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A frustrating depiction of the Medford City Council and Planning Commission as a “boys’ club” has left many local leaders unsure how to attract more minorities and women willing to volunteer without pay in local government.

“I’m not going to get paid, and it is such a big responsibility,” said Margarita Castillo, a 48-year-old who owns four Medford businesses under the El Gallo name.

Castillo, whose main concern is to provide for her family, said she met with city officials last year who appealed to her to apply as a volunteer to help the police reach out to the Hispanic community. She said she was astounded at being asked to work for free.

“I asked these guys: Would you volunteer with my company?” Castillo said.

In the November election, four City Council seats and the mayor's position will be up for grabs, prompting many, including some councilors, to hope that a woman and a minority come forward as candidates. Karen Blair, who died in 2014, was the last woman councilor, and she sometimes complained about being the only woman on the council.

The Planning Commission, often seen as a stepping stone to the council, also doesn’t have any women or minority members.

Castillo is like a lot of women who have too many family and work responsibilities to be able to devote their time to volunteer their service with the city, including on the City Council and Planning Commission.

She said that if the city offered health insurance as partial compensation, it might make her more inclined to volunteer her time.

A 35-year resident of the U.S., Castillo described her struggles living here. She sometimes rides a bike or takes the bus to get to her businesses in west Medford. In the 1990s, she recounted how federal Immigration and Naturalization Service agents came to her restaurant and asked for her papers on a couple of occasions.

On the other hand, her 25-year-old daughter, Jennifer, has never been asked for her citizenship papers.

Jennifer predicts that her generation might get more involved in politics and government.

“I could see getting into politics at a later date,” she said. “We’re outsiders, barely catching up. Government, it’s very alien to us.”

Jennifer, who is proud of her mother’s accomplishments, has started her own business, Four Elements Forestry LLC, which works with government agencies on forest management through the application of pesticides. She is also puzzled why the city would have positions that require a lot of volunteer time.

“If you don’t get paid, I don’t know about that,” she said.

Claudette Moore, a Realtor who was on the council from 2000 to 2006, said the position requires a huge hourly commitment each week that is difficult for women to handle in addition to a job and raising a family.

“The reason women don’t do it is it’s so much friggin’ work,” she said. “A majority of the family responsibility still falls on women. Guys still do a lot more than they used to. But women are a lot more nurturing. And they don’t like conflict as much.”

Moore said she’s occasionally asked to get back on the council but is no longer interested. She said that if any women are thinking of making a bid for a council seat, she would be more than happy to offer guidance.

“I would love to see more women involved,” Moore said.

She said she would like to see more diversity on the council in general.

Medford's Multicultural Commission is designed to improve outreach to minority groups in the city. Each year, the commission is involved in the Multicultural Fair, which attracts minorities from around the valley.

Chairwoman Wenonoa Spivak said the commission strives to find ways to get minorities more involved in the community, but frustration over a lack of progress has prompted debate about whether the commission itself should even exist.

“The thought has crossed our minds,” Spivak said. “Some people believe there is not a multicultural feel to Medford.”

Even the commission itself struggles to find minorities who will volunteer their time. Three of its seven members represent minorities, she said.

Spivak said she and others are concerned about the lack of minorities in city government and are hoping they can do more outreach. But they have yet to come up with a solution that will turn the tide.

“We are all struggling and trying to figure out solutions,” she said. “We haven’t hit the sweet spot.”

For minorities, reaching across cultural divides is a difficult undertaking, she said.

“They’re not given a handbook on how to interact or react,” Spivak said.

She said the commission is considering adding a local minority teenager from a high school as a member. Another idea is a mentorship program in which a minority would shadow someone in an important local position.

In years past, Medford has had a small number of women councilors, but few minorities.

Former Mayor Lindsay Berryman said politics has to be in your blood to give you that “fire in the belly” to run for office. She said her father was a mayor, and her mother was a councilor.

But Berryman said she doesn’t know why there is a lack of female representation on the council and Planning Commission.

“It’s time-consuming, I will say that,” she said. “We certainly need women serving in these positions.”

Berryman said she would encourage women to run and offered to help any female candidates.

Jan Esquivel, who has been involved in local politics, said she ran for school board but lost the “fire in the belly” to run for other offices.

She said it is difficult to find women who are interested in seeking an elected office.

“It takes a lot of time and effort,” she said. “But I really don’t know why there aren’t more women.”

Esquivel said she and her husband, state Rep. Sal Esquivel, who served on the council, attempted to persuade a neighbor to run for council, but the neighbor told them she’s a single mom who runs her own business and doesn’t have time to spare.

Another consideration for women is financial, Jan Esquivel said.

“How many women are in a position to spend that much time for a position that you’re not getting paid for?” she said. “Certainly, it’s not that I’m advocating for paid positions.”

The Legislature does appear to be attracting more women legislators in recent years, Esquivel noted.

Bill Mansfield, a Planning Commission member, said that every time his commission holds a meeting, he wonders why there are no women or minorities.

“I don’t believe there is any kind of conspiracy to keep those people out,” Mansfield. “I do agree it is kind of a good old boys club.”

Mansfield said he regrets that both the council and Planning Commission have this image and would like the city to expend more effort at diversifying.

“We haven’t had very many women applicants,” Mansfield said. “And Hispanic people are very shy.”

Mansfield said he’s often encouraged his girlfriend, Jan Meyer, to run for council.

Meyer said she’s not interested any longer. She ran in 2000 against two men. Former Councilor Ed Chun ended up winning.

“I’m not sure why women don’t run, except men get voted in over women,” she said.

In addition, a councilor position requires a lot of time and energy to run and to fulfill the obligations of the office, she said.

Meyer said she would like the community to do a better job of encouraging women and minorities to run for office.

Councilor Clay Bearnson, who replaced Blair, said most applicants for Medford commissions have been male.

“It would be great to see a broader group of candidates,” he said. “I would wholeheartedly welcome female candidates who want to run for City Council.”

Jennifer Ware, coordinator with SO Health-E, one of six health-equity coalitions funded through the Oregon Health Authority, said, “The desire to diversify, and the struggle to diversify, is common to most decision-making bodies in the state.”

She said encouraging equity diversity in a community is an ongoing process that doesn’t have a one-time, immediate solution.

Ware said any group or institution has to look internally to find solutions, while continuing to reach out to the community.

“Maybe the answer is to change the structure of how things are done,” Ware said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at@reporterdm.

Medford City Council holds a meeting in the Council Chambers last November. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Jennifer Castillo, 25, sits with her mom, Margarita Castillo, 48, at El Gallo Mexican Supermarket in Medford Tuesday. Jennifer Castillo says she and her generation may be more willing to participate in local politics. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch