Portland's four city commissioners will know what city bureaus they've been tapped to oversee under Mayor Ted Wheeler on January 3. Then they'll have three months to prove they can handle it.
In an interview this morning, Wheeler told the Mercury that he's going a different direction than Mayor Charlie Hales as he prepares to take office. Rather than running every city bureau until the end of budget season—as Hales' staff did in a Herculean five-month effort—Wheeler says he'll first give commissioners bureaus, then snatch them back once the council begins budget talks in March.
"The reason I’m handing them out provisionally is to make sure the things I want done in the bureaus get done," Wheeler says. "The assumption is they'll get the bureaus back. There's no guarantee of that."
Pulling bureaus for budget purposes has been a fairly common tactic for new mayors. The rationale is that it might make commissioners less myopic about seeing their own bureaus flush with cash, and more likely to look at the big picture (though commissioners have downplayed the strategy's effectiveness over the years).
Wheeler's not revealing his hand, though he clearly knows where bureaus will fall. The most he would offer is that he'll be taking charge of the Portland Police Bureau—standard operating procedure for the Portland mayor.
But it seems likely at least some reshuffling is in the offing. Outgoing Commissioner Steve Novick had a full plate with the cash-strapped and massive Portland Bureau of Transportation, the challenged Bureau of Emergency Communications, and the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. His replacement, Commissioner-elect Chloe Eudaly, will almost certainly not be given all three. (Eudaly, a housing buff, has told Wheeler's staff what bureaus she feels qualified for, but has declined to reveal that list.)
Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz, meanwhile, have made plain they're perfectly happy keeping their current portfolios. Fish oversee's the city's ratepayer utility bureaus, the Portland Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services. Fritz has parks and the ever-expanding Office of Neighborhood Involvement.
In a city where the mayor has much of the same power as commissioners, Wheeler's also being clear that he's willing to use his office's largest power play: Pulling back bureaus if commissioners don't play by his rules.
"We will reach some clear understanding about how I want them to manage the bureaus," he says. "It's the only real stick the mayor has."
Wheeler clarified he wasn't looking to micromanage bureaus. But he said he "might have one or two specific asks" regarding how commissioners manage city services. "I'm not telling them line item by line item how to manage the bureau," he says. "There are certain things I want to see done in those bureaus."
One city hall staffer asked about this strategy said Wheeler hadn't made his plans formally known to all commissioners' offices, though there were rumors.
Commissioners will have around three months to show they're up to their assignments. Wheeler says he'll pull back assignments at the beginning of public budget deliberations, which are slated to being March 13.
Some other items of note from Wheeler this morning:
•He's clearly mulling firing some bureau directors. "There might also be a need for leadership changes" when Wheeler takes back bureaus, he said. " Sometimes those might be a hard call for people to make." He wouldn't talk about any potential changes.
•He's still going to search for a new police chief. Wheeler made clear when Hales promoted Mike Marshman to police chief that he'd want to conduct a national recruitment process. That's still on.
•He plans to get to work on tenants rights. Wheeler says he's convinced Portland can't act on its own when it comes to bolstering many protections for renters. But as the state legislature prepares to consider the issue, he wants the city to begin crafting a potential policy. Wheeler's transition team has been meeting for months with various folks on the subject. "I feel I could almost write it myself today," Wheeler says. "That’s not the appropriate strategy in the city of Portland and we know that."
•He's steering clear of Hales' @mayorpdx Twitter account. Hales created the account with an eye toward passing it on, and it's got far more followers than Wheeler's @tedwheeler account (roughly 26,500 to 8,831). No matter. Wheeler's team is taking a pass. "We've done a lot to cultivate our universe of followers," Wheelers spokesperson Michael Cox says. "We've been very deliberate."