The next 15 months will mark Mayor Ted Wheeler’s final time in office at the city.
During a Sept. 14 press briefing, Wheeler rattled off a list of accomplishments over the last year, and laid out a roadmap of what he’ll focus on as he wraps up his mayoral term. He also underscored a turbulent seven years in office, marked by unforeseeable challenges that he says required Portland to “adapt and reinvent city government” and on some occasions, bypass it altogether.
Wheeler announced Wednesday, Sept. 13 that he won’t run for office in the next election, saying he’s instead focused on the city’s current challenges. The following day, he said he hopes to “eliminate unsanctioned camping all across the city” before his term is over, and wants to see the Temporary Alternative Shelter Site scaled up and replicated in other parts of Portland.
Wheeler also highlighted new programs aimed at boosting Portland’s economy and downtown foot traffic, while keeping Portland on its path of reducing gun violence, and removing trash and graffiti from city spaces.
“I want you to know that I'll be laser focused over the remainder of my term to ensure that Portland is set up for future success,” Wheeler said during Thursday’s media briefing. "I'm doubling down on these efforts and remain committed to the city that I love."
The mayor touted data that shows a decline in gun-related homicides this year, compared with last year, police recruiting that is finally outpacing turnover, a reduction in property crimes and theft, and an upward trend in case clearance rates at the Portland Police Bureau.
Many of the challenges that have marked Wheeler’s time in office stem from policing, homelessness response, crime, and livability.
“I agree wholeheartedly with an overwhelming number of Portlanders who say that Portlanders deserve a litter and graffiti-free city, a welcoming place for family as well as friends to be proud of,” Wheeler said.
Last year, Wheeler’s office launched the Public Environment Management Office (PEMO), one of a series of emergency declarations “aimed at helping to address homelessness and livability issues in Portland.”
Wheeler called PEMO “one of the most popular city programs in years.” It's unclear how the program's success is measured.
As the pandemic transformed the city’s economy, and rents soared, large office buildings sat empty while the city’s streets saw more and more people living on them. But Portland's homeless crisis was evident long before the pandemic. While campaigning for his first term in office, Wheeler laid out ambitious plans to end homelessness within his second year in office, by bringing on enough shelter beds to serve everyone living on the streets.
But after seven years, Wheeler is still struggling with how to move people off the streets and into shelter or housing.
One of the solutions Wheeler pitched to revitalize downtown Portland: pressuring employers to bring their workforces back in the office, at least half-time. It’s unclear whether that proposal will gain steam. Employers and employees have indicated a distaste for the idea.
With mounting public pressure, and city councilors eager to clean up the city and its image, policies on homelessness have dominated the agenda.
This year, Wheeler’s team was largely responsible for launching Portland’s Temporary Alternative Shelter Site (TASS). The plan was initially pitched as a 1,000-person, mass camping site, staffed by the Oregon National Guard, drawing sharp public opposition and comparisons to concentration camps, which Wheeler took exception to. The plan eventually morphed into a larger version of the Safe Rest Village model, and now provides shelter to around 137 people at a former Stacy & Witbeck industrial lot in Southeast Portland.
Wheeler and other city leaders note the homeless crisis isn’t the city’s to solve alone. City commissioners have been vocal about their disapproval and deteriorating relationship with the Joint Office of Homeless Services over its failure to effectively spend money from the Metro Supportive Housing Services Tax.
“When the public voted for the Supportive Housing Measure, they expected immediate efforts to address homelessness,” Wheeler said. “The unspent funds, coupled with a lack of clear outcomes and measurable data is unacceptable, both to me, and the City Council at large.”
Earlier this year, the council was split on whether to continue the city’s joint agreement with the county. Wheeler is now leading efforts to renegotiate the agreement for JOHS operations and was able to secure $4.7 million from Multnomah County for use on the next TASS location.
Wheeler, city leaders toughen approach to homelessness
Over the past six months, Wheeler has also championed a time, place, and manner ordinance for homeless camping, essentially banning the city’s unsheltered residents from sleeping or setting up camp in nearly all public spaces from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The city has yet to officially launch the new ordinance, saying they’re giving police time to adjust to enforcing the new rules and educating unhoused people on the ordinance that could lead to citations or jail time.
Just last week, citing an explosion in addiction and the use of fentanyl and methamphetamine on Portland’s streets, Wheeler applauded the City Council’s unanimous decision to ban the use of hard drugs in public, pending a change in state law. The vote drew applause from business leaders, but addiction experts and homeless advocates cautioned the council against such a policy, calling it ineffective and wasteful.
In addition to some of the more draconian measures, Wheeler also applauded the success of the city’s 90-Day Reset programs in Old Town and the Central Eastside. The programs saw increased police patrols, litter removal, homeless sweeps and aesthetic touches like decorative lighting on trees.
Mayor promises to help city government transition efforts
Wheeler said he wants to hire an interim city administrator before the end of 2024, to help the city transition to its new government structure, come January 2025.
Wheeler’s team didn’t give a timeline for when recruitment might start, but predicted a city manager and possibly a deputy city manager will need to work “hand in glove” with the city’s next mayor, to oversee daily operations and the management of the city’s bureaus.
In November 2024, Portlanders will elect a new City Council, with three people representing each of four new voting districts. Portland will also be managed by a city administrator and mayor under the city’s new government structure that was voted on in 2022.
Ensuring a smooth transition while tackling overlapping crises will take focus and energy, Wheeler said, and he can’t effectively manage the city and campaign for reelection at the same time.
“I did not see any scenario where I can successfully move this work forward, while at the same time, seeking reelection,” Wheeler said. “I think I can be seen as more of an honest mediator and honest broker, if you will, in this process if I've got nothing at stake, politically.”
Wheeler was quick to strike down any notion that he’ll apply for the new city administrator job.
“The city administrator is going to be a CEO level individual who has experience and the capacity to manage a $6.5 billion organization with several thousand employees, and a unionized workforce, and many, many different issues,” Wheeler said. “I do not believe that I am best suited to that position.”
The mayor said he’s eager to spend time with his teen daughter, who was just an infant when he first entered local politics in 2007 and “has lived this path with me every step of the way.”