CHANGE IS IN the air at Portland City Hall. Charlie Hales is back after a long sojourn in the private sector, this time as mayor. And for the first time in a decade, longtime powerbrokers Randy Leonard and Sam Adams are nowhere to be found.
Before the clock ran out on 2012, we asked the city hall denizens you never hear from—the hardworking, unsung staffers who actually run the place—to look back on the council that was, while also hazarding some guesses on the four years to come.
Our surveys were anonymous, designed to entice even the most skeptical staffer to respond. And, with the notable exception of Dan Saltzman's office—which flat-out refused, tellingly—they mostly did! This is what we got back.
Maybe the biggest perk a Portland mayor has is assigning commissioners to the city's various bureaus and offices—and thereby determining how happy, or not, his or her colleagues will be for the next four years.
This means "guessing bureau assignments" is one of the most popular parlor games in city hall. This year, we wanted staffers to play along in public, asking them first to guess how Hales will divvy up the workload, and then to tell us how it ought to be done. The results, interestingly, weren't much different.
For instance, staffers overwhelmingly think Amanda Fritz will—and should—keep one of her current major assignments, the touchy-feely Office of Neighborhood Involvement. But they also think, after her light load under Adams, it's time for Fritz to trade up. She's on record asking for a bureau with "trucks," and she may yet get one (even if it's not the one she wants): the budget-challenged Bureau of Transportation. (Fritz also, it should be noted, was one of two commissioners to earn a "deserves nothing" vote.)
Nick Fish has been lobbying subtly, and not so subtly, to keep both of his two babies for the foreseeable future—the parks and housing bureaus. Fish is deeply tied to both: He basically helped build the current housing bureau and is knee-deep in planning for a parks bond vote this fall. And staffers pretty strongly think Hales will listen and give Fish what he wants. Although if were up to them? Parks would be a lock, and maybe housing.
The other commissioner with a "deserves nothing" vote? Dan Saltzman. But that's clearly wishful thinking, because most staffers think he'll wind up running both of the city's utility outfits, gaining water (which had a controversial run under Randy Leonard) to go along with the sewers bureau he already oversees. Saltzman already sees himself as a bureau turnaround artist, and it's clear the rest of city hall does, too. Because if it were up to staffers, he'd also run the fire bureau—yet another Leonard mainstay that, some would argue, needs a shakeup.
That said, Steve Novick, the heir to Leonard's seat, emerged as most likely to actually run fire—a meaty assignment for a new commissioner. Staffers also think Hales will hand him one of Fritz's current assignments, the Bureau of Emergency Communications, which oversees the city's 911 dispatchers. There's some obvious synergy there—and that would also give Novick a small hand in implementing federal reform of the Portland Police Bureau. Of note: Despite Novick's longstanding passion for earthquake prevention, no one really wants to give him the bureau that handles the city's emergency response.
That honor, staffers pretty decisively said, ought to go to Charlie Hales—one of the more traditional choices for a mayor, the person who... y'know... gets to impose martial law when something goes wrong. The rest of Hales' portfolio, curiously enough, reads a lot like his predecessor's: the police bureau, the city finance office, Portland's urban renewal agency, and the government relations office. Staffers also expect Hales, like Adams, to keep control of the city's planning bureau. But, in a shift, they also want him to run the city's still-evolving Office of Equity and Human Rights.
THE BAD AND THE GOOD!
It takes just three votes to push something through city hall, a bar that's actually much higher than it might seem. Staffers suggest that Novick—making his first foray into city politics—will struggle the most with that reality. He ranked just ahead of Fritz as most likely to be the least effective over the next four years.
Fritz was singled out for losing a staunch ally in Adams, but Novick was repeatedly hit over the "steep learning curve" he'll face.
Who's likely to be most effective? Fish, praised for "momentum," "concrete ideas," and skill in building votes, edged out Hales. Not that it was a blowout. Respondents specifically cited Hales' experience on council—and his "will" to make his mark as mayor.
Looking back on last year's council, Fritz was hands-down rated least effective, while Adams—beaten up in the press for his frenetic approach to governing—was ranked, by far, as the most effective.
Adams and his staff, incidentally, also cleaned up when asked who flat-out worked the hardest. And Adams was even ranked the nicest elected official, tied with Leonard. Saltzman was rated meanest. (Ouch!)
Here comes the biggest story of 2013: How city council will manage to bridge a $25 million chasm in Portland's budget. Bureaus have already begun planning for doomsday 10 percent cuts—the first step in a political dance that'll last until May, when the final budget is approved.
Asked for their top three targets for cuts, staffers suggested everything from the city's rivers office to police to parks staff. But one target overwhelmingly came first: the city's Office of Management and Finance and its millions in often-overlooked internal funds. The city's water bureau and its spiking rates came next, with a politically toxic option in third: pay and benefits for city employees.
Asked about actually raising more cash, staffers were even more blunt. Almost everyone said the city needs to start taxing cell phone providers—a solution worth millions for the city's starving coffers, but tantamount to picking an expensive and probably futile fight with telecommunications companies. Staffers also suggest Hales heed calls for a street maintenance fee and increased parking revenues.
Of course, this answer would work as well as any: "Begging."
Normally bound by silence, a few staffers clearly relished the chance to lay into their future (or departed) bosses. Fritz was called "nervous and equivocating." Novick was ripped as "too enamored with quips, even at his colleagues' expense." Leonard was accused of having "completely checked out months ago." And Saltzman was assailed over his record ("what has he done?") and his apparent media relations strategy: "Saltzman inoculates himself from bad press by leaking [news tips] and making himself a valuable source the Oregonian doesn't want to piss off."
Because past is prologue, here's what staffers say we'll still be wrestling with 15 years from now: neighborhood parking, with honorable mentions for police use of force and... ugh... fluoride.
And if city staffers could ditch three words from Portland's political lexicon? Read 'em and weep: Sustainability, equity, and process. Sigh.