Mission: Unaccomplished 

Katz's Final Speech Full of Sound, Fury--and Little Else

In the introduction to Mayor Vera Katz's final State of the City address, the emcee ticked off a few of the city's accomplishments under her watch: Voted "most livable city" by Money magazine. Voted best bicycling city by Bicycle magazine. But a few of her more dubious accomplishments weren't mentioned: During Katz's tenure, Portland's unemployment rate rocketed to the highest in the country and, in spite of our national reputation for bike commuters, Katz employed (at the city's expense) a chauffer.

In two weeks, Katz will leave office after 12 years as the city's mayor. Last Friday, she spent the lunch hour addressing a packed auditorium at the Governor Hotel.

Like the rest of her tenure, Katz's speech was marked with confidence and grand claims that, on closer scrutiny, don't hold up. Her tone was familiar to prior State of the City speeches, in which Katz made illustrious promises; most of which never came to fruition. At various times, she promised to make cleaning up the Willamette River a priority. Yet, over 12 years, the pollution levels in what Katz called on Friday the "city's crown jewel" worsened.

She also routinely pledged to bring about more police accountability. But Katz lorded over a police bureau that rapidly burned through five chiefs. Her inability to install firm leadership allowed several disturbing trends to evolve within the police bureau. For example, when Katz took office in 1992, community policing was at an all-time high; two weeks ago, the city settled a $300,000 lawsuit when police pepper-sprayed an infant at a Bush protest and beat up peaceful protesters at anti-war demonstrations.

When Kendra James, an unarmed African American woman, was shot during a routine traffic stop in 2002, Katz promised to host a community forum--but then canceled that meeting, ultimately re-scheduling it for a few months later. By that time, community anger had swelled to a frightening level.

In her final address last Friday, Katz did not make mention of the police force. But she did talk about her most notable accomplishments over the past year--temporarily solving the city's moratorium on murals. (In 1996, under Katz's direction, city council tried to ban billboards, but this restrictive sign code also had the effect of restricting murals around town--not to mention bringing about a lawsuit from Clear Channel, who called the restrictions unconstitutional. They won a still unpaid $1 million settlement against the city.)

Katz punctuated that section of the State of the City address by admonishing council members to: "Say 'no' to Clear Channel." A lofty sentiment, but it fails to deal with the reality that the city still owes $1 million to the communication giant--a sum that continues to grow with interest, as Katz never figured out how to pay it.

During her tenure, Katz preferred to plow forward with unrealistic ideas and philosophies rather than consider differing viewpoints. Even after it was clear that Portland would not attract a major league baseball team--and after both Tom Potter and Jim Francesconi had publicly spoken out against the idea--Katz continued to work on the project, going so far as to employ a firm (at $80,000 annually) to lobby for the Expos, and to patch together a tax plan to finance a $350 million stadium.

Katz concluded her State of the City speech by addressing mayor-elect Potter, who sat front and center in the audience.

"He comes into office, as I did, brimming with new ideas and enthusiasm," she said. "He will also, as I did, confront problems he didn't foresee, or grab at opportunities he hasn't yet envisioned."

Potter inherits from Katz a litany of issues--including police accountability, a sluggish economy, and flagging faith in government. But he also inherits from Katz what might be his best lesson: To succeed, it is not just about talk and promises--it's about delivering those ideas to fruition.

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