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Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty

It's been just over four months since Jo Ann Hardesty became the first Black woman to join the Portland City Council.

Entering office with sweeping promises of reform, restructuring, and redistribution of power, the city's newest commissioner has been met with both strong enthusiasm and wary skepticism for the way she's approached the role. From pointing out the white privilege of those who regularly interrupt council meetings to delaying a earthquake-related building policy that was green-lit before she entered office, Hardesty has proven she's not interested in quietly assimilating to city council norms (to the point that Mayor Ted Wheeler believes she's making a run for his office).

Most recently, Hardesty made the unorthodox decision to publish her own suggested tweaks to Wheeler's proposed city budget before the council meets to hash it out as a group.

We met with the newest commissioner on her 123rd day in office to talk about police accountability, affordable housing, the city's opaque budgeting process, violent protests, and City Hall's fear-driven agenda.

MERCURY: Let's start with the obvious stuff. What have you achieved in the first four months that you’re the most proud of?

HARDESTY: I’m most excited about the transparency and access I’ve brought with me. We have people coming into City Hall these days to testify and have meetings who never thought their voice mattered in this building. And I’ve been communicative. We respond to every email and phone call, even if it’s about something we don’t know much about. It doesn't take a lot to just let someone know, "I heard you."

I’m certainly proud of getting us out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force [the controversial FBI committee that two Portland police officers had sat on] within first 45 days. That was something I campaigned on, that was something I led with. Most people were shocked that it was able to happen in such a short period of time. When we first got here, I was given all these reasons why we couldn’t get it done in the first 30 days. Yes, there are internal things you have to take into account, but for me, there was a sense of urgency that wasn’t felt by other people in the building.

Are you satisfied with the new city resolution that explicitly defines what the city’s relationship with the JTTF will look like going forward?

We have an agreement that all of us can live with. My bottom line was the only people who should partner with the JTTF are the police chief or the deputy chief. As the police chief, we can hold her accountable, since she works at the pleasure of the police commissioner. I was adamant that that was something worth fighting for.

What’s it been like working with Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw?

I meet with Chief Outlaw monthly, for an hour. We always have incredibly open conversations. I tell her all the things I hate that Portland police are doing. I like that she’s as straightforward as I am—she's a straight shooter, no pun intended. She’s never tried to snow me or give me a non-direct answer.

Any other achievements? What about slowing down the city’s placarding mandate for Unreinforced Masonry Buildings (URM)?

Yes, that was a huge deal when it came to listening to the public. URM owners didn’t think I’d even meet with them! What I discovered was that there was no magical reason why buildings had to be placarded this year. We don’t have a crystal ball telling us when an earthquake is going to happen. What I do know is that when you work in collaboration with people you get better outcomes than if you just mandate something on them. I came in with the commitment of breaking down the silos. I believe I have stayed true to that mission.

I think we fail if we don’t give the public good information on what they’re weighing in on. That’s why our office held a Budget 101 meeting a few weekends ago. It’s amazing how many people came out on a Saturday morning because they actually wanted to know how a budget works.

Explain why that’s important.

Most people, even people who pay attention to government, don’t know how the budget works. When we tell people we have an almost $6 billion budget, but we still have a budget shortfall and have to cut stuff, people are like [rolls eyes] “Oh, yeah, right. You can’t have that much money and be talking about cuts. That doesn’t make sense.”

So that’s why you gotta take the time to explain. What I’ve learned from my grassroots activism work is that when people have good information they will make a good decision, and will advocate for things that make sense.

Do you think we need to change how the public is involved in the city’s budgeting process?

Yes. Right now it’s based on our feelings, not the public’s. I think there’s a fear that if the public shows up [to a budget meeting], the public’s going to be mad. I mean, everything depends on how you design it. Are we going to design something that’s interactive, or we just going to sit there and stare at people while they’re pouring their heart out and not have a conversation? To me, that’s a disservice.

What did you think of Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposed budget?

I absolutely believe the mayor did a good job with the budget, with trying to balance competing interests from different commissioners. However, he and I will probably always disagree about how many resources we put into Portland Police Bureau.

Is that why you introduced your own alternative budget amendments after he made his budget public?

Partially, yes. I think where he invested dollars and where I wanted to redirect dollars really tells the story of the kind of city we want to be. And the kind of city we can grow to be.

I know my budget suggestions took people off guard. I was told that normally the budget process is a very “Kumbaya” moment. I think there’s a perception that I should stick inside the electoral box that was here before I got here. But that’s not what I ran on. That’s not what voters elected me to do. I told voters I was going to break it open, I was going to be transparent, I was going to hear concerns.

I talked to all the commissioners about my budget suggestions before I shared them with the public. I am hopeful we will get to an agreement that is better than where we started, and that the rest of my colleagues will see that there’s an opportunity for us to really invest in the things we say we care about.

Okay, let’s talk about some of the changes you want to see made with his current proposed budget.

Well, one thing I didn’t want to see funded was police body cameras. The reality is, we can’t afford them. If we did fund the pilot program and decided we wanted body cameras, we can’t afford the infrastructure needs of the body cams.

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And think about this: The body cameras are only for the use of police—they get to review them before they write their written reports or if they’re being investigated. We don’t get to see them. Why would we spend millions of dollars for a tool that is sold to the public as an accountability tool, when the only people that have access are the police? I feel comfortable saying that money should go somewhere else.

You also suggested cutting the Gang Enforcement Team (GET), now called the Gun Violence Reduction Team. Don’t we need them?

The Gang Enforcement Team is 28 police officers who don’t answer calls, who don’t back up officers who need help, who only ride around all day every day looking for gang members. When you look at auditor’s report on the GET, you’ll see they’re woefully inaccurate at doing that.

[The 2018 audit found that 59 percent of drivers GET officers pull over are African American, while only 9 percent of Portland's population are African American.]

I say, if they don’t know how to monitor gang activity, let’s take them out of the business and put them back on regular patrol. We say we need more cops on the streets, but in Portland, we have 1,000 cops and only 300 that are actually beat cops. I believe we have far too many middle-management police officers who should be out on patrol.

At the same time, we’re having trouble hiring new officers. That means something is fundamentally wrong with our bureau. I think it’s a great opportunity for us to have a community conversation about what policing should be in Portland.

We clearly can’t keep hiring to an old system. So let’s take that money back from the vacant positions and invest it in programs that will make a huge impact today. When police figure out what a good strategy is to hire new police, they can always come back and get new money.

But it doesn’t make sense for us to just let it sit there while they go out and desperately try to hire police into a model that isn’t working. That’s why my budget asks for a one-time installment of police vacancy savings.

Okay, so where would the money saved by your proposed cuts go?

Firstly, Portland Parks and Recreation. My budget proposal fully funds Parks for the next year, and makes sure two community centers won’t close. That funding will give us time to have a much more thorough conversation about how to fund our parks for the long term.

Another thing I’d like to see better funded is work on the upcoming 2020 Census. We have to have all hands on deck. We need to invest in making sure every community member is counted, because that’s where the federal resources come from. Quite frankly, we lose funding if we don’t count everyone.

And the there’s displacement. We keep moving people out to the edges of the community. What we know about the Residential Infill Project, if its implemented as intended, is that East Portland is where most of the development [of new duplexes and triplexes] will take place. This means there’s nowhere else in the City of Portland to push poor people and people of color. If we’re not investing in keeping people in the neighborhoods they’re in, then we’re going to end up a city of the rich and privileged.

How can the city keep the communities from being displaced?

That means making sure when we build “affordable housing” we really mean affordable housing.

Right now, that’s 80 percent of median family income. In Portland, [the] median income is $74,500. Eighty percent of that is around $55,000 a year. Most poor working people are not making $55,000 a year. So we have to be really intentional that when we say “affordable,” we’re talking [about incomes between] zero to $30,000, or $30,000 to $50,000, so people actually know what they’re signing on to.

We throw “affordable” around like it’s one-size-fits-all. But what’s affordable for me may not be affordable to you.

The mayor included $500,000 in his budget for the Portland Street Response, a plan created by Street Roots that you’ve backed from the start. Were you surprised by that?

I was very happy to see it in there. What we know is that when we send people with weapons to places where people are suffering mental health issues, it only exacerbates the problem. Portland Street Response allows us to send the right first responder to the right incident at the right time.

I just happened to be very lucky to come in [to City Hall] and have Fire and Rescue, the Bureau of Emergency Management, and the Bureau of Emergency Communications in my portfolio, because I spent my entire campaign talking about how those systems need to come together to protect the most vulnerable people.

What I love about my bureaus is each one was working on a new approach to first response before I got here.

Do you have an example?

The updates to the 911 data system. Right now, the system allows operators to ask a few key questions and then it allows them to deploy those calls to the most appropriate first responder. But with the new system, if someone calls and says, “I think someone is suffering from a mental health issue,” we should be able to connect them to a mental health professional or a nurse that triages the call and figures out the right person to send out to that scene.

Right now, if you call 911, you can get the police, fire and rescue, and an ambulance all showing up. Because if 911 operators don’t know who to send, they send everything we got. And that’s kind of a waste of resources. If we knew with certainty who the right first responder should be, we could be much more strategic and be much more cost effective.

Okay, enough budget talk. In Portland, warmer weather means protest season is coming. Based on last week’s attack at Cider Riot, it’s clear Patriot Prayer, the alt-right paramilitary group out of Vancouver, Washington, is going to continue visiting Portland. The city has struggled to address the kinds of violent protests they've brought with them in the past. What do you think needs to change?

I don’t know why the city is struggling. I mean, when people come into your community with weapons, and they come with the intention of beating up people who have a difference of opinion. We should be able to say, "We don’t want you here. Stay home. You want to battle, battle people in Vancouver.”

The fact it took so long for Portland City Council to pass a resolution to condemn white supremacy was pretty appalling. And in that resolution, we talked about doing all this training on white supremacy, but nothing’s happened yet. There’s no sense of urgency.

There is some good news. Just last week, the city attorney issued a contract for the independent review of the violent August 4, 2018 protest. Granted, it took way too long. If you remember at the time, the city said, “We’re taking this seriously and we’re going to do the investigation immediately.” But now it’s eight months later—and you finally get around to contracting? Inside City Hall, you realize just how long it takes to do the right thing.

What else have you discovered about City Hall’s inner workings?

The biggest factor I have faced inside this building is fear.

Fear of making the wrong choice, fear of annoying your boss, fear of not making the right decision, fear of being a scapegoat for something that went wrong. I think this building is unprepared to say, “Oh, I goofed on that, sorry. Let’s try this next time.” I think there’s this “We have to get it perfect” mindset. And it’s never going to be perfect, right? I think fear is a big motivating factor in city hall. People don’t want to stick their head up.

Do you think there's a reason for that?

Well, they know that if you stick your head up, it might be chopped off.

We’re all just so accustomed to the idea of “Portland polite.” That means we never, ever, ever say what we mean, we just talk around it for two hours, and then leave and compare notes and try to figure out, “What was it that we were trying to say?”

I don’t have time for that. I’m old. I came here with a mission to represent people who didn’t feel like they were being represented. I came here to make sure that the decisions being made I could defend.

I absolutely want to get along with my colleagues, but I am in no way intimidated by my colleagues. I am not intimidated that some of them have been here over a decade, or that they’re the mayor. I am here to do a job. I am always respectful.

I hope that what my approach shows is that we all have different lived experiences. I bring my lived experiences with me wherever I go. I can’t separate being an African American woman from being an elected city commissioner.

What kind of feedback are you hearing from the public?

Well, I’m easily recognizable. It’s kind of hysterical—I can’t walk down the street these days without people stopping me to talk. Ninety percent of the time it’s people thanking me, who support me. People are grateful that someone says what they mean and mean what they say. They don’t have to try to figure it out later.

I’ve been going to a lot of neighborhood meetings, which has been eye-opening. I think people are unaccustomed to elected leaders not telling them what they want to hear. I think that’s very new for them.

But I think you’ve got to be straightforward with people and you say, “Look, here’s the facts, this is where I’m coming from.” Whether they agree with you or not, people appreciate the fact that you’re honest with them.

I’m not trying to hide anything. I’m trying to help the public see the hard choices we’re trying to make so that they can be a part of it.

Based on your short time in City Hall, do you see any problems with the city’s unique commission form of government?

I do not think the form of government limits me in any way. I think the form of government is just that—a form of government. I think we’re only limited by our thinking about this form of government.

Yeah, we have a form of government that’s antiquated and no one else in the free world has, but we should be able to do anything we need to do for the good for the City of Portland within this form. Will this form change? I believe it must. But I believe it’s up to the people of Portland to make that change during the 2021 charter review.

You’ve been a reliable critic of the police since, and prior to, entering City Hall. What does you relationship with the police union, the Portland Police Association (PPA), look like?

I have a lot of respect for [PPA President] Daryl Turner, because Daryl Turner does his job well. His job is to represent his members. His job is to get as much as he possibly can get for his members. His job is to make sure he guilts the city into giving him everything he wants.

My hat’s off to him. If that was my job, I’d be doing exactly what Daryl Turner is doing—put the city on the defense, make them give you everything you want. I applaud that.

I just wish the police commissioners we’ve had—currently and in the past—had the same kind of vigor. I’m not mad at Daryl, I’m mad at the other side that isn’t fighting as hard and represent the public that’s being harmed by poor, bad policing.

PPA’s contract will be up for negotiation next year. How would you like that process to play out?

I have said from day one that my office will be involved in contract negotiations. Most importantly, we are going to make sure the community is engaged and informed every step of the way. I think the best thing we can do for the community is to make sure these talks are open to the public, which is the way they’re supposed to be.

Ultimately, the contract between the police and the community should serve both. Our current contract only serves police. It’s time for us to step back and say, “How does the community want to be policed?”