CITY COMMISSIONER Randy Leonard has courted public attention recently with high-profile deals like Major League Soccer, a 12-lane bridge across the Columbia River, and even possible condemnation of the Made in Oregon sign. But many behind the scenes say he's been quietly working to take control of the city's permitting process—a potential power grab that could have far-reaching consequences for Portland.
Right now any developer looking to build a project—a new supermarket, condo tower, or even a soccer stadium—must submit permit applications to the Bureau of Development Services (BDS), which Leonard oversees. But BDS doesn't have complete control of the permitting process: It forwards all applications to the Bureau of Environmental Services, the Bureau of Transportation, the city's parks and water bureaus, and its fire and emergency services. Permit staff in each of those bureaus check the applications separately to ensure they comply with city code.
The purpose is to create adequate checks and balances so that no city commissioner can force through a development project against the better interests of Portlanders.
The problem? The existing process can cause delays in permits being issued, and city council has made numerous attempts to speed it up over the years. Back in January, Mayor Sam Adams asked Leonard to come up with a method of consolidating the permitting staff from other bureaus into BDS as part of his "100-day plan."
Adams and Leonard even established a 17-person oversight committee of environmentalists, attorneys, developers, and green space and land use experts, to ensure that the process incorporated their concerns.
However, according to sources, this plan wasn't exactly Adams' idea. They say that Leonard has been pushing the consolidation idea since former Mayor Tom Potter's administration, and that Adams was the first to lend a welcoming ear.
This week, council is scheduled to discuss the planned consolidation, which could involve the transfer of up to 45 permitting staff from other bureaus over to Leonard's Bureau of Development Services.
However, several people familiar with the process, but who do not wish to be named, have said that Commissioner Leonard is simply staging a "power grab." If his changes go through, they're worried he'll wield far too much control over the city's future. Others say they're nervous that the consolidation hasn't been properly thought through.
"I guess I'm nervous about putting that much power over what happens to the city in any one elected official's hand," says Bonny McKnight, coordinator of Portland's citywide land use group, who sat on the oversight committee. "I don't know what the motivation for this is, but I know that whatever the motivation is, it's wrong— because the problem hasn't been identified, and the solution hasn't been through any kind of reasonable public process."
Bob Salinger, director of the urban conservation program at Portland's Audubon Society, also sat on the oversight committee. He suggests its role wasn't so much to oversee or guide the consolidation as to rubber stamp it, politically.
"I think [Adams and Leonard] had decided they wanted this to happen, and they wanted it to happen fast," says Salinger.
Salinger adds that when the committee began suggesting that consolidation of permitting staff might not be the best idea, Leonard and Adams came to the group's third meeting and "made it explicitly clear that there was only one option on the table and it was full consolidation."
"It's a disappointment," says Salinger, "because we really didn't have a chance to frame the problem or the solutions very well."
City Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman are now fighting Leonard's hasty approach. Fritz says council adopted recommendations in 2004 to improve the permitting process, but these have "not been tried yet." She adds that the idea of full consolidation under BDS "doesn't respect the commission form of government, and the fact that we have multiple values we have to respect during the permitting process."
Late last week, Saltzman proposed an alternative resolution to Leonard's consolidation idea, which would move just 12 staff to BDS, instead of up to 45. They would also have to report back to council in six months.
Council is scheduled to discuss Saltzman's idea on Wednesday, April 8, the day before Leonard's plan is up for discussion. If Saltzman's resolution passes, however, it would supersede Leonard's, although both hearings may be delayed by a last-minute effort launched Tuesday, April 7, by the City of Portland Professional Employees Association to get an evening hearing so that affected employees can weigh in on both proposals, simultaneously.
Saltzman's resolution even implicitly refers to Leonard's idea as an "immediate and aggressive action that has not been fully considered by affected stakeholders," and "has not been preceded by meaningful and measured actions."
"I think Dan's proposal is a measured response to the problem and allows measured steps to be taken," says Dean Marriott, director of the Bureau of Environmental Services. "We can see whether or not we've solved the problem without necessarily breaking the system."
Saltzman declined to comment personally. Meanwhile, Leonard categorically denies any suggestion that he may be staging a power grab, and Adams is leaping to his defense.
"This is not unlike the billboard debate," says Leonard, referring to his recent effort to condemn the Made in Oregon sign in Old Town ["Made in Ornery-gon," News, April 2]. "When people find themselves on the losing end of a discussion, I've learned that I get subjected to name-calling."
Leonard says BDS staff would blow the whistle if he tried to force a project through permitting under a consolidated process. He says he was satisfied with the way BDS was "setting an example" for other bureaus before Adams became mayor, but that Adams came up with the idea to consolidate the bureaus.
Leonard says that every other city in Oregon has consolidated permitting, and that he and Adams consciously picked concerned people to sit on the oversight committee so their grievances could be incorporated into the consolidation process—but he's disappointed with the committee's work.
"What we really wanted was for them to use their independence to ensure that we didn't overlook something, instead of fighting the move altogether," he says. "At the end of the day, the city is here to serve the public, and defending the status quo is not that."
Adams also denies that Leonard came to him with the proposal to consolidate. "I asked Commissioner Leonard if he would lead the effort to implement consolidation," he says.
"I've been around to see all the half-step, intermediate, 'let's try this first' solutions to this problem," says Adams. "And I came to the decision over the last four years that it was a screwed-up system that needed to be consolidated.
"A few well-intentioned folks believe that the way you maintain balance in this process is to maintain dysfunction," Adams continues. "Well, I respectfully but forcefully disagree. For the first time we will hold one official responsible for the city's achievement of its policy goals."
City Commissioner Nick Fish will be the swing vote on both proposals, but declined comment by press time.