Of sweeps and rugs
The old boys of Portland sure do seem anxious to get back to business over at the Portland Development Commission. Last week, John Russell and Bob Walsh, two developers who have previously served as chairmen of the PDC, published an op-ed piece in The 0 loudly announcing that, with a new sheriff in town, it's time to hurry up and resume covering the city with tax-subsidized high-rise junk:
The recent election of Eric Parsons, chief executive at Standard Insurance Co., as chairman of the Portland Development Commission completes a clean sweep of the three positions most important to its success: We now have a new mayor and the PDC has a new chairman and new executive director.Now I'll admit there's been a "sweep" of sorts over there, but I think the jury is still out on the "clean" part. Parsons, the new PDC chair, has been on the PDC board since November 2003, when he was appointed by then-Mayor Vera Katz. He has been a board member throughout all of the PDC hijinks of the last year and a half, and he's been in the majority on every wrong-headed vote that came down the PDC pike during that time under former chair Matt Hennessee. The new board secretary, Doug Blomgren, is in an even more intriguing position, having been appointed to the board by Katz (reportedly at the behest of City Commissioner Erik Sten and then-City Commissioner Jim Francesconi) in September 1997!
What concerns some of us is that the "sweep" to which Russell and Walsh referred may be just another under the very large PDC rug. Until the new crew shows tangible signs of improvement, I think it would behoove that agency and the City Council to do the exact opposite of what Russell and Walsh want. They're urging the city to throw caution to the wind now that the bad old days are over. Not so fast, fellows.
One of their arguments for having the PDC crank up an ambitious and accelerated agenda really cracked me up:
However, with a payroll of more than 200 talented employees, the development commission needs to constantly "do deals" to show a return on the staff investment. So caution and timidity need to be mixed with a healthy dose of impatience.Since we've got such a bloated staff, we need to do more deals! That's interesting. There's another option, guys: fewer deals and some pink slips.
If the PDC wanted to show us that a new era of openness and accountability has suddenly dawned, the latest on the Convention Center hotel project is an interesting way to do it. Never mind the fact that the public has never been asked -- and never will -- whether it thinks spending a couple of hundred million tax dollars to build the hotel is worth it. (And I hear there's going to be a 30-year property tax abatement, and so in present-value terms, it's like a permanent 77 percent tax cut for the hotel.) If that's good money after bad, we all just have to shut up and like it.
But now let's talk about who the developer is going to be. According to a preliminary PDC committee recommendation, it's Ashforth Pacific, a local firm whose CEO, Hank Ashforth, is, among other things, on the board of directors of the Portland Family of Funds. PFF is the investment bank that the PDC created and then simply handed off to private owners. The same PFF that's into the PDC for around $1 million in loans, with no idea when it will be able to pay them back. The same PFF that could very well be bestowing federal tax credits on the hotel development.
"Development can be a small, small world," chuckled the headline on the 0 article about this on Thursday -- the same day that the Russell-Walsh rah-rah opinion piece ran. Oh yes, so humorous.
Meanwhile, the audit that was forced after some truly scandalous PDC doings were uncovered earlier this year has produced some startling findings. According to the audit, employees at the PDC don't bother to follow the agency's contracting policies fully one third of the time, including (according to The 0) "contracts for everything from studies to construction."
Of course, the spin machine at The 0 buried the significance of this. The headline was "Audits say PDC rules OK, follow-through lacking." Sure. And naturally, as is their wont, the folks at The 0 resumed their eternal game of "Who Had the Pickle?" Somebody bought beer, some employees booked rooms at the Benson for themselves one night, some forms weren't signed, blah blah blah.
Hey, kids. Stop trying to snow us with the trivia. We want to know about the "studies and construction." Which contracting policies were violated in those categories, for how much, and in whose favor?
Anyone who thinks that suddenly the public is going to forget about the many problems at the PDC is making a "high-definition" mistake.