Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

MAYOR CHARLIE HALES has a go-to phrase whenever anyone asks him about his colleagues on city council and the relationships he'd like to forge with them.

"Board of directors," Hales will inevitably say.

It's a nod to his past life in the corporate world. It's rhetorical balm for any feelings that might still be sore after Hales swept in and took over every city bureau this winter. And it's a deliberate attempt to depart from the occasionally high-handed approaches of the mayor Hales last worked with, Vera Katz, and the mayor the rest of the council last worked with, Sam Adams.

But here's what it's not: bullshit.

City staffers—despite a miserable budget season—are breathing easier than they have in years. They're also engaged.

Sources say Hales has given commissioners and their staffers unprecedented license to dig into city finances and shape the first draft of Portland's budget—a process, historically, that has turned the mayor's office into a need-to-know-basis bunker more befitting the CIA.

Proof of the new transparency abounds at city hall.

In one big shift, Hales this month let the city budget office unveil an early glimpse at the city's revised deficit: likely $21.5 million, down from $25 million. Last year, Adams kept everyone in the dark as he single-handedly finagled a bailout for Portland schools, sprung at the last second on a powerless council.

More importantly, Hales deputized his colleagues and tasked them with solving two of this year's most vexing budget challenges: (1) How to safely squeeze savings from personnel costs, especially in the public safety bureaus that eat up most of the city's operating budget. And (2) how to scare up just a little bit of one-time money for some one-time needs.

Commissioners came through last week with a pair of silo-breaking reports filled with the kind of big ideas—big ideas about other commissioners' bureaus—that would have been too politically perilous in previous years to even speak aloud.

Nick Fish and Steve Novick hit on a plan that might allow the police bureau to lose more than two dozen cops without laying off new hires who, because of improved recruiting, make up maybe the most diverse crop of cops the bureau has ever had. By raiding the city's insurance fund, police brass could hopefully ride out a wave of expected retirements.

And Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman braved tense subjects like overtime (suggesting tighter controls for cops and firefighters) and furloughs (for non-union workers). Both reports include millions in potential savings.

Of course, it remains to be seen how much Hales actually includes when he tips his hand later this month. No one's expecting him to eat up every idea—some won't be feasible or even possible over the next few weeks. But the sense is he'll seriously consider most—a clear signal he wasn't just assigning busy work.

Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, isn't tamping down that optimism. He says his boss is "really excited" and that the reports are "precisely what he wanted."

"The mayor," Haynes adds, "wanted to move the bureaus away from the crazy quilt Portland system for a while."

And he has. So far, so good.