By the time you’re reading this, Bend’s first mayor to be directly elected in nearly a century will have cast her last votes at her final city council meeting, and likely, Bend will have a new mayor. Sally Russell announced earlier this month that she would be stepping down following the May 18 council meeting, citing exhaustion as the reason for leaving the post before her term expires around the end of this year. Just before this issue went to press, Councilor Rita Schenkelberg (they/them), also announced their resignation, saying that both vitriolic public opinion about them, and time constraints in managing a job and public office, necessitated the departure.
Suffice it to say that this is a low point in modern Bend politics. Losing not just a councilor, but also Bend’s mayor mid-stream is a concerning state of affairs.
City leaders—and voters—nurtured a great idea with 2018’s voted-upon change to the city charter, which moved the mayoral election process from one decided upon by fellow councilors to one where the public decides who’s to be mayor.
Thus far, it is not going well.
It was an idea that promised more buy-in from the public, and in turn a stronger democracy. What we’ve gotten is bitter, ugly politics ever since.
At least one of the candidates in that first mayor’s race left town after losing. Now, the victor is leaving before her term is even over, and someone will be appointed to fill the slot, along with the slot Schenkelberg is vacating.
The end result is that we will now have more appointed officials, when what we wanted was more public participation.
In Russell’s case, this crisis of leadership came without any outward accusations of fraud or impropriety or illegality; no massive scandals to speak of. Less-scrupulous and more-embattled politicians have faced far more pressure and have stuck it out in their positions.
We have weighed in before about “The Doubt We Sow When We Appoint Politicians,” as we outlined in our Feb. 3, 2022 editorial, but it’s a notion worth revisiting now that our mayor and a councilor have resigned all inside a week.
We said then and we’ll say again: Many of the cracks that became rifts in Bend city politics can be traced to the appointment of Chris Piper to the Bend City Council in 2019.
Piper came in to fill the council slot Russell vacated when she became mayor. Piper did not win re-election during the 2020 election but is now running for mayor in the November election. Now, with Russell’s departure, the Bend City Council will appoint a temporary mayor to fill the slot until one can once again become democratically elected. That appointed person may very well be someone who is also running for mayor in November. If a sitting councilor becomes mayor, then they’ll need to vacate their councilor slot, and yet another person could be appointed to the rank and file of the Bend City Council… with another right behind it when Schenkelberg resigns Wednesday night.
We’ll likely know who the new mayor is Wednesday night—and like the appointment of Piper, which was fraught with accusations of back-room dealings between Russell and city influencers, including a representative of the Central Oregon Builders Association—the appointment of this person could sow more doubt, confusion and lack of faith in local government.
Because Bend’s charter dictates that vacant seats must be filled within 30 days or go unfilled until the next election, there’s no good way to go about this. Bend needs leadership now more than ever and leaving the mayor’s seat or the remaining council seats open would be just another kind of miscarriage of justice. After so recently voting to be able to name our mayor, we’re right back to having a de facto popularity contest and a set of council appointments that just begs the back-room dealers of Bend to clamor for influence. Hopefully, the council gets it right this time and rises above the sordid political pressure, and then we can all put this initial chapter of mayoral politics behind us.
Along with that, may we also remember that these, too, are human beings—and that vitriolic behavior on social media has consequences—both human and political.