his July retirement.
Councilor Betty Taylor says she was told the morning before his afternoon email to colleagues, which was then leaked to media outlets. Councilor Chris Pryor says he was out of town the day Ruiz made his announcement — but was told by Ruiz before he left town.
Ruiz says he’s leaving because the city is entering a new phase that requires consistent leadership to follow through on established plans.
This includes carrying out the Technical Assistance Collaborative Report recommendations on pathways out of homelessness, hosting the IAAF Track and Field Championships, establishing affordable housing while growing the local economy and keeping Eugene unique.
“There are paths that are already set and we just have to keep working on them and figuring out how to keep moving them forward in creative ways,” Ruiz says.
It’s not that he doesn’t think he can provide the leadership to execute the plans — he just would rather move on with his life.
Former Councilor Bonny Bettman McCornack has been a critic of Ruiz since he was hired. She voted against his appointment. She says Ruiz set out to have complete control and was definitely “the boss of council” who “carried water for Eugene’s elite.”
“He prioritized downtown over other deserving areas of the city,” she says in an email to Eugene Weekly. “He drastically reduced the information available for the budget process and manipulated the public input. He wasted tens of millions of dollars on the City Hall fiasco. He gave developers and speculators sweetheart deals.”
In April, months before he announced his retirement, Ruiz spoke to EW about the role of city manager in government.
He said he didn’t agree with the assessment that he controls the City Council as city manager.
“My responsibility is to carry out the agenda of the majority of the City Council,” he said.
However, he said he does think it’s city staff’s responsibility to offer the council their best professional judgment.
“When I make a recommendation, it’s really trying to represent our staff and myself what we believe is professionally the best course of action for whatever that happens to be,” he said.
He said he has to be comfortable with any recommendation he makes to the council. The council sets policy. The city manager’s job is follow through and implementation.
Ruiz said he takes public criticism during council meetings as a learning opportunity.
“The only way we can change behavior and perspectives is, you have to learn something new,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not comfortable, but people are expressing themselves.”
As cities such as Seattle and San Francisco grapple with housing and living costs skyrocketing amid a prosperous tech industry, Eugene has the opportunity to benefit by attracting tech companies to the area, Ruiz says.
But Eugene isn’t at the tipping point that pushed San Francisco and Seattle’s housing prices out of reach for ordinary residents, he says.
“We’re kind of on the front end of that prosperity curve,” he says. “We now need to be thoughtful about housing. The council is focused on that, and there’s some work to do and we haven’t figured that all out.”
Ruiz says it’s not too late to take on issues that plague Silicon Valley cities and Seattle, such as gentrification and the cost of transportation. There’s still time to do something about it.
Yet housing costs are rising in Eugene, and the supply of homes is dwindling.
From 2011 to 2019, Eugene’s housing inventory has fallen from 1,603 to 819 available units, according to data from a national real estate brokerage, Redfin. In that period, the median time an existing home (not newly constructed) stays on the market has decreased from around 116 days to 14 days. The median time a home stays on the market in the Seattle area is 11 days.
But that’s why it’s a good time leave his position, Ruiz says.
“We’re going to need some consistency in leadership over the next three to five years,” he says.
He adds that it’s not because he doesn’t want to take on the challenge. He thinks it would be fun, actually.
“I don’t think it would actually be fair for me to start down that path and then sort of pull the plug in another year or two years,” he says.
Ruiz goes on to point to the importance of the University of Oregon’s Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. The UO’s addition would invigorate the city’s economy, thus reducing the number of what the nonprofit United Way calls Asset Limited Constrained Employed (ALICE) households, those that earn more than the federal poverty level but less than the basic cost of living in the county.
According to the 2018 ALICE Report, 44 percent of Lane County households don’t earn a cost of living wage. Oregonians are having trouble covering their bills because of the rising cost of bills and the predominance of low-wage jobs: 58 percent earn less than $20 an hour. The report adds that more workers rely on contract and gig work, which are becoming common in the smartphone era.
Ruiz says the Knight campus is an opportunity the area hasn’t had in a long time for community prosperity.
“What it is trying to do is take basic research, operationalize it and commercialize it, so it has a lot of benefit for people in the world,” he says. “We’ll have to make a choice as a community to either try to capture that prosperity, or it’s going to go to Seattle, San Francisco, Austin and places like that.”
In 10 years, if the city is able to capitalize on future innovation in all sectors of the economy, he says, and not lose the opportunity, the number of ALICE households could decrease.
For the next city manager, Ruiz says it’s important to create relationships with a variety of people from the entire spectrum of the city, though it’s not about agreement. He says it’s about trying to understand people’s perspectives and having trust.
He adds that he believes he’s had the trust of the wider community, but there are some people on the edges who would disagree with him.
McCornack disagrees with Ruiz’s statement that only people on the edges don’t trust him. In 2016, she and other community members put forth a ballot measure that would allow the people to vote for an elected auditor, but the City Council and Ruiz worked to torpedo that by adding their own council-appointed auditor on the ballot.
“Ruiz’s characterization of hard working, tax paying people, who love this community and have put countless volunteer hours into improving it and making it more democratic, as ‘people on the fringes’ perfectly demonstrates his aggressively condescending and dismissive attitude towards people who do not wholly endorse his costly elitist agenda,” McCornack says.