It was supposed to be a routine, boring vote. 

The Portland City Council reviews its spending and budget allocations three times a year, as a method to make sure funds are being spent appropriately and programs are running smoothly. The spring budget monitoring process was ultimately approved Wednesday, April 19, but not before city leaders were forced to confront their commitment to equity and racial justice initiatives.

A majority of the council supported a proposal brought forward last week by Commissioner Mingus Mapps to withdraw previously promised funds from Reimagine Oregon, under the premise of poor fiscal oversight.

Only Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Carmen Rubio were opposed to the last minute budget amendment. When it came time for a final vote this week, the council walked back the proposal, but some say the process to get there highlights why many Portlanders have lost trust in the city.

Reimagine Oregon is a Black-led racial equity and social justice organization focused on public policy and accountability. City leaders previously voted to allocate nearly $4.9 million in cannabis program funds to the organization to help advance economic opportunities and programs that would benefit the Black community, which has historically been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition. 

During the council’s April 12 meeting, Mapps suggested redirecting the funds to other causes, noting none of the money had been spent in more than two years. Mapps cited a lack of transparency around intended uses for the money and a seeming inability of Reimagine Oregon to spend it. 

City staff and Reimagine Oregon leaders said that’s because the city hasn’t released the funds yet. Moreover, Reimagine Oregon’s executive director, Justice Rajee, said the group expected to partner with the city to identify the right programs and small businesses that would receive the grants. That never happened either. Instead, Commissioner Carmen Rubio pointed out, the city bureau tasked with working with Reimagine Oregon saw frequent turnover. Additionally, the council agreed earlier in the year to designate Prosper Portland, the city’s economic development agency, as the administrator of the funds, which had previously been overseen by the Office of Community and Civic Life. 

Still, Mapps grilled Rajee and others on why the money remains unspent, suggesting it instead go toward policing and community safety programs.

“Since 2020, we have had about 200 Portlanders murdered on our streets and I will tell you about half of them were people of color,” Mapps said.

Marcus Mundy, who leads the Coalition of Communities of Color, said proposals like the one advanced by Mapps have eroded Portlanders’ trust in the city.

“Portlanders, and especially communities of color in this city, have extremely little faith in our local government,” Mundy told the council. “Public opinion surveys repeatedly make this clear. The reason why is decisions like these.”

Wheeler reiterated that point before the council’s vote on April 19.

Rubio proposed overturning Mapps’ proposal to yank funds, and instead commit to transferring the money to the appropriate agency by July. Prosper Portland aims to present a more detailed spending plan next month.

“What happened last week shouldn't sit well with any of us,” Rubio said. “Part of good governance is leading with curiosity, asking questions and engaging with one another before we walk into these chambers, and that didn’t happen last week and harm was done. The city again stood in the way of the work to get these dollars programmed and out the door as committed to the community.”

The clarification of the city’s role was enough to cause Commissioner Dan Ryan to change his mind, but it wasn’t enough to assuage Mapps or Commissioner Rene Gonzalez. Both cited legal concerns about how cannabis revenue can be spent—despite assurances from city budget office staff—and pressed for specifics on what the money would pay for. 

Rajee returned to the council, frustrated.

“None of this was necessary,” Rajee said. “If folks had questions about intention, practice, structure, who’s involved, where to go, when to do it, how to do it, why we’re here, all you had to do was ask.” Rajee said Reimagine Oregon’s experience with the city of Portland has been discouraging, and would be enough to scare others away.

“If I was another organization that was just starting some work, whether I was a nonprofit or a business, I’d be terrified to work with the city of Portland. Who wants to come down here and have this argument?”

Mapps said his goal is “to get the dollars out the door” and “get out of signing paper that seems to be inconsistent with the law.” Gonzalez said he’d rather see the funds “support worthy causes that are consistent with city code.”

Despite council’s disagreement on amendments, the spring budget monitoring process was approved unanimously, with funding for Reimagine Oregon intact.