Downtown Portland
Downtown Portland halbergman / Getty Images

Portland City Council voted 4-1 to renew the city's contract with Downtown Clean & Safe Wednesday, an organization that charges property owners located within its 213-block downtown boundary to fund additional, or “enhanced,” services not already provided by the city—like graffiti removal, expanded trash pick-up, and augmented police and security patrols.

"To many, downtown Portland is not clean nor is it safe, like never before in our city's history," said Commissioner Dan Ryan, before voting in support of the new $25 million, 5-year contract.

Clean & Safe is one of the city's three Enhanced Service Districts—or ESDs—that oversee how property owners' fees are distributed to support a certain business district. In each contract it holds with an ESD, the city plays the role of the fee collector—ferrying money from property owners to Clean & Safe. An August 2020 city audit of the ESD program found the city was providing little oversight to the program, and raised particular concerns with the lack of accountability for armed security guards funded by ESD fees.

The majority of public testimony given on the contract during council last week was in staunch opposition to its passage, for the accountability issues identified in the city audit and concerns that Clean & Safe's security guards disproportionally harass unhoused Portlanders who reside downtown. Community members also pointed to the relationship between Clean & Safe and the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), the business lobbyist group that oversees Clean & Safe's work, arguing that the PBA uses Clean & Safe as its private security team.

It's these concerns that kept all city commissioners from supporting the new contract. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty attempted to pump the brakes on the plan by introducing an amendment which would have extended Clean & Safe's current contract by one year rather than five—allowing the city time to better evaluate the program.

Hardesty said the extension would offer time to pause to "answer fundamental questions raised by the audit," like, "Should ESDs exist? How they should exist? And whether or not the current model downtown is the best model to continue." These questions echoed those that came from members of the public last week.

None of Hardesty's fellow city commissioners supported her amendment. Instead, commissioners pointed to a requirement in the new contract that directs Clean & Safe to participate in the city's coming evaluation of ESDs as a result of the audit. City staff estimated that it would take between 18 months to two years to finish that evaluation and bring recommendations to council.

Commissioner Carmen Rubio said that the contract's promise to only arm 25 percent of Clean & Safe security guards and commitment to labor unions inspired her support of the new proposal.

"I want to move forward with the important changes to armed security and labor agreements to frontline workers while still addressing the outstanding systemic issues," said Rubio. "I'm not willing to put them on hold."

Commissioner Mingus Mapps said that the vote to approve Clean & Safe's contract is critical to Portland's recovery from the economic impacts of COVID-19.

"If we fail to approve this contract, downtown will become less liveable and less safe," said Mapps, who serves as the council's liaison to Travel Portland.

Mapps said that Portland's hospitality industry "is on life support," and has found that visitors are avoiding traveling to Portland due to the perception that it's unsafe.

"I believe we are at a crossroads in Portland's recovery," said Mapps. "At this point in the pandemic, downtown Portland should be well on its way to recovery. Today, the one thing holding back our recovery is not the virus, it is our bad reputation. And frankly, we have earned that reputation."

Mapps also expressed his support of the new contract's addition of a street outreach team with mental health training meant to connect unhoused Portlanders with social services.

Both Commissioner Dan Ryan and Mayor Ted Wheeler underscored the role Clean & Safe can play in strengthening the "reputation" of downtown Portland as it works to attract tourism and new businesses. The men cited negative reviews of the city found on websites such as TripAdvisor and Nextdoor.

"We as a council are in the position where we don't just get to talk about the problems, the public looks to us to act, to solve the problems," said Wheeler. "And we are. I believe this contract provides us just one more opportunity to resolve some of the safety and liveability issues that have impacted the downtown community."

Before voting in opposition, Hardesty chided her fellow commissioners for not listening to the public's feedback by supporting the contract.

"I'm really disappointed today," said Hardesty. "The city failed the community today with this vote."