Sam Adams may have miscalculated: Saltzman has chance to show he’d be a good mayor

By Dave Lister

In the wake of Portland Mayor Sam Adams’ recent bureau reassignments, Commissioner Dan Saltzman finds himself batting cleanup once again.

Having once accepted Adams’ request to take over the troubled Police Bureau, only to suffer the embarrassment of having it taken away just a week before his last bid for re-election, Saltzman has now been given the helm of the Bureau of Development Services.

The bureau, whose primary mission is to issue building permits, is in disarray. Permit revenues have been clobbered by the economic downturn, and the resulting layoffs of bureau personnel have left staff morale at an all-time low. The bureau has also been criticized for inefficiency and inconsistent enforcement, sometimes being described as a “hit squad” by property owners who feel they’ve ended up on the wrong side of the bureau’s former head, Commissioner Randy Leonard.

Saltzman has also inherited the Office of Cable and Franchise Management, formerly part of Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s portfolio, so she can head up Adams’ “equity initiative.” Saltzman now carries a heavier load than any other commissioner.

As with all things coming out of City Hall these days, the decision is rife with political ramifications. Because Saltzman has been mentioned as a possible contender in the 2012 mayoral race, Adams will do his utmost to minimize him, embarrass him or trip him up. He may see the Bureau of Development Services as the perfect opportunity to do just that. In addition to being in disarray, the agency is planning an extensive computer upgrade. Based on a November decision to digitize the bureau’s records, the City Council, Saltzman included, last week approved a resolution to borrow up to $6.6 million for financing the upgrade. Adams knows there’s no hotter potato to hand a potential rival than a fouled up bureau about to acquire a new computer system. This time, however, Adams may have miscalculated.

Saltzman, an environmental engineer turned politician, has been here before. Mayor Vera Katz dropped the Water Bureau on Saltzman in 2003 following a computer billing fiasco that cost the city millions in lost revenue. Saltzman dumped the failed system, brought a replacement system in on time and within budget, and homeowners could once again rely on accurate water bills. Although he hasn’t been without his own uncomfortable moments — like a botched attempt to put tarpaulins over the city’s open reservoirs — Saltzman has been a steady and thoughtful manager. Case in point is the massive Big Pipe sewer project. The fact that it’s not in the headlines tells me it’s going well.

Saltzman has another card he can play as well. Following city Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade’s scathing indictment of the Office of Management and Finance, which Adams oversees, for bungling its own computer system upgrade, Saltzman put before the council a proposal to try to minimize technology foul-ups. The proposal, agreed to in principle by the entire council on Jan. 26, would create a citizen oversight committee for technology projects. Expert volunteers, with no vested interest in projects, would not only ensure that computer upgrades were being performed on time and within a reasonable budget, but would also weigh in on whether individual projects should be initiated in the first place. The proposal will be considered as an ordinance by the council in April and will likely be passed.

Saltzman has an opportunity. He can tidy up Bureau of Development Services like he did the Water Bureau and use the new committee to re-evaluate the computer upgrade proposal before the checks are inked. He can do something he’s actually pretty good at, even though he may not realize it. He can act like a mayor.

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.