Portland’s Missed Opportunity

The Eastside Guy, By Dave Lister can be found monthly in BrainstormNW Magazine

Portland mayor Tom Potter was recently successful in his bid to bring to the May primary ballot an initiative which would replace our commission form of government with a so-called “strong mayor” system. The irony is that this small success may well result in the largest failure of his administration.

On February 7th, city commissioner Sam Adams provided the third vote to move the charter reform measures I wrote about last month (“Kingdoms and Fiefdoms“) from the council chamber to the May primary ballot. The voters, for the eighth time since 1913, are going to be asked to vote to change their government. If history repeats itself, it will become the eighth time Portlanders have said no.

And “no” is the right answer on this one.

At the outset, Potter’s charter review commission was charged to analyze the city charter, “line by line”, and come back to council with a report either affirming our commission government or suggesting changes. They came back, all right, but with a recommendation for a system which would give the mayor unprecedented powers with very little oversight and provide him a CEO style hired gun who would be beholden to, and serve at the pleasure of, the mayor only.

I’ve written about the problems of our commission form, which are plentiful, and the inefficiencies that go along with it. Things like Randy Leonard insisting that he, as Water Commissioner, should take the billing function back into his office after several million dollars were spent putting that function into the Office of Management and Finance.

But the mayor’s review commission has laid a real egg and if the voters choose to hatch it we’ll have a major turkey on our hands.

Right now, if you want to challenge a sidewalk assessment, you can take it to council and a majority vote will get you off the hook. Under the new proposal it’s the mayor’s call.

Right now, a move to sell off surplus city assets requires a four fifths majority of the council. Under the new proposal, it’s the mayors call.

Under the new proposal, the mayor runs all city bureaus with the help of a CEO who, although confirmed by the council, can only be fired by the mayor. Under the new proposal, the mayor is not only an administrator along the lines of the governor, but he also has not only a vote on the council but gets to hold the gavel as well. That’d be like making the US president the speaker of the house and president of the senate as well.

I think if a certain former mayor had powers like these you could probably bicycle the Eastbank Esplanade all the way to Astoria and the Mt. Tabor reservoirs would be capped by a major league ballpark.

The most scary thing of all is that under this new proposal the other four council members have no duties, other than legislative duties, but continue to hold full time positions.

Think about that for a minute. Erik Sten, Sam Adams, Randy Leonard and Dan Slatzman would have nothing to do but think about new laws. You know, things like banning smoking on golf courses, keeping spray paint behind the counter, taxing cell phones or possibly telling restaurants what they can and can’t serve. The way things are now at least they have to spend part of the day taking care of our streets, parks, sewers and water supply system. No man’s property or liberty will be safe while these guys are in session, and they’ll be in session year around!

Not that we’ve ever had a crooked mayor in Portland”¦ oh wait, I guess we’ve had our share”¦ but Heaven forbid if a crooked mayor got elected under this system. Along with everything else, the mayor gets a private economic development “slush fund” that can be used for any reason he sees fit.

Hey Guido, whaddya think about that casino on top of Memorial Coliseum?

The other thing that’s funny about the charter review commission’s proposal is that, despite going through the charter “line by line”, they simply cut and pasted council powers into the mayor’s powers. As a result:

The mayor has the “ability to control paupers”.

The mayor has the ability “to prevent public displays of deformed persons”.

That’s good to know. Those deformed paupers really creep me out.

The mayor has the ability to regulate obscenity.

Right. In an Oregon where our supreme court has determined that table top sex acts are free expression, our mayor is going to regulate obscenity.

So far, the commission’s recommendation has the backing of Mayor Potter, the Portland Business Alliance, former Mayor Vera Katz and the Oregon editorial board. It is opposed by a group calling itself the “Committee for Accountable City Government” chaired by transportation activist Chris Smith and co-chaired by none other than former Mayor Bud Clark. Clark points out that our current city charter already gives the mayor the ability to take all the bureaus into his portfolio, thereby effectively accomplishing the strong mayor system without altering the charter.

The politics behind all this are even more interesting. Sam Adams, who provided the third vote to put the reform to the voters, is also recognized at Potter’s most likely adversary in the ’08 mayor’s race. It’s also clear that failure of the reform measure at the hands of the voters would put another loss on Potter’s ledger, making it less likely that he will seek a second term.

Potter campaigned on a platform of not being a politician. What he perceived as a strength in that campaign may in fact be the thing that ensures he will be a one term mayor.

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