Ballots are due in less than three weeks for the primary election, and the candidates for city council are working overtime to get their messages out.
Which means mailboxes across the city are stuffed with glossy flyers, touting the records and agendas of everyone from State Senator Ginny Burdick—gunning for Erik Sten's seat—to neighborhood activist Amanda Fritz, who'd like to unseat Dan Saltzman.
The Mercury's Voter-Owned Election Board collected those PR screeds, and fed them into our bullshit detector, which is finely tuned to pick up half-truths, gloss overs, and embellishments. The results? Surprisingly, many of the candidates' claims were accurate. There were more than a few, however—mostly in the vicious Sten-Burdick face off—that need clarification.
The Claim: Erik Sten says his "environmental leadership has helped Portland lead the nation in cleaning our water and air, restoring urban fish populations and cultivating energy that will save money and create jobs. During Sten's time in office, Portland has had the 10th fastest growing economy in the nation, proving you can protect the environment and have a healthy economy."
Oh, Puh-leeze! While Sten gets credit from just about everybody for his support of sustainable practices (although it's Commissioner Dan Saltzman, not Sten, who's spearheading the move to get municipal power from wind sources), part of his claim rings slightly less than true. Portland may have benefited economically from the late '90s tech boom, but that was a long, long time ago. In March 2004, Inc. Magazine ranked Portland as the eighth worst metro area for doing business, due to "high costs and the anti-business mood." The following year, the magazine ranked Portland fourth in the Most Balanced Economy and Growth category, but 37th in the Best Places (Large) group. That's not to mention the unemployment rate, which is somewhere just below six percent—considerably higher than the national average of 4.7 percent.
The Claim: "And now [Sten is] using your tax dollars to fund his own campaign," says Burdick's large postcard mailer. "This wasted money could have been used to fund schools, police, roads, and parks."
Oh, Puh-leeze! The administrative rules for the Voter-Owned Elections program caps total city financing at two-tenths of one percent of the city's budget ($1.3 million) without raising any new taxes or fees. That amount is spread out among each city bureau, so the impact on police, roads, and parks is negligible. (For instance, the overall 2005-06 budget for public safety was $313.3 million.) And the impact on public schools is zero, since it is the state—not the city—that funds education.
The Claim: Dave Lister is also quick to pile onto Sten, saying "[The Water Bureau's] first new billing system was a multi-million dollar failure. Did you know the next 'new' Water Bureau billing system cost an EXTRA $600,000—because the city wasn't ready to start using it?"
Oh, Puh-leeze! The new billing system cost an extra $600,000—money spent testing it—to ensure it would function properly. If Lister is alleging that the first billing system tanked because Sten's office launched it prematurely, would he prefer the city not spend the extra cash, and instead dive into an untested system, opening the door for even more million-dollar screw-ups? Oh, and FYI: Lister offered to design a new custom billing system, but was rebuffed for not going through the Request for Proposals process.
The Claim: Emilie Boyles' literature is skimpy—the homemade flyers stick to generic mottos like "for the good of Portland." But Boyles' more recent claims, in response to allegations of misusing the Voter-Owned Election system, boil down to this: Everything that she may have done wrong is Sten's fault. "Erik Sten authored Voter-Owned Elections. Either this was yet another example of his lack of ability to understand big-picture consequences of his actions or he intentionally left these holes in the Voter-Owned Election process as a tool to warn average grassroots citizens to stay out of politics."
Oh, Puh-leeze! So, Boyles' alleged fraud and inability to follow the program's regulations is Sten's fault because he designed the system? Wow. That means it's also Sten's "fault" that the city's elections officer handed Boyles a 44-page "Participating Candidate Information Packet," outlining all of the rules and regulations she was expected to follow, the day she filed as a candidate seeking public funds.
The Claim: Saltzman "created, with voter approval, Portland's Children's Investment Fund, which provides $8.5 million annually to proven, cost-effective early childhood, after school and mentoring, and child abuse prevention and intervention programs."
Oh, Puh-leeze! Check out the 2002 voter's guide statement about the Children's Investment Fund measure: "Levy produces an estimated $50 million over 5 years, averaging $10 million per year." ($50 million is a figure Saltzman picked because voters told pollsters that's how much they'd approve.) So where'd the missing $1.5 million per year—$7.5 million total—go?
The $50 million ran into another measure on the same ballot, a nearly $50 million measure for parks maintenance and repairs. Combined, the measures exceeded Measure 50's cap on property taxes. Both measures suffered as a result.
The Claim: From Amanda Fritz's website: "On the Planning Commission, I voted against moving forward with the OHSU tram before a more thorough investigation of its costs and benefits. If the council had heeded our advice, we wouldn't be in the $55 million (and rising) mess facing the city today."
Oh, Puh-leeze! First, Fritz gets an Oh, Puh-leeze! card for having the skimpiest campaign literature—heavy on accolades and experience, thin on specific accomplishments—this side of Emilie Boyles. Second, whether council had listened to the Planning Commission or not, the city still isn't in a "$55 million (and rising) mess"—the city's share of the tram construction is $8.5 million (plus a few million more for miscellaneous credits and waived fees). Developers and OHSU are paying the rest.