Kingdoms and Fiefdoms in Portland

Eastside Guy, featured in Brainstorm Magazine

For political junkies and city hall observers like myself, January 18, 2007 was a pivotal day in Portland politics. On that day the Portland city council, in two unanimous votes, first accepted a report which could change forever the nature of their own jobs and secondly, for the first and only time in memory, reduced taxes on Portland’s businesses.

During his campaign, Mayor Tom Potter pledged that, if elected, he would initiate a process to undertake a thorough examination of Portland’s City Charter to determine once and for all if its citizens were well served by our archaic commission form of government.

As I’ve written in the past, commission government has been rejected by nearly every other city or town of over ten thousand residents and is arguably a major impediment to our global competitiveness. Evidently it is also something which “keeps Portland weird” and is for that reason embraced by the voters. A multitude of attempts have been made to rid Portland of this form of government, most recently in 2002, and they have always been rejected by the voters.

In November of 2005 Potter persuaded the rest of the council to agree to appoint a charter review commission. This commission was charged with the task of examining, in detail, Portland’s city charter and making recommendations for appropriate improvements. I actually offered myself for service on the commission but was, probably not surprisingly, not selected for service. The commission delivered its preliminary report to the city council in June of 2006 and the report was basically shredded. Randy Leonard, Erik Sten and Sam Adams all took exception with both the premises and the conclusions of the commission and let them know in no uncertain terms they had better take that sucker back to the drawing board or forget about ever seeing it on a ballot.

A cynical person might conclude that their reaction had something to do with the fact that the charter review folks were advocating for a strong mayor system; one in which the sitting commissioners’ powers and responsibilities would be greatly diminished. Of course, I’m not cynical about that stuff so you can draw your own conclusions.

Anyway, after having more than a few members quit in disgust, the charter review commission went back to work to refine their proposal. This group, which describes itself in its report as “diverse” and being mindful of Portland’s “progressive traditions”
(I guess that explains why they didn’t need the services of a fifty something white businessman like me) proceeded to dig in their heals and deliver once again to council a report which was basically the same as the one delivered in June, again advocating a strong mayor system.

Now, if you don’t know, a strong mayor system is one in which the mayor basically runs the city and the commissioners vote on legislation but have no hand in the day to day operations of the city’s bureaus. This system sometimes includes a chief executive officer, or city manager, who serves under the mayor and keeps things running smoothly. This system, in a variety of configurations, is widely used throughout the country.

Another local journalist joked with me recently that a strong mayor system might be attractive to Portland’s voters if we actually had one.

The counter argument is that, for all intents and purposes, we had a strong mayor system for the twelve years preceding Tom Potter. The strong mayor was Vera Katz, and her reign begat PGE park, the tax abated Pearl District, the Tram, the tax abated South Waterfront, the Eastbank Esplanade”¦. well, you get the gist.

In any event, I have to hand it to David Wang, the charter review commission’s chair. It took courage to bring a second strong mayor proposal to the city council. As he presented the commission’s report I studied the countenance of the council members. Randy Leonard, whose bald head was shining as though it had been run through one of those bowling ball polishers at Hollywood Lanes, exhibited an ever-deepening frown. Erik Sten was focused, his eyes sharp and intent, kind of like a bird of prey ready to swoop in for the kill. Adams was deadpan. Saltzman and Mayor Potter, who had previously indicated they supported sending the commission’s recommendations to the voters, were smiling. Wang was cool and composed.

Wang described commission government as being “inherently flawed”. Wang described our current system as being “five kingdoms with five kings” and no coordination or consistency between them. City services, Wang alleged, were as a result not delivered in an equitable fashion.

I cringed in my chair in anticipation of the counter attack. Wang was in King Arthur’s court and was basically saying the Lady in the Lake was a washed up hag and Merlin was a charlatan.

Commissioner Sten led the attack. After thanking the commission for their hard work, and adding that he looked forward to “the robust debate to come” he flatly said the commission’s report was “not ballot ready”.

“What is the problem that this report is trying to fix?” Sten asked. “How would centralization remedy the alleged problem of equitable distribution of city services?”

Sten then masterfully turned the biggest foul-up of his career, the botched water billing system, into a compelling argument in favor of commission style government.

“Under this system,” Sten said, “I am having difficulty seeing where the buck stops. When the water billing system failed I owned up to the problem and took responsibility. Would there be the same accountability under this strong mayor and CEO system? I am having trouble seeing it.” Sten also pointed out that, as the longest sitting commissioner, he had had ample time to study our form of government and others. Returning to his campaign theme he stated “People are moving here in droves. Portland is consistently rated the best city for bicycling, walking, kids”¦ how does that suggest commission government is not working?”

Randy Leonard then picked up the baton and grilled Mr. Wang with similar questions. Leonard suggested that, despite plenty of input after June 2006, the commission had disregarded the input and brought the same results back to the city council. Wang, to his credit, remained composed and consistent. He insisted that the commission’s recommendations were not based on personalities, but on the structure of the city’s government.

For his part, Dan Saltzman advocated moving the recommendations to a public vote right away. “I see no reason not to take this to a vote in the upcoming primary,” he said.

That’s a good one. If you’ve been around city hall as much as I have you have heard Dan Saltzman say, time and time again, “you elected us to make these decisions for you”. He said it about covering the reservoirs. He said it about “voter owned” elections. He’s said it about every contentious issue that has hit the city council since I’ve been paying attention. But now, he says we should get to vote. Thanks Dan.

The public testimony which followed was predictable. Most of the folks who testified advocated for more public process. Most of them thought commission government was great because “they could get a commissioner on the phone to express their concerns”.
Former city council candidate and neighborhood activist Amanda Fritz layed out a blueprint for the council to proceed which included lengthy public process and bringing the proposal to a vote in some election other than an off-year primary.

At some point Mayor Potter intervened to oil the waters. Further debate was postponed until February 7th.

At four thirty in the afternoon, the “time certain” three thirty issue of business tax reform finally reached the council. This is, as you know, an issue that has been dear to my heart and had been championed by commissioner Sam Adams.

Sam Adams, along with his staffer, Warren Jimenez, went through an abbreviated version of their 108 slide power point presentation which explained the current system of taxing businesses in Portland and its inherent inequities. They then brought forward their invited testimony, one of whom was your truly.

As I’ve told you previously, I had already convinced Erik Sten that the city needed to modify this system. By the time the ordinance hit council it had three co-sponsors, Mayor Potter, Dan Slatzman and Erik Sten. The only hold-out was Randy Leonard.

I’d had a lunch date with Randy to try to convince him the Tuesday before, but our little blizzard kept me home. Since I’d already moved my business to Tigard, I figured keeping my car out of the body shop was more important than doing any lobbying.

Adam’s proposal would reform the city’s business license fee, which has basically been an income tax and not a fee at all, in three ways.

No company would have to pay the license fee until their gross revenues exceeded fifty thousand annually. The current system kicked the fee in at $25,000.

The owner’s compensation deduction, or the amount at which an owner’s salary began to be considered profit rather than payroll, would be increased form sixty to eighty thousand.

The twenty or so huge companies in Portland that, through the inequities of the current system were paying the paltry $100 minimum, would begin to pay a fair share.

I liked it. I campaigned on it and I worked hard with Adams to get it perfected.

About twenty five people, invited and uninvited, testified. There was no testimony in the opposition.

When the council got down to voting, Randy Leonard was the question mark. A unanimous vote would be a wonderful signal to the business community that Portland cared and that Portland wanted to nurture its small businesses.

Leonard pontificated at length. After discussing for several minutes the need for Portland to keep its revenues up for vital civil services and explaining that Clackamas and Washington counties did not need the same level of funding for police and fire, he voted yes. Yes. I couldn’t believe it.

The next day I e-mailed Leonard to thank him for his vote.

“You were the one who tipped me,” he replied.

“Seriously?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he replied.

I am not sure which part of my testimony convinced him. I talked about the inequities of the system. I talked about the difference in the fee structures in the three counties of the region. I talked about the fact that our business license fee had been greater than our state and federal tax combined.

But I think maybe what convinced him was posing the question I had been posing throughout my campaign for city council:

A sole proprietor making the same salary as a sitting city commissioner pays $1200 a year in city taxes that the commissioner does not pay. How is that not discriminatory?

I don’t know if that’s a compelling argument, but I do know Portland’s progressives can’t stand to be called discriminatory.

But what the heck do I know? I’m just an Eastside Guy.

Catch of all Dave Lister’s commentaries in the monthly Brainstorm Magazine — a must read for all news watchers.