"She just moves them aside," explained Rachel Stein, who stood outside Multnomah Athletic Club (MAC) and protested the mayor's annual State of the City address. On Friday, while the mayor delivered her annual speech, about a dozen protesters said that ignoring the city's most needy was standard operating procedure for City Hall.
"Our mayor sweeps you under the rug," they chanted while waving brooms.
A year ago--about the same time that Katz delivered a State of the City address with the theme of "building bridges"--a collection of homeless men and women pitched tents on public land underneath the Fremont Bridge. With little success over several months, City Hall tried to evict the squatters, but the homeless proved resilient and forced City Hall to negotiate. During that process, many of Dignity Village's dwellers complained that the mayor was unsympathetic; her office said that the only alternative site that the city would offer was a remote location on an asphalt parking lot near the airport.
The standoff gained national attention on NPR and in the New York Times. Just when conflict seemed to be at the breaking point, the homeless relented and accepted a proposal to move to the site near the airport; the only catch was that City Hall placed a time limit on their occupation. When that deadline arrived--Mayor Katz explained that the parking lot was needed to dump leaves collected by the city--again, City Hall offered no realistic solutions. The homeless were finally granted a reprieve when a wealthy local entrepreneur paid to ship the leaves elsewhere.
On Friday, in the face of a sinking local economy, alarm bells ringing over police brutality, and increasing numbers of residents complaining about feeling alienated from City Hall, Mayor Katz pronounced Portland as sound. "Focused, determined, and pushing forward is the state of the city," Katz read from a scripted speech.
With plates of frosted muffins and chef's salads piled generously, about 500 attendees packed the MAC. During her 40-minute speech, the mayor ticked off the city's challenges--public safety, unemployment, the pollution in the Willamette River--but mainly she focused on assurances that the city was pointed in the right direction.
But an increasing number of critics disagree. Instead, they map out a yawning gulf between Katz' present promises, and her past actions. During her speech, Katz advocated for citizens to stand up for their personal rights against heavy-handed policing.
But critics pointed out that during the first six months of last year, five unarmed minorities were shot by Portland police, with no public comment from the mayor. Even more illustrative have been her disinterested performances during City Council meetings when council members listened to appeals from citizens about police brutality. In October, for example, Craig Rosebraugh, the former spokesperson for Earth Liberation Front, complained that during a protest two years earlier, police broke his arm and then dragged him for two city blocks. When Rosebraugh began his testimony, Katz looked at him and flatly asked, "How long is this going to take?"
But during Friday's speech, to rounds of applause, Katz assured her audience that "police don't have to trample on personal rights to keep the peace."
Although public safety was first on her agenda, the troubled local economy was clearly at the center of everyone's interest. During the past year, the city of Portland has gone from a number one ranking in Money Magazine, to a top-ranking for unemployment in the country. The latest figures show that one out of every 12 people in Portland are unemployed; approximately 25,000 residents lost their jobs last year.
Echoing a growing chorus of complaints, the protesters outside MAC charged that Mayor Katz has not made any gestures towards helping the swelling ranks of under-and-unemployed people in Portland.
"I recognize that she consistently is not speaking to people my age--in their 20s and 30s, artists, musicians, people just scraping by. Instead of addressing issues with creative solutions, she says, 'No, you can just rent this expensive loft space,'" said Stein.
To illustrate her point, Stein provided an excerpt from an electronic newsletter sent by the mayor. "To be proactive in this recession, my office has ramped up our outreach efforts to local businesses," explained Katz' email. "In late January, I visited Harland Financial Solutions, a large financial IT firm located in downtown Portland. During our meeting, Harland's Vice President raised concerns about panhandling activity occurring in front of the office building. I asked the Portland Police Bureau to address their concerns."
Stein said that this email is just the tip of the iceberg for Katz' mentality, invariably favoring business interests over struggling individuals; instead of looking at the reasons for a proliferation of panhandling, said Stein, the mayor focuses on appeasing large businesses.
In the past few months, the mayor's office and the city attorney have encouraged a so-called Sit-Lie Ordinance in Portland, which would ban loitering in public spaces like Pioneer Square. Immediate adaptation of the ordinance was derailed when the ACLU discovered that City Council planned to approve the new rules with no public comment; they petitioned to halt proceedings until residents could voice their opinions.
During the State of the City address, Mayor Katz also further revealed her strategy for pulling the city from its downward economic spiral. In late January, in the midst of a far-reaching $3 million cut to the city's budget, the mayor's office announced a new $500,000 contract with a private consulting firm to produce what has been termed as a blue-ribbon study on how to create more jobs in the city.
No indications were given about how this big-dollar contract will generate jobs; but, in the past, Katz' economic revival plans have followed the scheme of trickle-down economics--the theory that attracting big businesses will create jobs.
Near the completion of her speech, Katz asked a young attorney from Adidas to stand and receive applause from the crowd. Last month, Adidas announced plans to settle its headquarters in North Portland. She then turned her attention to an executive from Frito-Lay. Currently, the city is attempting to woo Frito-Lay to move regional headquarters here.
Indicating that she was secure with her current course, Katz then crowned her speech with the claim that, "by a wide majority, Portlanders' moods match my own."