Should the City of Portland be run by one person, with power over all bureaus and city functions? Or should it stay like it is, with the city divided up among elected commissioners? Portlanders will have a chance to decide this coming May, but if history is any indication, voters have already given a very clear answer—leave city government the way it is.
Seven times(!) over the past 90 years, Portlanders have voted against major changes to city government; most recently, in 2002, they voted 3-1 against giving the mayor more power. That begs two questions: Who in their right mind believes that 2007 will be any different and, more importantly, why is Mayor Tom Potter sticking his neck so far out on a political battle that is all but lost—that could be his Waterloo?
Outside of Potter, the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), and a wealthy developer or two, there appears to be exactly zero community support for the "reform." Proof? Within seconds of city council voting to send the change to the ballot, the opposing side—headed up by local activist Chris Smith and hugely popular former Mayor Bud Clark—announced they had formed a campaign to fight Potter's proposal. (Even more telling: Many of the local heavyweights who've signed on against the reform were huge supporters of Potter's mayoral campaign.) But from those who want to give the mayor almost unchecked power: not even a hint of a rumor of a peep.
Only a few conclusions can be drawn from Potter's insistence on the idea: He believes it'll win, giving him the victory he needs to run for reelection (in which case he needs better political consultants, and fast), or he genuinely, sincerely, seriously believes that a "strong mayor" government is what's best for Portland, and he's not going to let a little thing like community opposition—and an embarrassing loss at the polls—get in the way of trying.
All evidence points to the latter.
"I've never known Tom to be anything but sincere in his beliefs," says Smith.
And it's no secret that Potter simply isn't much of a "politician"—he's said so in public. Politics isn't his game. In fact, it's gotten in the way of the deal making and compromises that characterize Portland City Hall, where each of the five commissioners—including the mayor—are equals, which is why he's been hit with a landslide of 3-2 votes against him.
Could it be, then, that the reason Potter is so gung ho on changing the form of government—to a more top-down, corporate, hierarchical system—is because he's been unable to successfully navigate the setup that Portland's had for nearly a century? Could it be that Potter, the former police chief and an officer for decades, only knows how to bark orders?
"He has paramilitary training as a police officer," says his council colleague, City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who knows what he's talking about, coming from similar training as a firefighter. "When you come from that environment, especially as someone at the top of that organization, a place like Portland City Hall must seem like anarchy."
"It's natural for people to compare their current experience to what they know," Leonard added, "and for a person with that kind of training, this must be hard to understand. When he talks about charter reform and he uses words like 'efficiency,' 'centralized authority,' and 'chain of command,' that's a chief of police talking."
In other words, for someone accustomed to calling all the shots, city council, where everyone has the same authority, and—gads!—has their own opinion, must seem like a case of "too many chiefs and not enough braves."
The vast abyss between Potter's leadership style and the political reality of city hall has been plainly in view for even the most casual observers. In the past two years, he hasn't spent much time on the building's second floor, where his fellow commissioners are. And, according to numerous insiders, he hasn't responded well to disagreements from his colleagues, considering them a challenge to his authority.
Mostly, though, insiders say he's just stubborn, and that he's sticking to a doomed idea of charter reform simply because he said two years ago he thought it was a good idea.
Some have suggested that by the end of last year, Potter had finally reached the point where he understood how things work in city hall—that maybe the problem wasn't with the system, but with his approach. At around the same time, his chief of staff, Nancy Hamilton, left the office, replaced by city hall veteran Austin Raglione, signaling a change in direction.
Again, Leonard: "I think if he started thinking about this today, two years into his term, he wouldn't be pursuing it. He's now starting to understand that it's healthy for someone like me to disagree with him, and that it's not a personal affront."
Still, that won't stop him from going out on a limb for an unpopular idea. Perhaps he should stop taking cues from the Oregonian editorial board, who've jumped firmly on the charter reform bandwagon. Coupled with the support of the PBA, this should have the mayor scared shitless—the Oregonian rarely makes winning endorsements (with the exception of Commissioner Dan Saltzman's reelection). They endorsed Ron Saxton, which says much about the paper's disconnect with Portlanders and their politics.
The only remaining question, though, is what this will mean for Potter's chances for reelection—or even whether he will run for reelection? "I think he's made a mistake in making this the most talked-about issue of his first term as mayor," says Commissioner Erik Sten. "I'd say that even if I thought he was right on the issue. This has taken the focus away from other things he could be working on." Among the city at large, Potter could be popular enough to skate his way through. But if the reform loses, would he even want another four years of working in an alien environment?
The smart money is on "not a chance."