City Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s twelfth and final year in City Hall hasn’t gone as she expected. But 2020 hasn’t gone as predicted for anyone.
For Fritz, a city leader who enjoys community engagement far more than the average politician, the year has been particularly isolating. A former psychiatric nurse, Fritz has unfailingly followed COVID-19 precautions: Since early March, Fritz hasn’t let anyone into her house, where she lives alone. She’s avoided entering grocery stores and other crowded areas, and has only held one in-person meeting with her staff (outside, of course).
Fritz has also played it safe politically this year. While her colleagues took on police reform, attended massive protests, and engaged in controversial electoral politics, Fritz quietly focused on making sure her past political wins—like the parks bureau's sustained finances and the city's publicly-funded election program—would outlast her tenure in City Hall.
Fritz has marched to her own beat since entering council chambers in 2009 as a passionate advocate for neighborhood preservation. From developing the city’s latest publicly-funded elections program, to her steadfast opposition to Portland’s involvement in the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), Fritz’s record is one of a fiscally conservative leader with a principled interest in equity. Fritz favors process over protest, and has always aligned most with those on council who do the same.
We checked in with Fritz a month before her retirement to hear how she’s weathered the pandemic, what she’s learned from her three terms in Portland City Hall, and what she sees as her legacy.
MERCURY: First of all, how are you doing? What has 2020 been like for you?
FRITZ: This year was always going to be a little weird, since it’s my last on council. We had a retreat at the end of last year with a facilitator to kind of map out the next 12 months, but we pretty much scrapped it by March. We still have gotten many, many things done, which I am very proud of. It's funny, this experience takes me back to the beginning of my time at City Hall, where I came in during the Great Recession and now I’m going out during the great pandemic.
The impact of isolation didn’t really impact me until the wildfires. That was a turning point for me. You couldn’t even walk to the mailbox and be able to breathe properly.
Before the fires, when people asked how I was doing, I’d say, “Oh, I’m okay, BUT....” Now I’ve gotten rid of the “but.” I can be outside and I am grateful for that.
The public haven’t seen your face since March—you’re the only commissioner who doesn’t use the video function during meetings. Is there a reason for that?
That’s another interesting twist to my year. I got a new home computer in February and had it installed when I was visiting family in England. But I forgot to have the installer hook up the video and audio functions. And try as I might… I can’t. And I can’t have my son come in and fix it. He hasn’t been inside my house since this began.
So no one’s been inside your house since March?
Yeah, that’s right.
What are some of the more significant changes you’ve seen in Portland government since entering City Hall in 2009?
There’s been three major structural changes I can think of. The first is the Office of Equity and Human Rights, which has truly reformed how we do business in the city and improved recruitment and retention of a much more diverse workforce.
And then the tribal relations program, which was the first of its kind in the country. That has been huge. Mending the relationship with tribal government leaders after so long, that really feels significant. When I joined City Council, the city had not recognized its responsibility under the treaties to the tribal government. There wasn’t any acknowledgement back in 2009 that we are required to have relationships with tribal governments as sovereign nations. We didn’t know how to do that. We’ve now had two summits to build those relationships. We’ve really worked hard to be humble and respectful, and to treat leaders of nations as... leaders of nations. Because that’s what they are.
The third structural change is the City Budget Office (CBO). The budget office was originally buried in the Office of Management and Finance, and by pulling it out and making it independent—that has brought a level of objectivity and analysis to city budgeting that’s made a huge difference in how we spend taxpayers money. We do it much more wisely, openly, and transparently.
Speaking of financial transparency, a recent independent audit of Southwest Neighbors Inc. (SWNI) identified considerable financial mismanagement of tax dollars given to the program by the federal government and the city’s Office of Community and Civic Life (OCCL). As a resident of SW Portland and former board member of SWNI, I’m curious what you make of this audit, and if you believe the city’s doing enough to hold monied neighborhood groups accountable?
We did thoroughly investigate the embezzlement. And I want to mention that the audit findings are being questioned. As far as I can see there isn’t a smoking gun in the audit findings. But that will be up to the next council to decide. I think the Commissioner Elect [Mingus] Mapps and Commissioner [Dan] Ryan both have the right background to address it.
But there was mismanaged taxpayer dollars, right?
So, [SWNI] is an independent nonprofit. It’s not unusual to have some need for increased accountability. I think the neighborhood associations need support and they need guidance, and that has been lacking. The current commissioner [Chloe Eudaly] has been clear that neighborhood organizations shouldn’t exist.
That’s not entirely true, I believe Commissioner Eudaly’s intent was to just expand the playing field to allow other groups to get the same recognition and power as neighborhood associations. Right?
That’s not how neighborhood associations feel. Look, community engagement is always messy. There are people who disagree regardless of what group they’re a part of.
In the past few years, neighborhood associations have become a flashpoint for conversions around race, wealth, and representation. Why do you think that is?
Again, I think they just didn’t get the support and guidance that they needed at the time. I was in charge of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement [now OCCL] at the end of Mayor Hales’ term, when the city audit on neighborhoods came out [which found the program lacked accountability measures and struggled with diversity]. An audit is supposed to be helpful in identifying areas of needed improvement to work on… but that wasn’t what the commissioner in charge after me [Eudaly] wanted to do.
You’re saying if OCCL was in your portfolio, things would have gone differently.
Things would have gone very differently (laughs). I believe that there’s still value [in neighborhood associations]. You can’t just tell people to stop being racist and to do better, you have to give them support and guidance—and be clear about what that means. When I had [OCCL] in my bureau, we recognized that not everyone wants to join a neighborhood association for various reasons, and that there are other ways people can engage. We were going to do something called “community beyond boundaries,” for people to connect on something beyond geography or race. Like a faith group, or a school group.
What happened to the program?
The commissioner after me [Eudaly] did not pursue it.
That’s interesting, because it does sound like the intention behind Commissioner Eudaly’s proposal.
What’s different is that, I think the conversation now has been framed as “either/or” and for me it was “both/and.”
You’ve always been engaged in neighborhood organizations and community building, even before entering City Hall. What does community engagement for you look like after City Hall?
You know, I have no idea. I do live two doors away from my neighborhood association president, so it'll be hard to ignore! I’m going to play it by ear.
During the June budget hearings, you voted in favor of cutting the proposed Portland Police Bureau (PPB) budget by $15 million. At the time, you said your decision was based on your trust in Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, due to her decades of work in police accountability and racial justice work. But in November, when Commissioner Hardesty introduced a follow-up package to further reduce PPB’s budget by $18 million, you voted against it. What kept you from standing by Hardesty this time around?
Well, there was analysis in June to see if there would be layoffs, and the conclusion was no, there wouldn’t. If you remember, in June, the community said “we want a $50 million cut.” When I met with community leaders, I asked “Why $50 million?” They were like, “Well it’s 20 percent of the budget.” There wasn’t any particular reason for $50 million. [Editor’s note: The proposal did list specific program cuts that would add up to $50 million.]
In the fall, initially Commissioner Hardesty’s proposal had specifics to tally up to $18 million. But as each would be looked into, it was determined they would have unacceptable impacts on staffing. Analysis showed that there would be layoffs. And there wasn’t a weighing of pros and cons of specific packages that [Hardesty] wanted.
We plan carefully and budget carefully in the city of Portland. We had a significant number of people coming and saying “no, don’t cut" in the fall. Especially during COVID-19, three of us chose to focus on COVID response, with a plan to reevaluate public safety next year.
But those police cuts were proposed to support programs that would help people impacted by COVID-19.
Right, but you don’t just cut without seeing how the whole system is impacted.
If there were no job cuts projected in those fall budget cuts to PPB, could you see yourself supporting it?
I believe that [PPB] Chief Lovell should be given a chance to set the bureau direction he wants. Continually second guessing him is not helpful. Of course, there are some things that haven’t changed over time. We need to give them some support. You don’t just flash and burn. You ask, “How can I support you and guide you and set limits so that we can all move together in a way that’s respectful?” or “How do we have staff feel less under attack personally than they currently do?”
In general, you’ve been considerably silent this year on issues of race, and the historic protests for racial justice. Was that intentional?
To the extent that Commissioner Hardesty was able to speak for communities of Portland, well, it just didn’t seem to be my place. I’ve realized that white people have said far too much in ways that have not been helpful. I have worked to surround myself with intelligent people who don’t necessarily see the world the same way I do.
I also worked with [Office of Equity and Human Rights Director] Markisha Smith on public statements I put out.... I did put out several statements. I really helped more behind the scenes. I would not at all be comfortable doing what some of my colleagues have done and gone in front of the camera or protest in large crowds, because of the pandemic. I would have been there if not for that.
What are some of the behind-the-scenes projects you worked on to address racism?
I made sure that the budget included expanded staffing and support for the Office of Equity this year. The office has grown from four to 22 people in nine years, which is immense. I also worked on language access to meet the city’s disability equity goals.
What would you say were your biggest successes in City Hall?
During my first term, Commissioner Randy Leonard wanted to fund an expensive filtration system for the Water Bureau in the middle of a recession. I proposed a cheaper system, and got the majority of council’s support. That forced Commissioner Leonard to change his resolution at the last minute. It was one of my first wins, and it felt important.
And Open and Accountable Elections. The fact that it has run flawlessly in the middle of a pandemic is remarkable. We’re now proposing to set it up as an independent department without the oversight of a specific commissioner. Hopefully that will be part of the charter commission’s conversation.
What have been your biggest disappointments?
Well, I think my biggest regret is the state of community engagement right now. If I had had my druthers, I would have loved to be in charge of [OCCL] for 12 years. I think we could have made significant progress to build the system up while still recognizing racial justice. There’s more to do and thankfully there’s people on City Council who will do a great job at it. There’s still a need for commissioners to work together. People are calling on the city to come together right now. To disagree, but to do it respectfully. Certainly people have been angry and mean this year, particularly white people in the way they have approached racial justice.
For all of that, those thousands of people who have been helping their neighbors during this time have been so inspiring. I really appreciate how my neighbors wave at each other now—this city has become more friendly.
What do you love about this city?
Portland is filled with wonderful people. We’re a community of 95 neighborhoods, each with their own unique benefits. And people get to decide which one they want to be a part of—well, if they’re fortunate to be able to afford the rent. It’s a special place.