Last Wednesday, February 6, City Commissioner Sam Adams did an about-face, ditching his plan to enact a new fee that would pay for $464 million in street improvements and announcing that he would—at the mayor's behest—ask the council to put the package to a public vote.
The day before, Mayor Tom Potter sent out a memo, expressing his annoyance with the political volleyball played over the street fee. (Recap: First it was one ordinance, then Adams split it into three to thwart a legal challenge, then he put it back into one when opponents pledged to back down, and the council passed it. But opponents still launched a challenge, and Adams responded by putting it back on the agenda in three parts for the February 6 council meeting. Got that?)
Though he had already voted to enact the fee the week before, Potter flipped—and said he wouldn't support it now. He urged the council to send it to the ballot, echoing the line opponents had been using.
Despite having four votes to enact the fee—and after months of saying enacting it was the right thing to do, repeatedly using the line "it's a question of leadership"—Adams yanked the measures.
"I believe that an enactment of a major new fee requires unanimous support," Adams said. "The corrosive influence of special interest lobbyists have taken their toll on this issue. I still have four votes, but I no longer have unanimous support. I propose that the Portland City Council send to this to the November ballot." After the meeting, he acknowledged that this was "plan B," but said he trusted voters to "make the right decision."
Not everyone agreed with Adams' new plan. Commissioner Randy Leonard read from a dog-eared and highlighted paperback copy of The Federalist Papers, saying that the initiative and referral systems "according to our Founding Fathers, are perversions of our form of government" that have "a direct impact" on problems like crumbling transportation infrastructure.
Caving to "the passions of the minority... marginalize the interests of the whole," Leonard argued.
"I'm prepared to vote and make a decision here today to fund our roads," Leonard said. Sending the measure to the ballot means it will "be subjected to tens of millions of out-of-state dollars from oil companies that have no interest in the safety or welfare of Portlanders, but only have an interest in their bottom line.
"Stick with what the Founding Fathers say we ought to do, and make decisions. Then let the voters decide if they like your decision," Leonard said.
In the week since Adams pulled the measures (the council also repealed the earlier measure they'd passed), stakeholders who helped craft the plan have largely "taken a breather" before they potentially reassess the package. The $464 million plan may go to the voters as-is, or could be tweaked to be more ballot friendly. Adams signaled that he plans to return to the city council on February 27, possibly with a resolution directing transportation staff to prepare a measure for the November ballot.