As expected, Mayor Ted Wheeler re-assigned city bureaus to city commissioners today, and the outcome isn't great for Amanda Fritz.
Wheeler's elected not to give Fritz back the troubled Bureau of Emergency Communications, which she controlled from January to late April. Taking into account a recent damning report that showed the bureau has offered misleading performance statistics for years, Wheeler opted to leave BOEC in his own portfolio.
What's particularly interesting is that Wheeler didn't tap another department for Fritz to manage. That leaves the commissioner with only one bureau, Portland Parks and Recreation, in her portfolio—a fairly damning statement about Wheeler's confidence in her management capabilities, and an arrangement City Hall staffers can't remember ever occurring.
It also marks the second time Wheeler has snatched a troubled bureau away from Fritz: When he handed out initial assignments in early January, Wheeler angered the commissioner by giving the Office of Neighborhood Involvement to Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.
"It’s a reflection of his judgment of the right way to achieve our policy goals," Wheeler spokesperson Michael Cox tells the Mercury. He says those goals include hiring a permanent bureau director, setting standards that meet national best practices, and collaborating more closely with the county on medical response.
Cox downplays any suggestion that Wheeler has doubts about Fritz as a manager. "The mayor and Commissioner Fritz have enjoyed a collegial working relationship," he says. "We expect that to continue."
Still, the move will leave bruised feelings in City Hall. In a statement, Fritz says she's "disappointed" by Wheeler's decision, but planning to turn her attentions elsewhere. While overseeing BOEC, the commissioner had been working toward establishing a 311 system to handle customer service calls—and hired now-controversial former BOEC Director Lisa Turley to help.
"Looking forward, we welcome the opportunity to focus our time on other urgent and important issues," Fritz says. "Most crucially, we will be working to combat systemic racism and the rise in hate crimes in the City of Portland. My staff and I are committed to listening to and providing greater support for marginalized communities in Portland."
The BOEC reshuffling is the only dramatic decision of the mayor's reassignment. Before taking office, Wheeler signaled he'd use the "stick" of his authority to assign bureaus as a means of ensuring commissioners were meeting his expectations. He's apparently satisfied enough in general performance to dole out assignments along the same lines he did on January 3.
Speculation that Fritz wouldn't get BOEC back was rampant in City Hall in recent weeks, as the building braced for a report from City Ombudsman Margie Sollinger that the 911 system had been unable to properly calculate average hold times—a central performance measure by which such systems are evaluated—for more than a decade. Perhaps worse, the bureau's former executive director had falsely claimed BOEC was achieving its targets for hold times even after learning that couldn't possibly be true in late 2015.
Here's the thing, though: Fritz wasn't in charge of BOEC in 2015. Commissioner Steve Novick had the run of the bureau until he left office at the end of last year. He recently told the Mercury he had no memory of learning of the problems with calculating hold times as early as 2015, but took responsibility for not making the issue known.
Still, while Wheeler and Commissioner Nick Fish offered dire assessments of the problem at a recent hearing, Fritz was more inclined to downplay the issue. Her central point was that BOEC has had staffing issues for years, and that an accurate reflection of 911 hold times wouldn't have changed council's approach to that problem.
"At no time that I can remember has the council made decisions based on, 'The call time is fine, we don't need to worry,'" Fritz said at a recent hearing, while also mentioning a "shared acknowledgment of the problem."
"I don’t know how the council would have reacted one way or another based on getting accurate information on call times," Fish responded. "In my 9 years on the council, this is one of the most sharp reviews by an independent body on the quality of the information that the public and the council receives."
After handing out initial bureau assignments on January 3, Wheeler reeled the bureaus back in in late April, as budget discussions warmed up. Cox says the mayor doesn't plan on making any adjustments to the assignments in the near term, but that he'll likely take control again come budget time next year.
Here's the executive order detailing assignments [PDF].
Here's Fritz's full statement:
During the brief time I was Commissioner-in-Charge of the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) this year, my staff and I worked closely with BOEC management to set BOEC on a new course which will effectively address the concerns raised in the Ombudsman’s reports. The Mayor has decided to keep BOEC within his portfolio in order to manage the recruitment of a permanent director and to coordinate the response to the Ombudsman’s report. While I am disappointed that my staff and I will not be able to see the process through at BOEC, I am very grateful to Lisa St. Helen for her leadership of the bureau as Interim Director, and to all the staff at BOEC who work so hard to get help to callers.
Looking forward, we welcome the opportunity to focus our time on other urgent and important issues. Most crucially, we will be working to combat systemic racism and the rise in hate crimes in the City of Portland. My staff and I are committed to listening to and providing greater support for marginalized communities in Portland.
I will continue to advocate for and help implement the Open and Accountable Elections system that Council passed in 2016. I will collaborate with my colleagues and the community on issues that affect us all. The challenges facing our city are daunting, and I continue to feel honored to be in my position where I can work on solutions in multiple ways.