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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Randy Leonard's Very Frustrating Day

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Mar 30, 2011 at 3:44 PM

Rapid response SUVs, but no drivers.
  • "Rapid response" SUVs, but no drivers.
It's safe to say that Commissioner Randy Leonard has had better days.

First there was a report from City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade that questioned how the water bureau spent more than $2 million in money paid by customers: cash that went into rehabbing the Rose Festival Building and also toward building a fancy "water house" where the water bureau could showcase sustainable technology.

And in the Oregonian's writeup, one of Leonard's fellow commissioners let him have it: "It's not an appropriate use of ratepayer money," Amanda Fritz said. "It's not even remotely connected with the provision of providing water for Portlanders."

Then came this morning's city council meeting, where a donnybrook erupted over a routine agenda item pushed by Leonard—going to market for the first $40 million in last fall's $72 million fire bond.

The clerk's office had allotted only five minutes to discuss the vote, which needed unanimous council approval to move forward immediately, as an "emergency" ordinance. But Fritz (surprise, surprise)—joined by Dan Saltzman and, to a lesser degree, Nick Fish—had other plans. And a peeved Leonard, after an unusually contentious debate, was forced to backpedal in incredibly public fashion, holding off for another week.

The beef was over of the bond sale's tinier elements: the purchase of four new "rapid response" vehicles that would let firefighters leave their bulky rigs in the garage when responding to minor medical emergencies.

Fritz and Saltzman worried that the new vehicles wouldn't have anyone available to drive them and complained that Leonard and Fire Chief John Klum had yet to figure out a staffing plan for expensive new equipment that might wind up mothballed.

Leonard, increasingly agitated as Fritz and Saltzman piled on questions and demanded he assign "existing resources" to the vehicles, first argued their concerns would be better suited for budget discussions later this year. The fire bureau, he says, would need to add bodies—two per new vehicle—to avoid cutting back on more crucial needs, like fighting actual fires.

Then he rebuffed suggestions by Saltzman that only one firefighter be hired for each truck, saying staffing levels, because they involved a firefighter's safety (you know, all those rough urban neighborhoods in Portland, etc.) would need to be bargained with the firefighters union.

"This is not Wisconsin," Leonard said, offering the line of the morning.

Leonard then reminded his colleagues he'd warned them about many of these issues as early as last year, in a memo sent while the council was considering whether to to sign off on the bond. Saltzman then accused Leonard of a lacking "resolve" when it came to putting the vehicles in place in the thriftiest manner possible.

"That's completely unfair," Leonard shot back.

It was Fish who got Leonard to remove the ordinance's emergency provision, meaning it will come back to council next week for final approval. Regular ordinances take effect after 30 days. Leonard, presiding over the council with Mayor Sam Adams in Germany, relented but only after jabbing that waiting "may impact the interest rates" the city will pay.

Immediately after the meeting, Leonard and his chief of staff, Ty Kovatch, hustled over to Saltzman's office for a sitdown. It didn't do much to mend fences.

Saltzman, noshing on cheese and bread when I talked to him in his office afterward, said he was still disappointed Leonard hadn't at least begun talking to the union and that "if Randy wanted to do it, he'd do it." He also rejected the argument that shifting current personnel would mean "women and children will die because of this."

Leonard was gone when I stopped by, but Kovatch was still plenty angry on behalf of his boss. He said Leonard wasn't being melodramatic when he warned that a fire station might have to close if he had to transfer firefighters.

Fritz and Saltzman, Kovatch says, either "overlooked" what Leonard had already told them, or they just "chose to ignore it." "And it created an unfair dynamic on the city council." He said Saltzman, in particular, should have known better on when to raise this, since "this isn't his first rodeo."

So what did Leonard's memo last year say? Here's a telling excerpt.

In the ideal world, you would join with me in the next budget to fund one of the same types of experimental vehicles being tested by TVF&R [Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue] along with the required commensurate staffing so we too can measure how employing such a strategy might reduce the wear and tear on our fire engines and trucks while simultaneously increasing their in service readiness to respond to fires and true life-threatening medical emergencies.

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