CITY COUNCIL chambers aren’t a place where you expect to see much unanimity.
Sure, the council likes to aspire for those 5-0 knock-out votes that signal commissioners are in lockstep, but on many of the issues that have mattered most recently—homeless shelters, tax hikes, street fees, etc.—opinions differ.
Then there’s the audience: a sensitive and patchwork cacophony urging commissioners every which way on any given piece of policy.
Until, that is, last Wednesday, when the council took up a proposed contract with the Portland Police Association, the city’s largest police union.
The contract is a major focus of Mayor Charlie Hales’ final three months in office. It’d raise officers’ starting pay, which Hales says might be critical to address a police staffing shortage. It would also do away with the much-hated 48-hour rule, which has been a constant goal of police oversight types.
And it’s wildly popular with police. According to the PPA, a record number of officers took time to vote on the contract, and they elected to ratify it with 95 percent approval—another record.
Yet in the grandest show of unanimity that’s swept council chambers maybe ever, everyone who showed up to speak on September 28 roundly despises the new police contract that’s on the verge of passage.
For hours—during a block in the morning, and then again in the afternoon; both before the hearing was shut down because of crowd outbursts and after—person after person got up to urge city council to delay a vote on the contract. We’re talking Black Lives Matter activists, at least one former state legislator, civil liberties groups, environmentalists, and more.
Some had highly specific critiques. They want the city to press harder for new contract provisions that make it easier to fire bad cops, and give independent investigators more power to look into complaints.
Some had general queasiness. They think Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler should be the one to usher in a contract, which he could then be held accountable for during his term. (Wheeler has signaled he’s cool if Hales takes care of it.)
Some didn’t even quite understand what the contract contained, but knew they were against it.
But they were unanimous! And it looks like they can expect a week-long reprieve for their trouble.
Hales, at the end of last week’s hearing, announced he’d delay action on the contract while council mulled over all it had heard, and considered an amendment the mayor had offered.
“Council needs time to confer on the testimony we’ve heard today,” the mayor told the crowd, which at times seemed moments away from a full-blown protest.
But as of Monday—the same day Portland’s auditor sent a memo urging a delay to the contract—it didn’t appear council needed all that much time to confer.
Hales told me he still has the votes to approve the agreement and that he didn’t envision any further changes to the deal, nor much more citizen testimony. He also predicted contract negotiations would unravel if Wheeler tried to push substantive changes.
Then, dusting off a line he’s used since he ran for mayor in 2012, Hales started talking about car maintenance. He recalled the old slogan that pleaded: “We don’t want to change the world; we just want to change your oil.”
“This is the oil change,” Hales said. “There are a lot of other parts of the car that need to be fixed.”
He might do well to keep an eye out for wrenches in the crowd when he tells that to the public.