September 28, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - Water project critics balk at Bend city manager's approach
Sep 28, 2011
Water project critics balk at Bend city manager's approachBy Nick Grube / The Bulletin
Published: September 28. 2011 4:00AM PST
A recent phone call from Bend City Manager Eric King to the head of the Deschutes River Conservancy to talk about the city's Bridge Creek water project has raised the suspicions of some of the project's critics.
King had heard from some of the nonprofit's board members that several DRC employees had collected signatures for a petition opposing the city's $68.2 million project. This concerned King because the DRC, a traditionally apolitical organization, hadn't taken a stance on the city's water project and, from what he understood, didn't intend to.
So King called DRC Executive Director Tod Heisler to find out if the nonprofit's employees were gathering signatures while on the clock and whether the nonprofit had indeed taken a position on the city's project.
This call upset Tamara Weaver, the DRC's director of finance and administration. She had signed the petition and was one of the employees whom King called Heisler to discuss. Some city councilors say King was just doing his job, but to Weaver, at least, his call seemed heavy-handed.
In a Sept. 20 e-mail obtained by The Bulletin, Weaver described King's claim that she was collecting signatures while working as “nonsense.” She wrote that she signed the petition at home, and that the city had also called other organizations to try to “derail” anyone who opposed the project.
This e-mail has since circulated among a number of the people who have opposed the city's Bridge Creek project.
“It's very strange. I feel as if they called my boss to shut people up,” Weaver said in an interview. “I'm curious how this will further their goal because if they're confident that what they're doing is right, then they need to be moving forward and confident, not calling people's bosses to stop a petition.”
King confirmed that he spoke with Heisler about DRC employees circulating petitions, but said any suggestion that he was trying to stifle opposition is “ludicrous.” He said he just wanted to know if the DRC was supporting its employees' actions.
“That seemed odd, so I called to ask that question,” King said. “I think I have a right to ask what's going on.”
Heisler verified what was said during his conversation with King and reiterated that the DRC hasn't changed its neutral stance on the city's water project.
He also said that none of the DRC board members contacted him about the issue. When he spoke with King and Bend Water Resources Coordinator Patrick Griffiths — who was also on the phone — they said the allegations came from “reliable sources.”
King said Griffiths spoke to the DRC board members about the employees' actions. Griffiths could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Weaver isn't the only person whose response to the surface water project elicited a phone call from King. In December, Oregon State University-Cascades announced it would hold a public forum to debate the merits of the Bridge Creek project, which the Bend City Council had approved a month before.
Shortly after an OSU-Cascades news release was sent out about the forum, Matt Shinderman, a senior instructor of natural resources at the college, received a phone call from King. Shinderman, who has spoken out against the city's project, had organized the event and would act as the main facilitator.
He said King called with concerns about the timing of the forum since the city council had already made its decision. King also wanted to recommend people who should sit on the panel of experts who were slated to discuss the project.
King then told him, “I would hate for this to jeopardize the relationship between the city and OSU-Cascades.” Shinderman did not elaborate and refused to interpret the city manager's statement.
“It wasn't clear to me what he was trying to accomplish,” Shinderman said. “But I did feel it was interesting to be called as a private citizen by the city manager.”
King said he called Shinderman because he didn't see him as a “neutral facilitator” and was concerned that the instructor was going to use the OSU-Cascades platform to discredit the city's water project. He said he meant to imply nothing further.
“It's not like I'm some sort of dictator trying to quash the opposition,” King said. “There have been numerous opportunities for people to come and tell us their viewpoints on the project.”
Bend City councilors Mark Capell, Jim Clinton, Kathie Eckman, Tom Greene and Scott Ramsay all said they feel King's phone calls to the DRC and Shinderman fall within the scope of a city manager's job. Any insinuation that he tried to intimidate or otherwise suppress someone's ability to speak out would be false and out of character, they said.
Mayor Jeff Eager was unavailable for comment, and Councilor Jodie Barram refused to be interviewed.
For the most part, the councilors said King has the responsibility to make sure the proper information about the city's project is available and that it isn't misrepresented. They said he also has the right to know who is a detractor, especially if it's an organization with which the city has been a partner.
Clinton, who was the only councilor to vote against the project, said he didn't want to comment on the specifics of King's phone calls because he wasn't a party to the conversations.
But in general, he said the nature of the project and the recent back-and-forth between city officials and members of the opposition has begun to rub thin. King's phone calls, and the subsequent reaction, could be a product of this friction, he said.
“This kind of thing is not too surprising in controversial projects, where both sides are getting a little inflammatory and a little defensive,” Clinton said. “People are now butting heads instead of listening to each other.”
Nick Grube can be reached at 541-633-2160 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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