Mayor Ted Wheeler's first listening session with his largest detractors might have an interesting outcome: opening up Wheeler and other city council members to more detractors like them.
After an hour-long informal meeting in which Wheeler had invited members of the public to air their grievances, the mayor said he'd pursue changes—suggested by an audience member—that would expand public commentary at the beginning of City Council meetings, allow citizens to sign up for that commentary the same day of the meeting, and utilize light city council agendas for more-such listening sessions.
"I think they're great ideas," Wheeler said after the meeting. His staff cautioned, though, that it was unclear how easy the changes would be to effect. Its possible they'd require a change of the City Charter, which would mean a public vote.
The proposal came at the tail end of a meeting that was sort of remarkable for its context. After months of repeated outbursts and demonstrations have stymied City Council meetings, one nighttime visit to his home, and even calls for him to resign, the mayor had invited all interested parties (who could get time off at 11 am on a week day) to tell him what he is doing wrong.
Wheeler sat directly across a table from people who testified, alongside Commissioner Amanda Fritz who'd asked to attend. Both officials took notes, and Wheeler promised action on several peoples' complaints.
Inevitably, many of the comments came from people who've critiqued the mayor the most, and focused largely on the issues of police accountability and homelessness, which have been flash points of Wheeler's young term.
On police, people wanted answers for why cops had roughed up peaceful demonstrators at a Presidents' Day protest downtown. When Wheeler pointed out he'd since directed Police Chief Mike Marshman to emphasize de-escalation, an interesting exchange occurred.
"Why the hell have you not fired him yet?" a woman named Jenny Nickolaus asked. "If he’s not listening to you and you’re not listening to us, something bad is going to happen."
"You’re assuming that the police chief doesn’t agree with me on this," Wheeler responded. "Don’t assume that."
When Nickolaus suggested that meant officers weren't listening to Marshman, the mayor said: "That's certainly possible."
The Mercury asked about that comment after the meeting. "These are large complicated bureaus… and they all have their own culture," he said. "A lot of what people are saying is they're very frustrated that I have not been able to change the culture of the police bureau. Changing a culture isn’t something you do over night."
(In the meeting, Wheeler put that sentiment thusly: "I’ve been mayor for like 10 minutes, and this is a cultural shift.")
For years, the city's been under a settlement with the US Department of Justice aimed at reforming aspects of the police bureau, and it's worth noting that Wheeler's take on this diverges somewhat from that of his predecessor. Mayor Charlie Hales frequently praised the immense improvements he'd seen in the bureau.
When the subject turned to Quanice Hayes, the 17-year-old Portland teen killed by police last month, Wheeler stressed that he couldn't comment on two ongoing investigations into that case. It didn't mollify attendees.
The mayor also took critiques about homeless camps and the city's response to the bitter cold snap that claimed several lives. He pointed out the city had helped expand shelter offerings during that period, but acknowledged improvements were possible.
The most concrete result of the meeting, though, was after testimony from Mary Sipe, a Portland resident who's helped advise the city on public involvement matters in the past.
"When I watched the videos of people screaming and name calling, I was first put off and my first thought was to dismiss them," Sipe said. But she came to feel that people were yelling because they didn't think earlier pleas had been heard.
"Only after feeling not heard... did it devolve," Sipe said. "What this group of citizens is doing is not working, and what you, mayor, and the city council are doing is not working for any of us."
She suggested that Wheeler expand the five "public comment" slots at the outset of council meetings. These are the only opportunities for people to speak on topics that aren't otherwise on the agenda. Wheeler said he'd look into increasing the slots from five to 10. He also said he'd work to allow people to sign up for them the same day of the meeting, rather than days before as is practice now. He is concerned, though, that it could lead to the same people speaking at every meeting.
And Wheeler voiced early support for a concept that might have his colleagues wincing. Currently, if council agendas are light enough, the body doesn't hold meetings on Wednesday or Thursday afternoons. Sipe suggested when that happens, commissioners could hold public comment sessions.
What this meeting means for decorum at future council sessions is unclear. Wheeler envisioned the event as a sort of pressure release that might stop people from disrupting other public hearings, and the feeling in the room seemed amiable when it was finished.
"It went really well because it allows us the kind of interaction we cant have in a council session," Wheeler said afterward. His biggest take away, he said: "At least from a philosophical perspective, we’re trying to move in the same direction. We’ve just had disagreements about how to get there... Today I think we got bits and pieces of a better answer."
Whether or not that's true might be driven home next week, when Wheeler will once again take up his proposal to change city policy to exclude disruptive people from meetings for up to two months.
The proposal's faced backlash from citizens, the ACLU of Oregon and others, who believe it flies in the face of a 2015 federal court ruling. Wheeler pushed back a vote on the matter on Wednesday, saying he wanted to meet with the ACLU about possible tweaks.