The city of Bend has majorly bungled in its handling of the surface water improvement project, but it is not too late to engage the public and salvage credibility.
We agree with the city that investing in infrastructure is important. We agree the surface water source is valuable and should be protected. But for years, city leadership has mostly ignoring a group of environmentalists and business and political leaders—who ordinarily do not agree—as they have practically begged to be involved in the decision-making on SWIP.
This group, which has grown to include the majority of voters, has watched as City Manager Eric King has shepherded staff recommendations and council positions instead of encouraging the council to thoroughly and dispassionately engage with the public on alternatives, particularly to a controversial 10-mile pipe.
City Councilor Mark Capell, the project's loudest cheerleader, continues to complain that it's a small minority of people who oppose the SWIP. This is simply not true and shows us just how out of touch Capell is with broad public opinion.
Voters tried to tell Capell and the rest of the council this in the November election.
Sally Russell, running on a promise to oppose SWIP, defeated Kathie Eckman, a seven-term incumbent who vigorously backed it. Voters also elected newcomers Doug Knight, a civil engineer who also opposed the project, and Victor Chudowsky, who promised to re-evaluate the city's decision. Along with re-elected incumbent Jim Clinton, a studied pragmatist who wanted to scale back the plan, these councilors offered the hope of reversing or altering course.
That hope was stymied Feb. 6 when Chudowsky, saying the city's current investment in the 10-mile pipe had eliminated the benefit of alternatives, voted with Mark Capell, Scott Ramsay and Jodie Barram to proceed with the large-pipe portion of SWIP.
On Feb. 20, a split city council again voted down the widely supported effort to reconsider our water infrastructure plans. After hearing mostly critical comments for two and a half hours, the same majority still rejected the expectations of this community that it hold a broad public input process on the pipe portion of the project.
Capell and other councilor's tell-it-to-the-hand obstinacy has now raised ratepayer frustration to a new high exemplified by the Bend Area Chamber of Commerce's recent announcement that it's hiring a neutral third party to evaluate SWIP.
Yes, this gravely botched decision-making process has alienated even the city's allies and has diminished the city's chances of winning voter support for bond issues and tax levies. The community's deepening mistrust of local government could even hurt the Bend-La Pine Schools' proposed $98 million bond issue on the May ballot.
If the council's decisive majority wants to regain credibility and win support for SWIP it needs to convince skeptics that the plan is worth what it will cost ratepayers.
The city can't begin laying pipe any sooner than mid-August. It has this one last window of opportunity to atone for its flagrant disregard for the wishes of the voters. It should conduct an exemplary reconsideration process, fully informing the public of its options and welcoming input. Until it does, we're giving the council a swift boot to the rear.