THE FRAGILE UNDERPINNINGS of the Portland City Council's prized culture of unanimity slipped into rare public view last week during a vote on one of the more controversial items on Mayor Sam Adams' cram-it-in-while-he-can wish list.
It was a small moment, although it spoke volumes about Portland politics.
It happened last Wednesday, December 12, as Adams pushed through his "truce" to the "toxic" conflict between neighbors and businesses over parking rules in Northwest Portland. Yes, Adams got the parking meters and parking permits he wanted, but barely.
Commissioner Nick Fish voted, in the only words he uttered on the dais, "Respectfully, no." And so, with Dan Saltzman out sick, that left the mayor with a bare-minimum coalition: a critical Randy Leonard ("It is what it is," Adams' ally allowed) and a cagey Amanda Fritz who used her leverage to wedge in amendments that may, in fact, allow the next council to reopen an issue that's not quite as solved as Adams and his supporters hoped.
Fish's actions, at least in the moment, spoke the loudest. Fish rarely lets himself wind up on the losing end of a vote—his principled vote last year against city funding of Adams' doomed Oregon Sustainability Center stands out as one of the few. And he never passes up a chance to dress up a decision with lofty rhetoric and lengthy remarks.
After a long day of meetings, I caught up with Fish, pointed that out, and asked if he might care to elaborate a bit more. He did—bluntly. And so I got my notebook out.
"I'm a realist," he said, explaining he had reservations about "process and substance." "The mayor had his three votes. So all that was left was for me to state my objection."
Fish's remarks are interesting, because they shine a light on the hidden nature of politics as usual in a council that hates to be seen as counting to three votes, even though that's the essence of how laws in Portland are made.
Ideas are very often floated first to the public, albeit generally. But final proposals are hardly ever trotted out without assurances they will pass, and with five votes.
That might have played out in this case. But there wasn't any time for a new deal—not, at least, if Adams wanted to broker it. The mayor's last regular council hearing is on Thursday, December 20.
"I remain convinced we would be better taking a fresh look at this issue next year," Fish said, graciously, "rather than just getting something passed."
Of course, he may yet get his wish, in a way—ironically thanks to Fritz, the commissioner who normally finds herself the lone dissenter.
Fritz's amendments, which Adams embraced, are subtly important because they provide several checkpoints where the next council can decide the Northwest parking plan isn't working and make big changes. Adams still got what he wanted—but so does everybody else.