city of portland

IN A CITY slavishly committed to its dusty commission form of government, Ted Wheeler’s announcement last week amounted to a serious power move.

One of Wheeler’s sole powers as mayor is to shuffle and deal the administration of city bureaus as he sees fit. And after taking control of all of them in late April while hashing out a budget, Wheeler made a call that surprised some people in City Hall last Thursday, June 15.

For the first time anyone I spoke with can remember, the mayor gave one commissioner—Amanda Fritz—control of a single bureau.

The troubled Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC), which Fritz had overseen since January, will remain with Wheeler. For the foreseeable future, Fritz has the run of the city’s parks bureau, which she was handed early in former Mayor Charlie Hales’ tenure. That’s it.

This doesn’t happen. For context, back in 2010 there was a to-do when then-Mayor Sam Adams took out frustrations with Commissioner Dan Saltzman by assigning him the Bureau of Environmental Services, the tiny police and fire pension fund, and the administration of the city’s Children’s Investment Fund.

That portfolio was small enough for the Oregonian to wonder aloud whether Saltzman was being “underutilized” because of a personal beef. But it was still larger than Fritz’s is now.

Viewed in that light, Wheeler’s decision is nothing short of damning.

Unlike the 2010 scuffle, the move doesn’t have apparent roots in a personal grudge. It’s not even wholly unexpected.

For weeks prior to the mayor’s announcement, there’d been speculation Fritz might not get BOEC back. At the time, City Hall was bracing for a report from City Ombudsman Margie Sollinger that showed the bureau had flubbed its calculation of hold times for 911 calls for more than a decade, and that leadership had kept that news hidden from public view.

It was a ripe opportunity for a new mayor—who’s seen more than his share of public reproach in the last six months—to seize on a problem, and to show the community he’s out to fix it.

Before Sollinger had even publicly issued her report, Wheeler had drawn up a resolution aimed at addressing its harsh conclusions.

To be clear, the leadership failures at BOEC aren’t primarily on Fritz, who’d run the bureau for mere months (and had also controlled it years before). Still, the fact that Wheeler declined to give the commissioner anything to take in its place is a telling reflection of his confidence in her management ability.

It’s also the second time this year that Wheeler has stripped Fritz of a valued bureau. He gave rookie Commissioner Chloe Eudaly the Office of Neighborhood Involvement in January.

What this means for Fritz and Wheeler’s public relationship will be interesting to behold.

In a statement, Fritz said only that she was “disappointed” by the mayor’s decision, but would turn her free time toward combating systemic racism and a rise in hate crimes. City Hall staffers say that beneath that anodyne pronouncement, feelings are bruised in Fritz’s office.

That’s a calculation Wheeler will certainly have made before pulling the trigger—not that his office is owning up to it.

“The mayor and Commissioner Fritz have enjoyed a collegial working relationship,” Wheeler spokesperson Michael Cox told me. “We expect that to continue.”