Portland staying weird

Eastside Guy, featured in Brainstorm Magazine

By the time you read this column, Portland voters will have completed the May elections. On that ballot they will be deciding, for the eighth time since 1913, whether they will replace their commission form of government. The answer to that question should be yes, but it’s the follow up question, with what?, that has left the issue in doubt.

Despite the fact that Portland is in desperate need of a city manager component in its government, Mayor Potter’s commission brought forth a “strong mayor” proposal that has brought together people from the extremes of the political spectrum to voice their opposition. Both former mayor Frank Ivancie, known as a prudent manager of city resources and a guy who kept things running properly, and former mayor Bud, “whoop whoop” Clark, who was best known as the life of the party, are opposed to this proposal.

Who’s for it? Potter, former mayor Katz, developer Bob Ball, the Oregonian and the Portland Business Alliance, to name a few.

Commissioner Randy Leonard, who is opposed to the change and has been able to raise significant union money to fight it, squared off with Mayor Potter to debate the issue in mid-April. East Portland icon David Ashton moderated the event and presented questions that were submitted by the audience.

The pair got some good laughs as they jabbed at one another, but I had to laugh aloud over some of their arguments. They called into question Leonard’s ability to count and Potter’s ability to read.

Leonard insisted, over and over, that under the proposal the mayor would need only to secure two other votes on the council to achieve a 3-2 majority. He argued that meant the mayor only needed a minority of the council to secure a vote. Which is, of course, how it is under the current form.

In one of the few shining moments of an otherwise lackluster performance, Potter jumped on that one explaining “Randy taught me to count to three”, but he failed to exhibit any passion in his advocacy for the charter change. In an extended back and forth with Leonard over the proposed mayor’s ability to sell surplus city property it seemed as though Potter was confused on the details. Leonard called him on it. “The mayor has evidently not read the provision,” Leonard said flatly.

Potter said that, after two years in office, he had determined that Portland’s successes were “in spite” of our commission form of government. Curiously, rather than focusing on the increased efficiency under the new form, the mayor selected the poorer argument of citizens having increased access to city hall under the “strong mayor” form. Potter insisted that “citizens, not special interests and unions” would have more access “because the new charter requires it”. “The current charter,” the mayor insisted, “does not.”

Once again, Leonard was all over it. “You don’t need a charter amendment to make sure citizens have access.” He cited Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement as evidence of citizen access. In response to Potter’s inference that developers had too much influence under the current form, Leonard advised the mayor to “look in the mirror” to find the third vote that approved the South Waterfront’s cost overruns.

In a statement which may come back to haunt him if it doesn’t remain true, Leonard said “the developers know that we will no longer subsidize market rate housing”.

In short, both men argued that their way would ensure public input and transparency in Portland’s city government.

Potter and the council’s unanimous vote to undertake an engineering study on the Burnside Couch couplet is, of course, proof positive that a vote for or against eliminating commission government is not going to change one single thing.

The Goldschmidt-Katz legacy of rebuilding Portland in an east coast image continues unabated. In the 1970’s, young, eco-idealists flocked to Portland and began, along with the help of a plentiful supply of local collaborators, to transform the place under the mantras of “smart growth” and “sustainability”. Fast forward thirty years and we have most of downtown ripped up for the sake of more light rail and streetcars, and multi-million dollar cost overruns on all of the public obligations for OHSU’s south waterfront development. Density infill is destroying the character of Portland’s grand neighborhoods as condos and row houses spring up on every vacant property.

Portland’s city council then gives the green light to a “low confidence” estimate of eighty million dollars to proceed with the couplet despite the opposition of essentially everyone involved. An estimate which, if history is any indicator, will creep up to a quarter billion before they’re done.

Potter was elected on a populist wave. Voters loved his contribution-limited campaign. Voters loved his position on public campaign financing. His base, which embraced his promise of openness in government, now find themselves aghast at his partnering with Portland’s business interests for the “strong mayor” system. Despite this, he continues to retain a seventy percent popularity rating and will most likely remain extremely popular no matter the outcome of the election.

Leonard, who is in full re-election mode, portrays himself as a populist. He is championing bio-diesel, leading the charge against the excesses of the Portland Development Commission and has made “every day is Earth day” his slogan for his management of Portland’s water bureau.

How do those public personas square with voting yes for yet another misguided, taxpayer funded development scheme? They don’t. But that doesn’t matter. In Portland politics, it’s believe what I say and ignore what I do. And the vote on the “couplet” proves it.

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

  • iop

    Just seems that Potter is wandering aimlessly. Why is he there? He comes up with ideas, but they seem to be very contrived and without energy.


    I’ll take Potters lack of energy over Erik Stens enthusiastic money losing ideas (I think he’s lost the city about 70 million last count)……………..seems to me this city is what’s aimless the fact that Sten and Roberts can continue to be re-elected pretty much proves it.

  • Bob Clark

    Sten’s re-election last year was sad. The guy now wants to slap a tax on home sales. I guess he wants to stop the masses from fleeing to Vancouver by paying some to stay and taxing others trying to leave. It is a bit more advanced than the wall erected by the former Soviet Union, though. That’s progressive.

  • Captain_Anon

    I personally support a strong mayor system. Every other large city has it and they seem to work just fine. We’ve seen time and time again the dysfunctional relationships of the commissioner system that currently is in place. bureaus that should be working together actually working against each other, pet projects of each commissioner, etc etc. if you do the same things, you get the same results. seems a change would have been/(still is) a good a idea.

    As for the burnside/couch couplet. i think that the professional traffic engineers probably have a better grasp on how it will function/work than all the bystanders and armchair quarterbacks. everett/glisan is much more pedestrian friendly and has a much more vibrant feel, vibrant economic stability, and pedestrian friendly environment. businesses on those streets are thriving. traffic flows much better. so it seems to me it’s a good idea.

    • Dave Lister

      Our system is dysfunctional because we have politicians running bureaus. We need a city manager component in our city government, but this was a power grab for developers disguised as a “strong mayor” system.

      Burnside Couch is not about traffic. If it were, I would support it. It’s about another streetcar line and taxpayer subsidized development. It’s another south waterfront in the making. If they’re talking 80 million now, you can bet it will be a quarter billion before they’re done.

      • Captain_Anon

        what little i’ve heard of the couplet has to do with traffic flow, and increasing it while still letting the area be friendly to pedestrians and business. I’ve not heard of the street car going there, because i’m always interested in the street car. one unique thing about the street car is that it is realtively cheap, those along the line pay for it, and very little, if any tax payer money is diverted to it. when the orginal line went in, those along the line taxed themselves to pay for it. I would call it a success as it has drastically increased the foot travel along it’s route, helping development, small business and the ability to get people downtown, to PSU, and to NW portland. Oh, and it wasn’t over budget. the street car has always been on budget, and on time.

        The cities i know of that have strong mayors do in fact also have a city manager as well.

        • Chris McMullen

          Cappy, you must be of the tell-a-lie-long-enough-it-becomes-the-truth crowd.

          I’ve seen you time and time again defend TIF and TODs backed by outright falsehoods. The development along the streetcar line pays for some of its construction via property taxes, but those developments ARE NOT paying other vital public services (such as schools, parks, safety and infrastructure). Their taxes are frozen at the valuation of the property before the development. A chunk above that pays toward the streetcar. That is the scam that is TIF and TOD.

          Moreover, TriMet pays for 2/3s of the streetcar’s cost. That money comes from business taxes. And don’t forget the parking fees as well.

          The couplet does nothing to increase vehicle traffic. Auto lanes would go from two to two. Just how will that increase traffic flow?

          Lifelong public employees like you and Sam Adams continue to defend big gummint expenditures because it guarantees you employment. Hopefully, someday Portlanders will realize they’ve been scammed and see through your falsehoods.

          • Captain_Anon

            TIF financing is legal, and helps improve areas. it’s a tool the city uses to get the uses they want in an area. big deal. they want more residential units, store front shops, a vital restaurant area that is a destination in the city? they can give incentives to get them. good! they use the increased property values to improve the area. so what? that increase in property values wouldn’t be there without the incentives. the improvements they pay for spurs other development. that’s a good thing. what we have is a basic fundamental disagreement. and i doubt that either of us will change our minds on it. with that in mind, there’s no need to argue about it time and time again. you have your views, i have mine. using parking fees for the street car is ok in my book as well. its a voluntary fee that users pay. it’s not a tax. so you and other tax watch dogs should be happy for it. when the first street car line went in, those along the routes wanted it. they wanted to have higher taxes to pay for it. they chose the route partially based on people’s agreement on this.

            as far as the traffic flow is concerned: if you have traffic flowing one way, you have far less conflicts with turns, signal issues etc. traffic flows better. therefore, you can get more cars through an intersection. you don’t add a lane, but you DO get more out of the traffic lanes you already have. Think 10th and 11th ave, and MLK/Grand.