This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 22, 2009 6:57 AM. The previous post in this blog was An inconvenient truth. The next post in this blog is Lew in the House. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

The City That Doesn't Work

The City of Portland's hokey "commission" form of government seems more like a failure all the time. While we all brood about how a single bull-headed commissioner could take over nearly every city function imaginable under a single bureau -- and the water bureau, at that -- we also see what gets cut in city government when the economy gets soft. In the case of the bureau of "development services" (which used to be known as the building permit office), since they're not collecting any permit fees these days, they say they have to pull the plug on these services:

-- Elimination of live phone coverage for the BDS Enforcement Hotline (503-823-CODE) for reporting complaints. -- Elimination of Nuisance Abatements, except for the most severe Fire/Life/Safety and Health/Sanitation cases. -- Suspension of investigations for disabled vehicles on private property and zoning inspections for passenger vehicles and recreational vehicles. -- Suspension of investigations and abatements for storage of Non-trash items and debris. -- Increased timelines to investigate assigned cases. -- Suspension of investigations and abatements for tall grass and weeds and overgrowth along property lines.
Guess the neighbors will have to settle those kinds of matters the old-fashioned way. Maybe the new armed water militia can respond to the resulting gunfire.

If Portland wants to stay "livable," it can't go on this way. Nuisance abatement programs shouldn't rise and fall with the economy -- quite the opposite -- just as the water bureau shouldn't be getting into police work or real estate development. The whole system just doesn't work -- and of course, the (ahem) colorful people it's been attracting to elected office aren't helping matters.

You can keep talking about recalling this one or that one, but what's really needed is serious charter reform. But when you bring that up, the money to oppose reform comes flying out of every corner -- especially from the union heads and development tycoons who have a pretty cushy thing going at City Hall just the way it is now.

Comments (34)

Good thing we defeated that crazy "strong mayor" system, huh? I mean, if we had done that, we'd have had a government leader who could run around doing crazy things, like...arming the Water Bureau.

So what else is new?
and did you all get your tax bills the other day?
Our RMV is down and the taxes go up!
I am so discouraged, and more than a bit angry too.

PS: And those of us in the realm of the transit mall LID scam, got the final bills the other day as well. Those are due on Nov 16th. Nice! More taxes that cripple small businesses during the most severe recession since 1929-33, but we get a whole extra day after the property taxes are due to come up with the money.

Maybe, if we keep talking about it, more people will get it and get how important Charter Change is. Thank you for making this connection, Jack.

Oh, and don't forget that of the four charter change measures that were on the ballot just a couple of years back, three passed. One of those was a citizen review of the charter in 2010. This is not only a chance to talk about it, but to get involved and be part of the change you wish to see.

"One of those was a citizen review of the charter in 2010."

I hope this works better than the Pubilc Utility Review Board which lambasted PWB, but PWB just keeps merrily raising rates anyways.

You won't know until you try.
Who knows, you might be surprised. We know this much for sure, change won't happen unless people are willing to work for it.

Our RMV is down and the taxes go up!

You can blame Bill Sizemore for that one!

I'm rather fond of Riddell's Law, which states "Any sufficiently developed incompetence is indistinguishable from conspiracy." Were I conspiracy-minded, I'd wonder if this was all deliberate, so that property values went waaaaaay down in other desirable neighborhoods. Then, after a few years of unmown lawns, trashed-out cars on blocks, and front and back yards impassable from bike parts and half-built Alberta parade floats, someone swoops in, buys up whole sections of real estate from the property owners at ridiculous prices, and turns whole sections of Hipster Heaven into new high-end apartments. Good thing I'm not conspiracy-minded, huh?

Deconstruct the streets and roads
Bring back streetcars.
Raise taxes, decrease services.
Pour $1,250,000,000 into the River (Big Pipe).
Raise water rates (the sewer rate is tied to water) to pay for Big Pipe.
Build an aerial tram for a few special people.
And subsidize minimum wage workers at a City subsidized ball park for a few sports fans.

Portland will live on despite all this. But don't call it sustainable.

Pour $1,250,000,000 into the River (Big Pipe).
Raise water rates (the sewer rate is tied to water) to pay for Big Pipe.

I don't think we really had a choice on that one. The feds were threatening some huge fines if we didn't get better control over sewage spills.

I think Dave Lister suggested in an Oregonian op-ed one time that a mayor could theoretically hold onto all the bureaus him or herself instead of handing them out to commissioners and put them under the control of a city manager. It would be interesting to see if the statutes do indeed allow for that, for it would allow for an experiment with the "strong-mayor" system. Maybe doing that for a mayoral term or two would get voters used to the idea and make passing a charter change to make it permanent easier.

It would take a strong-willed mayor, as the vested interests who like the system just the way it is would throw up all manner of roadblocks. And he/she would have to hammer on the need for change relentlessly, because the average Portland voter doesn't care about this wonkery.

Of course, there is a counterargument to the strong-mayor system exemplified in the current mayor: would we really want Sam to have even more power than he does now?

The challenge is to get a system of city government that has the efficiencies of a strong-mayor system without the ability of a charismatic but incompetent mayor to drive the city off a cliff.

All gist for the conversation at the citizen charter review in 2010.

Oh Jack, local government isn't about things like nuisance abatement and making sure some meth-head doesn't abandon his RV in front of your house.

NO! Local goverment is about building trams through the sky; eliminating car lanes; going on-and-on-and-on about how things are done in charming Scandanavian countries; subsidizing the sports projects of idle East Coast rich kids; having the water bureau build demonstration houses in some outer neighborhood for some reason; building apartment bunkers with no parking; and of course, streetcars, streetcars, streetcars.

But these are all just incidentals. First and foremost, local government is about social engineering. Because planners and politicians are better than you.

Yes, I did suggest that and not only can it be done but it has been done. Mayor Potter took all the bureaus into his portfolio for the first few months of being in office and so did Goldschmidt. What I'm not sure is whether the charter time limits the amount of time the mayor could keep all bureaus, but I don't think it does.

I've also written extensively about the city computer system snafus and overruns. Because all the bureaus have operated independently, they have grown their systems independently. Lots of duplicate data entry work and databases tracking the same customers for different purposes. I like the idea of a city manager component that would standardize the way the bureaus operate.

In my view, the city council should operate like a board of directors. The city manager would report to them, just like the GM or CEO of a corporation would report to the board. I would actually like the council to be part time and unpaid, or paid a small per diem like the legislators.

The biggest problem we have is that we elect politicians to run things. With rare exception, none of them have ever run anything. That's how you get hundred thousand dollar toilets and a myriad of other hare-brained ideas.

I've been critical of mayor Potter, but I will say this. He was a good custodian of public money and did not equate leadership with building ballparks or trams like Adams and Katz. When Adams and the gang started to hot box him in council, I told him he should pull the transportation bureau back from Adams. That's where Sam got all his face time with the press. If he'd done that about a year before the last election cycle he could have run for a second term. Adams would not have challenged him.

Keep in mind that as things currently stand, a mayor that takes all the bureaus under his/her portfolio (which Tom Potter did for 6 months)still has to negotiate with the other commissioners to get other things done.

It takes three votes, including the vote to hire a city manager or establish any city budget priorities.

A vindictive council or one that wants to show its power over the mayor to the voters can form a coalition against the mayor and stop any and all other work that a mayor wants to accomplish.

If written into the Charter, the mayor's granted powers were as stated in Lister's editorial mentioned above, bureau management would be a done deal and this coalition would serve no purpose.

Also, the term "strong mayor" used in this last go-round was a misnomer used by the opposition. Currently, the commissioners, most with NO experience or training in management, manage the bureaus. This role would go to a professional city manager whose position and hiring would be approved by the council.


Agreed. And I think this approach would vastly improve the city's execution of its core mission of streets, parks, sewer, water, fire and police.

Speaking of weird expenditures... on SE Ankeny, the city is ripping out parts of the curb, and about 3 feet of road. They are then forming a 3 foot "gully" with a new curb extending into the street.

Besides decreasing parking spaces and costing a lot of money, does anyone know what these contraptions are??

They are swales which are supposed to mitigate storm water run- off, just like the billion dollar big pipe is supposed to do. Those swales and eco roofs are more boondoggles brought to you by our moronic city council. I have lived in Portland since 1952 and have never seen a more incompetent city council. They make Diane Linn and the mean girls look like geniuses’. We as voters really have a chance to change things. A good start will be when Saltzman and Fish run for reelection next November; let’s kick them out. Please.

I was at a meeting a couple of nights ago with Ross Caron, the head of "enforcement" at BDS. Polished presentation about three categories or complaints, prioritization, triage, etc. Facile presentation, and accurate as far as it went, except for the City's unwillingness to file, AND FORCLOSE, liens for Code violations (unless you run the Greek Cusina, and offended Randy.)

While it is above his pay grade,(it is at our pay grade level, as the voters who hire the mayor and council members) I made the point that it is industrial strength insane to make it a matter of policy to fund what are essential public health, safety, and welfare functions regarding vector control, building safety, dried weed fire hazards, etc., through a fee based mechanism relying upon discretionary permits which are subject to economic cycles.

No onwe would countenance a system where the Fire Bureau or Police Bureau were funded through a cut of the building permit fees collected. The code enforcement program is as much a public safety, health and welfare issue as the PFB or PPB.

We are reaping the results of a long history of utter incompetence displayed by the City Council and prior mayors, who have had no consistent philosophy of how to structure public services, instead responding to a never ending and always changing cast of special interest groups clamoring for slices of the general fund.

This whole code enforcement farce is yet another example of Portland getting exactly the government it deserves.

We haven't really talked about the main problem with the Commission system, which is that these people are literally put in charge of these deparments, as managers.

Let's say someone who is a community activist, is elected to the Council, and this person is given the sanitation department.

This person is the functional manager of a city department despite the fact that they may:

a) Never have worked in any aspect of sanitation in any capacity, and know nothing about it;
b) May never have even managed anyone in any capacity in any field before.

This is insane. Every other city around here has a system where competent managers, who often have worked their way up through the department in question, do the day to day, and the council just votes on big policy issues and the budget.

Also, the term "strong mayor" used in this last go-round was a misnomer used by the opposition.


After reading some more, I agree "stong mayor" is not the right model or what was proposed in the recent defeated charter change. Sounds like you and Dave -- and the defeated proposal -- were advocating for the "council-manager" form.

Thank heavens I live in Salem.

We can't change the form of government in this economic downturn. An astute city manager would drive our unemployment rates to 20% with metro and county unable to absorb all the furloughed stakeholders.

It's ridiculous to say that the Council members are managing the bureaus. All the bureaus have people who've worked in the field for years and have risen to the top of the org chart.

The Commissioners are supposed to provide civilian oversight. There seems to be general agreement that the Police Bureau suffers from a lack -- rather than a surplus -- of civilian oversight.

All the bureaus have people who've worked in the field for years and have
risen to the top of the org chart.

That seems untrue in many cases.

Speaking of outrages, why after pouring hundreds of millions into the "Big Pipe" project do we STILL get poo poo in the rivers when it rains hard?

Dave A:

Because the project isn't done yet. Until it's done, that will continue to happen.

The worst part about having armed guards patrol Bull Run or anywhere else in the countryside is that we will not get as much information about what is really going on in the watersheds.

Anyone who has spent time in the woods has run into the disparate groups of weird people who wander around out there. It is not uncommon to run across white supremacists out plinking with their arsenals, or native Americans from Mexico who camp all summer doing God knows what. As strange as they are, these people do not pose a major threat to our water, and volunteers who dress like hikers can observe and interact with them to make sure. Think of it this way, if someone is plotting to do something bad to the water, they are not going to risk drawing attention to themselves by running away from a hiker, so a volunteer can get information from them. On the other hand, a bad person might run or fight an eager, lightly-armed, volunteer deputy if they think they are in trouble already, and we would lose the opportunity to get more information from them.

It is better for us all if Randy's Rangers tread lightly out there. They should pretend to be hikers, interact in a friendly way with everyone they encounter, and be the eyes and ears for the professional police, who are actually equipped to deal with threats.

I can’t speak for anyone or anything other than my observations at two meetings at City Hall last year regarding activities under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation. But at the first of those meetings, the seasoned veterans - some of whom I recognized - were sitting in chairs around the outer perimeter of the room, while the more recently appointed “directors” or advocates or whatever ran the show. I have been to more dignified high-school organization meetings. The property and home owners who expressed very legitimate concerns and outrage over recent activities by special interest groups funded by the city were treated with condescension by the directors who, once you got past the buzz words and worn clichés, displayed a profound lack of knowledge of this city’s codes, along with obvious disdain for us peons gathered in their midst.

The veterans, meanwhile, displayed looks of frustration including eye-rolling and other gesticulations aimed at the younger employees, and there were even a couple of comments made by one or two of them. But it was obvious who was running the show. They were only spectators. When one of the property owners made a comment or challenged the actions of the city, the new young turks either brushed them off, responded patronizingly, or feigned interest. And the Oregonian reporter, snuggled up with the city employees, made appropriate sneers and comments aside.

When I had attempted initially to contact one of the long-term employees of PDOT over this issue, she made it very clear that she could no longer handle complaints or problems. Despite the fact that we had had a many-years-long familiarity, she could not even discuss it, since that position was now occupied by a new employee. I don’t know if that employee is still with the city. But I can tell you that attempts to contact her went nowhere, and we finally got results only by addressing the City Attorney’s office.

What I have been left with over the last couple years is a jaded view of the people who are supposed to be our public employees. They refer to their three or four years living and working in Portland as though they have amassed all the knowledge necessary to lead us 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation Portlanders down the correct road that we’ve somehow missed all our blissfully ignorant lives. It was obvious in our dealings with them that they were not prepared to be told that their actions were wrong. It was like being invited to a club comprised of city employees where we were welcome as spectators, but not taken too seriously.

Anyway, this is in response to the comment, “All the bureaus have people who've worked in the field for years and have 
risen to the top of the org chart.” My experience has shown that at least some of them have been suppressed if anything.

Sorry for the lengthy diatribe.

PDX Lifer, I agree wholeheartedly with your diatribe. I have posted here and elsewhere on this topic before. I especially have noticed it on Commissioner staff levels where individuals with no education, life experience, common sense in the subject matter of a meeting, are major participants and sometimes controllers of the meetings.

Many times besides leading the meetings, run the media show, moderate the feedback (as if they really wanted any), they and totally ignore the comments, especially if it doesn't further their agenda.

It's also prevalent at PDC and and many of Portland's bureaus. Being a lifer and more, like you, it is really sad that many times staff will be a newbie from NYC or elsewhere that know little of the nuances of this region or city and miss the salient points. It is all just out of their planning books.

I think it would be better to hire one knowledgeable person than two cheaper ore more, right-out-of-school, who has never cut a check or worked outside of government, person. And it would probably save the taxpayers money.

PDX Lifer,

I am surprised you got results at the City Attorney's Office.


Do you think the sewage will stop flowing into the Willamette when the BIG PIPE
project is done?

All the bureaus have people who've worked in the field for years and have
risen to the top of the org chart.
That seems untrue in many cases.

I think it's worth noting that the commission form of government doesn't have to mean that commissioners actually "run" things. They are in charge of bureaus, but the good ones let the professional managers do their jobs. The bad ones actually run the day to day operations.

At its best, our City's form of government spreads the power and responsibility of government around, and the individuals elected simply guide the bureaus instead of running them. At its worst, it creates a real life SimCity, one that the real citizens who live here have to endure. But I don't think you can blame these problems on the system without first blaming those abusing it.

All I've got to say is if you don't like what any one of the commissioners is doing now, why would you ever want to give a person like that COMPLETE control over all bureaus of the city?

That's what would happen with a 'strong mayor'.

Why would you ever want to give COMPLETE control over some out-of-towner MBA/MPA type complete control over all the city bureaus?

That's what would happen with a 'city manager'.

What we have now is a bunch of elected yahoos. Those yahoos have the ability to hire a level of bureaucrats who serve at the leisure of the commissioner....the political appointees. Those people have the ability to control the information on positions and contracts coming available in the city bureaus (probably all of them) and they can steer all their friends and family to those. Not nepotism, but preferential access to the critical knowledge.

As already noted, some commissioners manage, some barely, others fairly. Sometimes it works, most times it don't. The thing is, the same applies to each and every other model I can think of. I don't think any model has any head and shoulders advances over the others that clearly recommends itself for Portland's governance.

At base, I don't think it's the FORM of government. I think it's a COMMITMENT to fiduciary responsibility. People get around all the money and they start getting stupid ideas about what can be done with it. They seem to lose track of what SHOULD be done with it.

Lately, around here, it seems to be about leaving legacies. Multimillion dollar follies to get your name on it. That's not fiduciary responsibility.

Playing crapshoot with urban renewal monies to stoke the wet dreams of a bunch of developers is not a prudent means of fiscal control or fiduciary responsibility.

I submit that our elected officials have failed in their 'oversight' roles. The public's trust has been repeatedly violated...

I just got my property tax bill. I suggest you find somebody with property in another locale and compare your breakouts...how much did you spend on 'urban renewal'? What percentage of your total tax bill?

I think it would be an edifying exercise.

I disagree AJS and godfry. I think it IS the form of government is a big part of the problem. You say why would we want a city manager?

I don't know, ask almost every other city in the country.

In Portland, we have a very strange habit. We do something differently from 90%of other places and we assume it's because we're brilliant and have figured something out that no one else can.

The common sense conclusion is that if 90% are doing something, that they've figured something out that WE don't understand.

You have the departments run by professionals, under a city manager. You get a council, led by a mayor, to vote on policy issues and take the professionals to task when something goes wrong and the constituents start screaming. If somthing goes really wrong, they fire the city manager, and make it real clear to the next one what it is they are expecting.

If this system seems mysterious to you, drive out to any of our suburbs and watch a city council meeting.

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