Ryan Alexander-Tanner

PORTLAND PLANNING COMMISSIONER Chris Smith has a term for this part of the city's budget season: the "black box."

Around this time every year, the mayor unveils his budget—this time, it's a $3.7 billion monster, packing $49 million more than last year—to the public and colleagues. Then the thing goes underground to be tinkered with via private confabs in closed conference rooms. It emerges, changed, a couple of weeks later, nearly ready for a vote.

This year, things are different.

At the combined urgings of Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish, city council sat down at a big table ringed by budget wonks, bureau directors, and advisers on Tuesday, May 19, to bring those typically closed-door discussions into full view.

"We're actually daylighting some of the conversations we'd be having privately," Fish said at the two-hour meeting. "It's good for the public to see how we manage the endgame."

It was actually only sort of good.

Sure, next year's budget is the sunniest Portland's had in a while. It's probably one of the sunniest in Portland history, according to City Budget Director Andrew Scott.

But it's also a finite pool of money, with competing ideas for how to spend it. I sat down in council chambers on Tuesday rubbing my palms together and waiting for the inevitable throwdown, my mind dancing with potential areas of conflict.

How would Fish seek to cleave money from Hales' spending priorities for housing, as he'd signaled he might? Where would Fritz scrounge for cash to pay destitute city parks workers—one of her top priorities? Commissioner Steve Novick thinks horse cops are useless, and that it's dumb Portland dumps millions into a war on drugs that's proven ineffective and unwinnable. Would Hales bristle if his police spending were questioned?

This is a council used to testy exchanges—the least cohesive in years, by some people's reckoning—and there seemed to be endless opportunities for budget spats.


Fish called Hales' proposal "one of the most thoughtful and intentional budgets we've had." He did pursue an extra $2.5 million in housing money, which would bring a city fund with comparatively few restrictions up to a solid $10 million. Hales said he made a "good case."

Novick, whose Portland Bureau of Transportation stands to gain nearly $20 million from the budget, talked of how "incredibly grateful" he'd be for its passage, and made special note that he wouldn't be coming after police money this year (though he still doesn't much like the drug war).

Fritz had some interesting tweaks—it turns out she's not a fan of paying $500,000 for a new, privately run emergency psychiatric "drop-off" center—but also pulled back some requests while she strategized parks funding.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman left early.

Even Hales' proposal to spend $2 million subsidizing an indoor track and field championship slated for Portland next year brought only minor concerns and looks like it will proceed mostly untouched.

I was slouched in my chair by the end of it.

Sure, it's great this all happened in a public meeting, but Smith's black box, it turns out, doesn't contain all that much.

Then again, it's possible the real conversations happened after the meeting.