The matter almost slipped under the radar. Originally scheduled as an item on the council's so-called "consent agenda," it was not even scheduled for any public testimony, objections or debate. Usually items placed on the consent agenda are simple housecleaning matters--approval of budgets, street repairs, and other non-controversial matters. Almost invariably, consent items sail through with unanimous approval and raise few eyebrows.
But when Dan Handelman from Copwatch read the ordinance, he became concerned. As the primary force behind Copwatch, Handelman closely watches city council agenda items. Five years ago, he noticed another item on the consent agenda--the vote to reauthorize the Joint Terrorism Task Force. At the time, he called city council to insist the matter be put on the regular council calendar where the public could provide testimony and express their feelings about the Task Force. Because of his keen eyes, that item must now be debated publicly each year (although this year, the matter has been routinely postponed).
Last Tuesday, Handelman again phoned the council clerk and requested the pending ordinance be pulled from the consent calendar and given a due opportunity for public debate.
The whole matter seemed peculiar. Isn't our city short on funds? Doesn't the police force constantly complain about being understaffed? Don't those 20 officers have something better to do than spend four days in D.C. serving at President Bush's fancy party?
"This is not a national emergency," Handelman told the Mercury. "We're not answering the call after 9/11."
Questions and concerns continue to arise: During Bush's first term, he visited Portland twice for fundraising events. Those events cost the city more than $100,000 in overtime and extra police services (not to mention a $400,000-plus legal settlement with protesters who were abused by police). Former mayor Vera Katz sent a bill to the White House to recoup some of those expenditures, but never received a reply. Even though a handful of other cities also plan to provide police for the inauguration event, why should even more of Portland's strained resources go to support extravagances such as the inauguration ball, which Bush hopes will raise millions for the Republican National Committee?
But during public testimony at last Wednesday's hearing, police chief Derrick Foxworth assured the council that "not one dime" would be directly spent by the Portland police bureau for those 20 officers during their four days of absence; airfare and overtime payments will apparently be covered by private donors and the federal government. He didn't address concerns about indirect costs, like filling those vacancies while the police are gone.
But concerns run deeper than financial worries. Three years ago, Portland city council passed a resolution and joined 100 other legislative bodies around the country in denouncing the USA Patriot Act and its intrusive policing strategies, like wiretaps and doing away with warrants. At the time, some lamented that the statement was merely symbolic, and would do little to actually curb the federal government's assault on civil liberties.
But now that city council has been given a chance to put their money where their mouths are--and to truly voice disapproval of the current administration and its priorities--it appears as if they've balked. City council unanimously approved sending the officers to Washington.
The primary point is not whether Portland should be spending money to send 20 officers to a lavish event like Bush's inauguration, but that we are so willing to grant the wishes of a bloated, greedy federal government. The Bush administration plans to throw the most expensive inauguration in U.S. history--despite concerns that his administration has tanked the economy, grown the national deficit, and cannot afford appropriate body armor protections for armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By not actively objecting to those skewed priorities, Portland's city council has put a twist on the old adage: If we're not against them, we're supporting them.