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Keeping in touch: Notes from the Mayor

Mayor Lucy VinisThis blog aims to nurture our conversation and understanding of the issues before us. Every week, I will provide a weekly update on the activities in the city government, my activities as mayor, and brief reflections on progress, opportunities and challenges. You are invited to respond with reactions, insights and questions. We do this work together.

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Jun 12

June 12, 2020

Posted on June 12, 2020 at 4:11 PM by Nicole Bernstein

In the midst of continuing demonstrations for racial justice and turbulence about the police response, Council stepped into the work of COVID recovery and ongoing commitments.  Council sessions reviewed the police response; updated the status of our investment in the TAC report and solutions to homelessness; considered a charter change to institute STAR voting for mayoral and council races; and discussed renewal of the library levy.

I will save the first of those topics, police reform, to the end of this blog and summarize the other issues first. 

The city is one year into the implementation of the TAC recommendations to address homelessness.  On the positive side, essential goals were achieved: the City and County together hired a Joint Housing and Shelter Strategist and a Street Outreach Coordinator, both of whom came on board in time to help navigate the emergency shelter needs during the pandemic response this spring. The County and City also identified two possible sites for a permanent low barrier shelter. As part of their response to COVID 19, the County purchased one of those sites, a former Veterans Medical Clinic on River Road, to provide a medical facility for unhoused COVID patients.

Council has dedicated $1.9 million toward TAC implementation, and the County’s purchase of a building opens a question about the use of funds the City had designated for building and construction of a shelter.  In addition, the pandemic response included the creation of several emergency sites.  The County has now closed its sites at the Fairgrounds – which essentially had compensated for the reduced occupancy at the Eugene Mission and Dusk to Dawn sites in response to physical distancing requirements. Those beds have not returned; meaning that a homelessness crisis that was terrible before COVID is now worse.  We have justifiable fear that more people will lose their housing when the rent moratorium expires in July. In their meeting, Council approved a staff proposal to convene a joint City/County committee to look at revenue options going forward.  On the positive side, City staff have identified new sites to relocate the residents of our three temporary designated shelter sites at three community centers.   The city is gradually clearing some of the campsites we have allowed during the pandemic, but we do not have reasonable relocation options for those people  A circle of faith leaders was convened last week by the Kindness Campaign to consider how they can help; and another group of neighborhood leaders, providers and concerned citizens has released a list of recommended actions.  The needs are clear: safe sites where unhoused people can sleep that are supervised and offer support services.  We are under-resourced to meet this humanitarian crisis in terms of locations, staff capacity among our providers, and funding.

In a major shift of topic, Council reviewed a proposal by the STAR (Score Then Automatic Runoff) campaign to put their initiative on the November ballot.  The campaign is frustrated by the County Elections denial of 111 signatures, thereby preventing them from getting on the ballot. They are asking council to refer this on their behalf.  Council took a partial step on Wednesday by directing staff to develop the resolution to forward the initiative. It will return for a final council vote next month. If approved by voters, the STAR system would be used only in mayoral and council races, which would happen in November.  Those races would no longer be included in the May primary.  Other local issues and elections – ballot measures, school board and EWEB board races – would still use the current system.  There are costs of possibly $250,000, some one-time; others recurring with each election.  Council approved an amendment to the motion requiring that the ballot title in November clarify the costs to the city budget of this change.

Council also reviewed the options for renewing the levy to support library services.  This 5-year levy was passed in order to retain and restore services that could not be covered with General Fund dollars.  Given the current economic crisis, that will continue to be true and council was offered three options: continue the levy in its current amount and purpose; add funds to support additional services needed by the community because of the economic crisis, such as increased outreach and virtual options; or a third option that would also finance the library’s move into the fourth floor, allowing a larger Maker Space and other services.  The sense of council seems to fall in line with renewing the existing levy out of concern that taxpayers are feeling the impact of the economic crisis.

Finally, the turbulence in our community about racial justice and police reform has dominated public and private conversations and filled my email with 900 messages. Included in the specific demands related to police actions of the past 10 days is a general demand to “defund the police.” I believe this is a call to change the paradigm.

I see two aspects to this call for reform.  The first is the call to review and revise police policies, procedures and tools. Part of realizing this vision is to ensure that police are not the first responders when someone calls 911 about a problem that is not criminal. As a community, we took an important step in this direction when we funded the CAHOOTS program to be the first responders to persons in mental health crisis.  Our current public safety plans include increasing funding and expanding the CAHOOTS service.  Many other cities, counties and states are working to replicate that model that started right here.

At a broader level, however, is the challenge of systemic racism itself that spurred the Black Lives Matter protests.  We want to invest in the education, housing, jobs, environment, mental health, cultural and recreational opportunities that enable everyone to thrive in a peaceful, safe and welcoming community -- especially those who have been excluded in the past because of racially discriminatory practices that are and have been baked into our institutions.  I want to encourage the entire community to be part of this discussion about how to deconstruct those baked-in biases and barriers.  

We have an opportunity, propelled by this racial justice crisis, the pandemic, homelessness and climate change, to envision an “organization re-set" as Sarah Medary has said. We will do this deliberatively, and look to you for clarity about the systems, priorities and pathways to best institute that systemic shift.