Not long ago, a city hall staffer and I were discussing the fractious reputation the county board of commissioners has earned for itself over the past two years. Both of us being fans of the idea that local government can be a force for good in people's lives, we were pretty bummed out that the county commissioners had allowed their professional disagreements to become personal squabbles, and then highly public and embarrassing shit-throwing matches—which don't just reflect poorly on Multnomah County, but on local government as a whole.
The weird thing, the staffer said, is that at city hall, which deals with far more contentious and divisive issues on a weekly basis, commissioners have the ability to duke it out in council chambers, vote, and then—no matter how bloody their disagreements might have been—continue their congenial relationships, even (gasp!) hanging out over drinks.
"It's just business, you know?" the staffer said.
Business indeed. Like the business of additional city funding for the OHSU aerial tram—a fight that for weeks has promised to get absolutely, uncharacteristically filthy. In one corner are City Commissioners Randy Leonard (who's threatened to pull up a truck and tear the unfinished tram down himself) and Erik Sten—who really, really don't want to give any more cash to the tram. In the other corner, Mayor Tom Potter and Commissioner Sam Adams, who just want the thing done, even if it takes $5 million more. And in the middle is Commissioner Dan Saltzman—the swing vote who got swung by the mayor.
So last Wednesday, April 12, when the public discussion began on the Portland Development Commission's plan to throw more city money into the project, the stage was set for an all-out war—with firebrand Leonard gunning for flip-flop Saltzman. Unfortunately, the whole thing turned out to be more of a tickle fight. Leonard was out of town, traipsing through uncharted wilderness, but he was piped into chambers via cell phone, his disembodied voice creating a very eerie feeling that he was everywhere.
Perhaps if he'd been there in person, the fighting firefighter would've come out swinging. Instead, he cracked some jokes, spoke his peace, and then hung up.
Ultimately, the tram funding will be approved, and Leonard and Sten will have lost the battle—thanks to Saltzman. Not that there will be any bad blood because, after all, it's just business.
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