Given Commissioner Nick Fish's letter to Occupy Portland this afternoon—in which he frets over damages to Chapman and Lownsdale squares and demands help from occupiers—I had one major question when he and I finally spoke this afternoon: So, are you going to ask Mayor Sam Adams to make the occupiers move?
"I don't think this is the right location for the long term," Fish told me, after praising a very polite and reasonable reply (pdf) sent by the Occupy Portland green stewardship people.
"But ultimately the mayor will make that decision with the police chief."
Which then led me to call the mayor's office. And Adams' spokeswoman Amy Ruiz trotted out the same line Adams and his people have been riding hard for nearly two weeks.
"We're continuing to make decisions on a day-to-day basis. The big-picture situation has not changed."
My speculative, but reasonably well-informed translation: No one's going anywhere for the foreseeable future—because a ripped-up Chapman Square is still way better than having a few hundred occupiers deciding to pick up and head for places like, oh, say, Pioneer Square. What may seem like a growing pile of nuisances and complaints still isn't worth the PR headache of actually rousting anyone. Yet. YET.
Good thing I already asked Fish what would happen if and when the mayor picked the status quo.
"I've put down a marker," said Fish, who later went so far as to say "we're at a tipping point with these two parks."
He continued: "There are a lot of challenges here, and I think the city has been trying to strike the right balance between allowing people to express themselves and their First Amendment rights while also trying to minimize the negative impacts." Like clogged toilets and mangled trees.
So why the muscular letter from Fish? Well, he's in a bit of a pickle.
He's the parks commissioner, so, as he put it, he's the voice of the parks—because "the parks don't have a voice." He can't just sit by while, on his watch, thousands of dollars in damage accrue to a piece of public land. Also, Budget cuts are looming, so he has to speak up and look fiscally responsible. He's also just hired a new parks director, who started today, so he has to stick his neck out for his new hire.
And while Fish is a self-described "proud progressive" who says he really and truly wants to see the movement mature and make an impact at the ballot box, he also eventually wants to hold some kind of higher office in Oregon. All the more reason to awkwardly straddle the line between accommodation and responsibility.
Fish reiterates one of the main points in his letter: that the grievances of the Occupy movement don't actually have anything to do with the parks they're camping in. He also says he and his arborists have personally toured the encampments and spotted potential problems that "people instinctively understand when they're in the wilderness camping." And ultimately, someone will pay the price—even if the occupiers are serious in their offers to help out.
"People have been cavalier in this treatment of this public space," he said. "I also just think it's inherently inconsistent with the populist message they're expressing."
The mayor's office didn't seem surprised or irked by Fish's letter, calling it "consistent with a lot of information we've been sharing." Ruiz says the fire bureau and others have been helping the occupiers solve potential issues, if not quite cracking down on them.
Where else, then, should the occupiers go?
"The easy answer is it's not for me to say," Fish said. "I would be open to discussing an appropriate location. But it's increasingly clear that Chapman and Lownsdale squares are not appropriate places for long-term encampments.
"Frankly, I hope we shift past the point where to make our point we have to camp. It's time to focus on the political side of the ledger. If the story becomes "damages to the park" and other problems occurring within, it takes away from the message the occupiers are trying to send."
One other interesting note: Ruiz confirms that the police have begun assigning two cops to the camp at all time, a shift from its early days when on-duty resources—with no overtime—was being used to control the camp. (The cops will work with occupiers to help with, among other things, the encampment's tightened policy frowning on drugs and alcohol.)
How much will that overtime cost? We may not know for several days, Ruiz says. But when we do, will pressure start mounting on Adams not only from his colleagues but also his handpicked police chief, Mike Reese?