In a dramatic departure of longstanding city policy against urban sprawl and for supporting downtown and keeping it safe, Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz told the city council Thursday that he wants to move the entire Eugene police department out of downtown to a commercial office building across the river in North Eugene.
Ruiz said in a memo to the council that he would buy the isolated office building at 300 Country Club Road surrounded by surface parking lots from a private developer for $16 million. He said he would then spend $6 million more to move all city hall functions out of the current city hall building and into downtown space rented from other developers.
The $22 million expenditure plus unidentified millions more in annual rent payments and moving costs comes as the city has announced it will cut back on services to citizens and increase fees to close a widening budget gap of at least $12 million due to the deep recession. New offices, particularly free of downtown employee parking fees, is a top priority of city staff, but polls have shown taxpayers oppose the expenditure.
The Eugene City Council plans to vote on the big change in years of city hall planning without a public hearing on Wednesday. Based on past positions, the vote could be close.
After decades of complaints about spiraling legal costs and potential conflicts of interest, Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz has decided to hire an in-house attorney rather than having all the cityâ€™s legal work done by a private law firm.
Ruiz announced in a press release today that Eugene will have at least one in house lawyer starting July 1 and could expand to three attorneys working as city employees. City managers have given the private law firm of Harrang Long Gary Rudnick, P.C. exclusive contracts for almost all the cityâ€™s legal work for the past three decades.
â€œRuiz made the determination that having in-house legal staff would be beneficial to the City primarily for operational reasons,â€ the press release states without explanation. â€œThe change is also expected to help accomplish budget efficiencies,â€ says the press release, which does not mention conflicts of interest.
The city spends more than $3 million a year on legal bills, according to its budget document. Harrang Long has worked for the city while also working for tobacco companies and local big businesses. City Councilors have expressed concerns that the city attorney serves the unelected city managerâ€™s interests rather than the elected city council or city as a whole.
Ruiz announced that he has selected Glenn Klein, who currently does the same job for Harrang Long, as the new city employee city attorney for his â€œessential institutional knowledge.â€
At the same time, Ruiz announced that he had extended Harrang Longâ€™s exclusive contract for all the city legal work not done in house for up to four more years.
When Jon Ruiz was hired away from an assistant city manager job in Fresno to serve as Eugene's new city manager this year, he defended Fresno's reputation for urban sprawl.
The San Francisco Chronicle profiled the sprawling, "corrupt," "depressing" city at the millennium as "a cautionary tale of planning gone wrong and development gone wild."
But Ruiz said the sprawl reputation had changed. "I think that's been reversed in the last couple years." He said Fresno is now focusing on denser development and alternative transportation to fight bad air pollution. He said he doesn't think developers still run the town.
Not so reported a Fresno Bee investigation this week:
"A 2002 master development plan for Fresno has failed to make good on promises to curb urban sprawl, public records and interviews show."
Here's some more snippets from the Bee:
"'They're turning agricultural districts into low-density housing, which by most people's definition is sprawl,' said Rob Wassmer, a public-policy professor at California State University, Sacramento. Wassmer has written extensively about sprawl in the West, including a report that found Fresno was one of nine California metro areas with the biggest increases in sprawl in the 1990s.
His assessment of Fresno's record in the last six years: "It doesn't look like there's been a concentrated effort to stop sprawl."
"Despite the promises of 2002, 'It looks like business as usual,' said Hal Tokmakian, a former Fresno County planning director and professor emeritus of planning at California State University, Fresno."
"Others contend that sprawl is a sign that Fresno's traditionally cozy relationship with developers has not changed."
"Fresno completed the development plan the same year federal authorities were wrapping up cases from Operation Rezone, which ensnared former City Council members for accepting bribes for land-use decisions. Since then, critics contend, legal money from developers -- service fees and campaign contributions -- has continued to tilt the system in their favor."
"The area covers 50 square miles, potentially expanding the city by 45% to accommodate an anticipated 60% increase in population by 2025,Yovino said.
"By contrast, Sacramento expects to vote on a development plan this year that would keep all but 1% of future growth in its existing city, said Jim McDonald, a senior planner in Sacramento. As part of a nationally recognized effort to curb sprawl, cities in the Sacramento region have agreed to limit suburban growth."
In the coming year, the city of Eugene plans to take up developers' calls to expand the local urban growth boundary to more sprawl
Here's Ruiz at his public swearing in and speech on April 14:
Well, now Ruiz is on the record in print, audio and video with a lot of good-sounding promises of what he'll do as Eugene City Manager. Let's see if he sticks to them.
A sharply divided Eugene City Council voted 5-3 Saturday night to select Jon Ruiz as the powerful city manager of Eugene. The vote marks the first time in Eugene history where the city's top official was chosen on such a divided vote.
Council conservatives voted as a block for Ruiz, a retired Army Colonel who was criticized in a California newspaper for being too cozy with developers in his work as assistant city manager of Fresno. Councilor Alan Zelenka provided the swing vote to back the conservative's candidate.
Progressive Councilors Betty Taylor, Bonny Bettman and Andrea Ortiz voted against hiring Ruiz. Zelenka and council conservatives Mike Clark, Jennifer Solomon, Chris Pryor and George Poling voted to hire Ruiz.
The council majority made the job offer contingent on Ruiz passing more formal background and reference checks and agreeing to a salary offer.
Councilors Bettman and Taylor said they favored Joe Lessard for the manager job. Lessard has worked as a consultant with an interest in progressive planning since leaving an assistant manager job with the city of Austin, Texas. (EW reported recently on the manager candidate backgrounds.)
"I thought we had an outstanding candidate in Lessard, and I'm very disappointed that we didn't choose him," councilor Taylor said. Taylor and Bettman praised Lessard's intelligence, honesty and experience.
Lessard has environmental planning and conflict resolution experience in a large city with similar issues and politics to Eugene, according to Bettman. Fresno "is nothing like Eugene," she said.
Bettman said that while Ruiz came across as personable, Lessard offered experience and intellect that Ruiz couldn't match. "Style versus substance is what we got. They went for the style," Bettman said.
Bettman said Ruiz was the favorite candidate of city executive staff and she expects the new city manager to make few of the reforms in city accountability, transparency and planning that she says are needed.
"Ruiz to me represents more of the same," Bettman said. "The majority of councilors defended the status quo into the future."
Council conservative Mike Clark declined to comment on his vote. Other councilors and the mayor quickly left the meeting before they could be interviewed. The elected officials did not state the reasons for their votes during the three minute public meeting after the council met for eight hours in closed session at the Eugene Hilton board room to interview and discuss the candidates.
Earlier, many elected officials had said the vote would likely be one of the most important they would make as elected officials. City managers are not democratically elected but wield most government power in Eugene, controlling all information and making all hiring firing, contracting and discipline decisions. Part-time elected councilors vote to hire and fire the city manager.