For months, supporters of the push to give the mayor more power have been claiming that Portland's current form of government is inefficient and unnecessarily costly.
The fact that city bureaus are all run by different elected commissioners, they've argued, has caused redundancies in computer and payroll systems, costing the city loads of money every year. But when asked for specifics, Mayor Tom Potter and the Citizens to Reform City Hall didn't offer many concrete examples—until last week.
At the Mercury's charter forum on Wednesday, April 4, campaign member Bob Ball quoted a study that showed that the city is currently wasting $10 to $15 million per year, blaming it on the commissioner form of government. The following day, Potter repeated those claims at a noontime meeting of the Lloyd District Community Association, where he unveiled the report, conducted in 2006 by an independent consulting firm called the Hackett Group.
"The report concluded that by ending duplication, consolidating systems, and standardizing procedures across all city bureaus, the City of Portland could save $10 to $15 million a year," Potter wrote in a letter accompanying his speech. "Let me tell you what we could do with another $10 to $15 million every year. We could put more police officers in neighborhoods where crime is a concern. We could focus more dollars on affordable housing, keeping our neighborhoods welcoming to everyone."
He also worked in a seeming jab at Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams, who opposes the strong mayor effort, by saying, "In a city where one in four roads is falling apart, we could fill more potholes."
The overall message from the pro-strong mayor campaign: "Portland could save at least $10 million, or as much as $15 million, just by ending business as usual"—meaning, "by changing the form of government."
If true, the report's findings about outdated, decentralized computer systems and procedures could be the strong mayor campaign's biggest ally—after all, it's hard to argue with saving money. But the reality, it appears, isn't quite as simple.
Interestingly, few people in city hall were familiar with the report—in fact, City Auditor Gary Blackmer hadn't heard of it until reporters began calling him with questions.
But Ken Rust, the city's chief administrative officer (essentially, the city's accountant), was intimately familiar with the Hackett report—the Office of Management and Finance (OMF) has been adopting the report's recommendations since last year.
Rust refused to comment on what the report means for the form of government (contrary to suggestions made by Potter's campaign, the Hackett Group didn't even address that question). "I'm not making any of those statements," he said, referring to Potter's attempts to link the study to the campaign's efforts to centralize authority under the mayor.
The bottom line, Rust said, is that OMF is implementing the recommendations independent of what happens with the form of government—that includes consolidating and centralizing as many computer systems as possible, and automating some human resource duties.
"Our goal is to be able to eliminate those inefficiencies no matter what form of government is in place," he said. "It's difficult to keep different bureaus all on one system for an extended period of time, so that'll be challenging, but that's our goal."
Chris Smith, co-chair of the opposition campaign, Committee for Accountable City Government, sees the Hackett report as a red herring.
"This shows that whatever inefficiencies the commission form may have, can be dealt with by the commission form," Smith says.
"The idea that we need to change the form of government to rationalize payroll systems doesn't make sense," says Commissioner Erik Sten, also opposed to the ballot measure. "It's like saying you need to replace your wardrobe in order to buy new shoes."