The scope of the city attorney's office, which traditionally represents the city and its elected officials in legal settings related to city business, is growing.
City attorneys will now be allowed to represent individual city commissioners, employees, and police officers who are personally threatened because of their job.
This update to city code, approved during this morning's council session, comes after a noticeable increase in targeted harassment of city commissioners and their staff—both within Portland City Hall and outside.
"I have experienced frequent ongoing harassment here, and I have feared for my physical safety, that of my family, that of my staff, and it is unacceptable," said Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.
Eudaly recalled a January incident when a man followed her with a video camera, shouting at her as she walked to a meeting in downtown Portland.
"I was surprised... that the city could not assist me in obtaining a stalking order and that I would have to use my own time and financial resources to obtain a stalking order against someone because of what my job is."
These persistent threats have impacted Eudaly's ability to do her job.
"This behavior by a handful of people has limited the way I navigate through my city," she said. "It has limited the way I interact with the public, it makes me feel isolated and less connected to the community I am supposed to be representing."
Eudaly isn't the only commissioner facing regular intimidation from the public.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the first Black woman elected to city council, has received a steady (and well-documented) stream of racist threats since entering office in January. During one of her first council meetings, Hardesty noted that the city hall visitors who regularly disrupt meetings and threaten city staff are relying heavily on their “white male privilege.” (White men didn't like this).
"I have no fear, myself, personally," Hardesty said this morning. "But I see how people intimidate, harass, and make life a living heck for some of our employees. If you have a bone to pick, pick it with me. Do not pick it with my staff. I support this because I want to be able to assure my staff that it is not a safety risk to show up to the office."
Commissioner Nick Fish said that at least one of his employees had filed a restraining order against a member of the public for a period of time. While listening to the public's concerns is part of any elected official's job, Fish added, the public does not have the right to threaten their safety.
This particular code change was coupled with a few other tweaks that raised the hackles of government watchdogs. One change grants city attorneys to side-step a city council vote when appealing a legal case or filing a "friend of the court" brief in cases in which they aren't directly involved but can offer support (like federal lawsuits against Donald Trump's policies).
"We are concerned about this emergency ordinance giving too much power to the city attorney with no oversight," said Dan Handelman, representing Portland Copwatch. "We're particularly concerned because of the history of the city filing appeals against the interest of community justice."
Handelman referenced the city's decision to appeal a federal judge's 2014 approval of Portland's settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice over the police bureau's abysmal treatment of mentally ill Portlanders.
City commissioners, clearly more interested in passing legal protections to city staff, didn't address these concerns.
This is the first time city code regarding the city attorney has been edited in more than a decade. It's unclear why the city attorney's office decided to package the unrelated tweaks together—but it seemed to work.
Commissioners passed the code changes in a 4-0 vote.