Yesterday, in light of this week's report about city hall spit-balling over a shared future for the Portland Housing Bureau and Portland Development Commission, Commissioner Dan Saltzman wrote city commissioners, their chiefs of staff, and housing bureau employees to distance himself from the story and try to soothe any ruffled feathers.
Saltzman's email first said the story "states I am proposing to rejoin" the bureaus, which he called an "extremely misleading statement." He also claimed he'd not even considered the idea. Those are troubling accusations to make about someone's reporting. The story didn't actually say he was firmly proposing anything—and actually allowed that changes might fall short and not happen any time soon. It said the subject had been discussed among a range of options.
But more troubling was that they weren't shared with me directly before Saltzman's email went out. Normally people aren't shy about complaining when they feel like a journalist has sinned. All the same, I managed to come across a copy of the email last night.
From: Saltzman, Dan
Sent: Wednesday, October 09, 2013 2:15 PM
To: PHB All
Cc: City Elected Officials; City Elected Officials Exec's; Callahan, Shannon; Trieu, Amy
Subject: Statement on Mercury Article
Dear Portland Housing Bureau Employees,
The Portland Mercury’s October 10th edition [eds: We actually came out October 9] has a story that states I am proposing to rejoin PHB and PDC. I would like to make it clear that this is an extremely misleading statement. A Mercury reporter asked me if I knew of plans by Mayor Hales to rejoin the two bureaus. I told the reporter I did not know of any such plans, but did state that was a fair question to ask.
I do not have plans to rejoin the two bureaus, and had not even considered the possibility. I was merely trying to answer a direct question by a reporter.
I regret any confusion this may have caused. I value the exceptional work each and every one of you do for our City and the Portland Housing Bureau.
Predictably, I promptly left messages for Saltzman and his chief of staff, Brendan Finn. Finn phoned me back this morning.
Here's what he said the office was actually upset about, despite the email impugning the entire story: One of the headlines. It used the word "floats." As in, "Saltzman floats" the idea of rejoining the two bureaus. I'd thought that was softer than "proposes," and they, apparently, disagreed. Fair enough. Headlines are always tricky. I concede the point. I suggested "discusses" as a more accurate, trouble-free alternative, and Finn said he agreed.
I then specifically asked Finn, despite the email, whether Saltzman or Finn had any concerns in the actual story they'd want to raise. Did the story as written, below the headline, get things wrong? He allowed that it did not, and that when he read it, after bracing himself because of the headline, he thought, "That's not so bad."
Finn reflected on the sensitivity of the subject and said Saltzman was worried housing bureau employees might feel slighted and wanted to reassure them how much he valued their work. (I read that as a bit of damage control. I'd told Finn, during a city meeting on Tuesday (in time to address or correct concerns) what the frame and substance of my story would be, and he didn't seem happy but he also didn't protest or say it was wrong.
"We wanted to reach out to our employees," Finn said. "Dan's undertaking a close examination of all facets of the bureau and doing that as a new commissioner. This is another area where he's doing his due diligence."
And then there's what Saltzman told me when I first asked him about potential consolidation as a balm for the city's looming urban renewal woes. He found it oddly canny I'd called up with a question that specific.
"That's really funny," he said. How come?
"I was just sitting here talking with Shannon and Brendan about that."
(Indeed, other sources had previously winked and nodded that there was a whiff of smoke, if yet not a full-on fire, at the end of this line of questioning, that it might be one tray in a large, evolving smorgasbord of ideas.)
And before I belabor things, let's look at what Saltzman didn't mention in his email as misleading or wrong or whatever. A point that's bigger and more interesting than the headline or reconsolidation. That he's been hearing a lot from private developers who prefer things the way they used to be, before the current housing bureau was put in charge of affordable housing construction. That other options could include intergovernmental agreements that give PDC staffers a bigger role in approving and pitching the funding for affordable-housing projects.
Like Saltzman said: "The fact that these conversations are happening bodes that some change is in the air."