A Harvard management school grad, Abernethy ran almost a decade ago for city council on a slow growth platform, but has carved out a legacy for himself as a principled moderate who could work with all councilors on both sides of the aisle. In the process he alienated some of his ardent supporters on the Left but earned a reputation as an accessible and reasoned politician. We sat down with Abernethy to survey where the city has come during his tenure and what his plans are for the near and not so near future.
You came onto the council at another time of wholesale turnover and controversy...
One of the first things we did was we let Larry Patterson go. In retrospect, I think that was a terrible mistake. I've talked to Tom Greene and Jeff Eager as new councilors coming in and said, 'You know there is a big difference between running as a candidate and being a council member.'
I would put forth that you will be exposed to the other side of issues, because I generally find for the most part that when you're running as a candidate you're surrounded by people who think the same and you think that must be the mainstream viewpoint and anyone outside of that is fringe. Well, I think clearly I ran on a campaign thinking that Bend is growing faster than is good for the overall community and held staff responsible. And that's why we did what we did with Larry Patterson. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake... There were forces significantly larger than Larry Patterson's doing or not. And that was probably one of the biggest mistakes, and one of the learning lessons. I ended up apologizing to Larry Patterson six to nine months after it was too late.
I might have been closer to a year or so, but I definitely did.
You come in with a particular mindset or perception and the extent to which you are willing to listen to other ideas and get additional information; you change your opinions on some of them... Ironically, I like to think of myself as moving to the middle and I'm sure that pissed off a lot of people on the far Left who thought I was ideologically pure and it pleasantly surprised some people who were more conservative... If I were to look back, I tried to be very accessible; I tried to listen. I didn't always agree with what people said but I tried to make myself available...
When I got elected in 2000, I thought the demographics of Bend had changed drastically. I thought it was much more liberal than it turned out to be. But from my perspective, the election of 2000 turned out to be an anomaly...It's important for me to push the envelope, but you really can't afford to push too far or you'll fall out, and like John Schubert you're not going to get re-elected. I totally understand and am willing to acknowledge if I have disappointed people on the far Left. But one of the things I've realized is that you really don't want me to go that far or I'm not going to be around.
Did you actually change your own political views around this or was this a matter of political practicality?
I think I actually changed my underlying assumptions. I came in with an anti-staff mentality and I've come away feeling they basically do a pretty good job. I think I also came in with-I don't want to say an anti-business mentality-but I didn't appreciate the role that businesses play in the community in terms of obviously the jobs they provide, but also the way that their support allows a lot of the non-profits to exist and events to take place. I think that was an evolution in my thinking.
How did your shift play with your supporters?
I'm not going to name names, but some of my biggest supporters threatened to recall me. I would say that I clearly pissed off/disappointed a lot of people who supported me. What happens is you have people who come with an ideological perspective, which is fine and good... I think the extent that you're really willing to try to govern you will tend to gravitate more toward the middle.
It seems there were a lot of hot issues at the time, but I've seen a lot of apathy in recent years. Do you sense a difference in civic involvement?
Let me go at this from a slightly different perspective. Growth has been a big issue for the community for as long as I've been here. And roughly a third of the people say Bend has gotten too big. It's not the small town charm that I wanted. Other people said 'it's about right' and other people, 'It's almost there, but it's not quite right. It doesn't have enough diversity or amenities.' - so about a third, a third, a third.
Are their winners and losers, absolutely? In a capitalist society there are winners and losers no matter what. I'd say that's one of the things that I have learned, and I'm speaking from my own perspective. One reason I'm trying to have a bigger UGB than you or other people want is that I think a constrained UGB has drastically driven up the cost of housing and the cost of industrial land.
The irony is that growth was much more of lightning rod in 2000 and 2002 than it was in 2004 when we were growing much faster. In 2004 I was unopposed. I think Jim Clinton was virtually unopposed...One of the things I tell people is I ran as a slow-growth candidate and did an absolutely crappy job of that. (laughs)
What I learned is that the council clearly has influence on things, but a lot of this is really beyond our control. We could impose certain things... if the council really wanted to slow the rate of growth it would send housing costs through the roof, and for me that was a trade off I was willing to make...I think a lot of good was accomplished in 2008. Yeah, there were things we missed and trends we didn't see happening, but on the whole I think we kept Bend a very livable place. It seems the community didn't like what the current council had come to represent and there seems to be a much more back-to-basics approach. And by basics I mean: you pay for police; you pay for fire; you pay for streets; you pay for water; and anything beyond that is a pet project or a frill. I don't subscribe to that.
If affordable housing, economic development, accessibility and transit are pet projects, fine. I'm guilty as charged... We need to move beyond the basics. This is not your average city, this is really a spectacular community and as a result it should be having those services. I think one of the challenges for the incoming council to figure out are the ways that we can keep some of those other services going and viable by either finding new sources of funding or finding ways of having the community step forward to pick them up. I don't think Bend would be what it is now if all we did was focus on the basics.
What are some of the achievements you are most proud of?
Depending on how far you go back, I'd say the equal rights ordinance was a substantial area where we stuck our neck out. We clearly did not have the support of the (Bend) Chamber at that time, but I'm clearly proud about that. I'm proud of how we moved the city and the community in the sustainability front. I signed the mayor's climate protection agreement - sort of the local Kyoto protocol. The city partnered with the Bend Chamber on a Blue Sky Community challenge - EPA named us a green power community. We have the fourth-highest percentage of renewable energy, I think, in the country.
I would say affordable housing. That is one of the areas that I've worked on a lot. We were able to pass over the opposition of the Chamber and the COBA an affordable housing fee that provides a unique separate source of funding that we can use as matching funds. So we're now in a better position than most communities in the state to get federal funding down the road.
Any redo's? Things you wished you had done differently?
I think in retrospect I really like the vision we have for Juniper Ridge, but I think the council took too long to recognize it wasn't being supported by the community. And I think that there was too much risk associated with the way we had originally envisioned it. But we hadn't had a slowdown in 12 years. And in retrospect, we could have come back and done a little better due diligence on the buses. I think the image of the bad buses is something we were never able to get rid of and that's really a shame. And as much as we accomplished in transit and I would put that as a highlight, I'm getting e-mails saying 'you guys are morons, you started this transit system, you wasted all this money when you didn't even have a long-range plan in plan.' My response would be, 'You're right. Do you really think the voters are going to vote for a full-blown system when there is no track record? No way.'
What led you to decide against running for re-election?
A couple of factors. One of them was I sort of made a deal with my wife and I'm keeping my end of the deal...I think also it's time for a break. I've been on a low-grade burnout for about 15 months. Not only the council, but I have a full-time job with the school district. I'm board president and chair of Bend's Community Center, co-founder of the meth action coalition, I'm on the board of a foundation back in New York, and I'm back there four times a year. Kulongoski appointed me to the health services commission that meets six times a year, so I'm pretty actively involved. So I'm looking forward to a break. I will absolutely miss it. I'll go through some withdrawal. I like being at the decision-making table. I'm not someone who is going to pound my fist and say, 'this is the way it has to be,' but I like being able to say what I want, say what I feel and see whether you're persuasive or not. Then decisions are made and you go on.
If you ask me right now, I will definitely want to run at some point in the future. But right now, it's time for a break.
One of the changes we've seen is the role of money in local politics. What are your thoughts on the influence of cash in local elections?
Bottom line: I don't think it's a good thing. For the most part, political advertising is crap. I'm just not impressed. It's overwhelmingly negative, it's at a real low common denominator, it's just not very inspiring; it's misleading. So I'm not a fan of political advertising.
There's been some belt tightening around city hall, some significant lay-offs. Have you lost any sleep over that?
I definitely did the first couple - and this is going to sound like I'm callous - but I kind of got used to it. In the third round it was sort of here we go again. One of the things I've found, more so as being mayor than as a councilor, is you feel more responsible, rightly or wrongly, and that has both highs and lows associated with that. No, it's been really tough. It's not fun to think that this happened "on my watch." Do I think I caused this? No, I don't, but this is not the two years that I had hoped would happen. I remember coming in and thinking we have to get past this used buses thing and we just never ever could quite turn that corner and then Juniper Ridge started going sideways and then the UGB started going sideways. And you do the best you can.
Are you worried about the new council's direction given their ties to the building industry?
The irony is that a lot of the criticisms that were lobbed at Linda, Jim and Peter probably were a lot more valid about a year ago. I really think council made a lot of adjustments over the course of 2008 to bring it in alignment with where the community wanted to go. From my perspective, I don't see any major changes from where this current council wanted to go...Bottom line: the budget is going to trump everything. I really think the parameters are pretty narrow.
One of the fringe benefits besides the $200 per month salary (pre-taxes) of being a city councilor is the ability to learn exactly what folks think of you. People tend to drop all pretense of decorum when they write to their local elected officials. The advent of electronic communication has done little to raise the level of discourse. Here's a couple of recent missives sent to Bruce Abernethy's city email address from disgruntled residents. (EJF)
"Well I guess this was just too much to ask. So pleased to see your days on the City Council are coming to an end. I can't think of one constructive contribution you have made to the City of Bend. Rather, you ahve (sic)been a hindrance to progress. Hopefully this new City Council wil have some professionals rather than amateurs."
"Dear Mayor, Why is it so hard for the city to clean our streets after they gravel them. The city is a mess with flying dust for this new stuff your using and it is not being cleaned up, because you guy's are broke!!! Why are you guy's broke, becasue youhave been miss managing (sic) the city resources by making one after another poor decisions that have left you broke."