(as published in the 8-18 Register Guard Opinion Section)
Over the past few years, I've been thinking about what the "job" of the City of Eugene is. The more I hear from our residents on what the priorities are and what they want the City to be doing and focusing on, the more I see a misalignment between the work the City is set up to do and the work we need to be doing.
The structure of our City government needs to reflect the priorities of our community. We need a new City department, with its own budget, staff, and resources, to address the critical issues our community faces around racial and economic equity, human services, and human rights. These are issues which affect the quality of life for all our residents and are deserving of a dedicated department to address them. If we are going to create the kind of transformative change needed to build a better Eugene, we need to begin now.
Over two years ago, the City Council held a retreat to outline priority areas. These priorities included housing, homelessness, public safety, and climate change, along with the ongoing needs to address equity and racial justice. Of those issues, only one has made truly substantial progress: public safety, funded by the new payroll tax for community safety. The other areas have floundered in processes — creating plans that aren't followed, one step back for every step forward we take.
As public safety already has the City structure and departments in place to support it – namely the police and the fire/emergency services departments, it is easier to address. We've made great progress recently in improving our parks, catching up on the backlog of road repairs, and providing library and cultural services. These services all have departments, staff, and budgets dedicated to the job. By contrast, resources for addressing homelessness and housing affordability, increasing equity, or reducing climate impact are scattered: a staff member here, a sub-program there, all shoehorned in the City's structure.
One might conclude that because these priorities encompass all the work of the City, the work should run across departments. Unfortunately, that structure does not support these issues as priorities. No matter how professional, compassionate, and thoughtful she is, a staff member whose primary job is ensuring an open and clean street is going to approach the issue of someone camping in the street right-of-way slightly differently than someone whose primary job is to help that person find a path to a more stable life.
The suffering of those who are unhoused and the impacts on everyone in our community, is one of the top concerns in the City. There is widespread agreement that mental health care and substance use treatment need to be key parts of the solution. And yet, Eugene outsources almost all of the human services work that is essential to addressing this to the County. There is no human or community services department in Eugene. Human rights and equity gets half of a sub-department with a tiny amount of staff.
Right now, our community is talking about how we can be an innovator in determining more just, effective, and equitable ways to help keep everyone in our community safe. We have a history of innovating -- the City's collaboration with the CAHOOTS program is a model around the nation. But as we develop these innovative programs and methods, where do they go? Who manages them and makes sure the work gets done? There is no natural "home" for them in our current setup.
If we are going to achieve real progress in these critical areas, they can’t be an afterthought in our City’s structure. A new department will make sure that these topics have just as much a seat at the table as public works, library and cultural services, and police. It will ensure that these underserved but critical priorities receive the resources and focus that our community is demanding. Creating a more just and sustainable Eugene for all our residents is just as much the City's job as making sure the streets are paved and the library has books to lend. It is time that our City structures reflect that.