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.