This story has been updated to include additional input from the governor's office.

A plan presented by the governor’s task force which was intended to revitalize downtown is getting mixed reactions, after its members recommended criminalizing public drug use, and relaxing business taxes, among other measures.  The meetings have also raised concerns that the public was not allowed to view or comment on the proposals concocted primarily by members of the business community and local politicians. 

Kotek convened the new Portland Central City Task Force in August, in partnership with the Oregon Business Council. At the time, the governor said she wanted to bring in stakeholders from several sectors of the city, to identify solutions to some of Portland’s most entrenched issues: economic revitalization, livability, public safety and homelessness. 

In all, 121 people, including local and state lawmakers, business leaders, police, and housing organizations were tapped to take part in the work. The task force’s meetings and recommendations culminated in a report released Monday that was also presented at the Oregon Business Plan Leadership Summit.

In short, that report recommended a three-year moratorium on new taxes, with "targeted tax relief" to businesses; a 90-day fentanyl emergency declaration and a new state law to ban public drug use; more police downtown; more outreach workers and recovery services; more homeless shelters and daytime services; and the construction of 20,000 new housing units in the central city by 2035. 

The plan for revitalizing Portland received both praise and caution, even among conservative groups.

A coalition working to repeal core components of Measure 110–Oregon’s drug decriminalization law—said the plan didn't go far enough to address the fentanyl crisis, suggesting "legal consequences to steer more people into mandatory treatment" are necessary. 

Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, arguably the most conservative voice on the council, lauded the task force proposal to ban drug use in public. Earlier this year, Gonzalez led the council in voting to lobby the state legislature to change state laws around public drug use, in an effort to enforce a ban on using controlled substances in Portland’s public spaces.

Others have endorsed the recommendations to bolster services for unhoused Portlanders, and those living with addiction, but have denounced any efforts to criminalize addiction. 

“We all agree that state leaders must take swift action to address the drug addiction and homelessness crises across Oregon. However, criminalization is a false promise that will not solve these pressing societal issues; instead, criminalization will have unintended consequences, especially on Black and brown communities,” a statement from the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says. “The only known real solutions for reducing rates of addiction and eliminating public drug use are increasing access to treatment, housing, and supportive resources.” 

Other groups have criticized the plan’s lack of solutions for gun violence prevention and urged leaders to advocate for community-led solutions to the rise in gun violence instead of depending solely on law enforcement. 

The makeup of the task force, which was heavily stacked with corporate business executives and business interest groups, with a few small business owners, was also questioned.

The group was chaired by Kotek and Dan McMillan, president and CEO of The Standard insurance company and StanCorp Financial Group. McMillan previously lamented Portland’s reputation and challenges, noting in a 2022 Portland Business Journal article that he was glad his company wasn’t requiring in-person work, because they’d have a hard time convincing good job candidates to move to Portland. 

Now, he’s changed his tone.

"We're gradually seeing increased foot traffic, a decrease in property crime and boarded windows coming down,” McMillan said. “It's time to seize the moment and write the next chapter for our beloved city, together."

The task force included a committee that focused heavily on drug use and addiction, yet had only one representative from an addiction recovery organization.

That organization, the Health Justice Recovery Alliance (HJRA), said the plan unveiled by the governor’s office signals an intent to handle the fentanyl crisis with the urgency it requires.

"The task force’s recommendations to declare a fentanyl emergency, centralize coordination, increase street outreach, and add more detox and treatment capacity show a commitment to handle this crisis with urgency and real action,” a statement from HJRA reads. “If these recommendations were to be implemented, they would quickly reduce public use on our streets.” 

However, HJRA warned, “increased criminalization will not work and is the wrong direction.”

Candace Avalos, executive director of nonprofit Verde, served on the task force’s community safety committee. Avalos says even though she doesn’t endorse the full list of recommendations from the task force, she found value in taking part in the discussions.

“I think the governor had really good intentions about bringing together a group of unlikely partners, people who don't always agree on things, to talk about something we can agree on, which is Portland’s success,” Avalos told the Mercury. “There's an opportunity that we as progressive leaders have, to show up in good faith to these spaces, ready for solutions.”

Avalos says serving on the task force gave her an opportunity to “push back on proposed policies that felt regressive,” but acknowledged there were shortcomings in the process. 

From the beginning, the governor conveyed a tight timeline–roughly four months–for meeting and producing recommendations.

Avalos says she felt her group was “racing against the clock” and there wasn’t time for committees to convene or compare takeaways. The siloed meetings and aggressive deadline left task force members in the dark about how their discussions would be incorporated into a larger product. 

“I definitely don’t agree with some of the re-criminalization policies and directives,” Avalos says. “I’m sad some of those made it all the way through as some of the final recommendations.”

A boarded up Washington Center plaza in downtown Portland now bares graffiti and fliers. One of many recommendations from a governor's task force focused on downtown Portland is to clean up graffiti and litter, and get rid of the plywood and fencing that still surrounds some buildings. courtney vaughn

While Portland tries to regain its pre-pandemic economic footing downtown and the tourist appeal it once garnered, the city is struggling to heal its bruised reputation. That reputation is only made worse by negative billboards and community leaders, including some on the city council, who perpetuate unflattering narratives about the city, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler pointed out.

During an overview of Portland’s tourism industry given to the city council Wednesday, Wheeler reiterated that fixing the city’s image is a collective job.

“We are in a brutal competition for dollars, for tourists, for convention business, for travel dollars,” Wheeler said Wednesday. “I’m hoping that I can convince some of the naysayers out there, including people in our own fold, if we don’t want to sell the city, the competition sure as hell isn’t going to sell the city for us. We have to do it ourselves. …We have a lot to be proud of and there’s a lot of things we’re doing right, and I just wish we weren’t constantly pushing the rock up the hill, having people even notice that we’re doing these things.”


The mayor said those negative narratives are likely to continue into the 2024 election cycle, when candidates “have a vested interest in not talking about anything positive that’s taking place.” 

A lack of transparency

Kotek’s office was scrutinized months before the task force plans were made public for holding secret, closed meetings in which, according to Kotek’s Press Secretary, Elisabeth Shepard, no one at the meetings was taking notes or recording the process for transparency purposes. 

"I don't see it as part of my role to take notes," Shepard said. "I'm not a big notetaker."

Shepard also said the meetings were fairly unstructured and "free flowing."

Oregon’s public meetings law defines a public meeting as “any meeting conducted by a state, regional, or local governing body to decide or consider any matter.” Those leading the public meeting are legally obligated to keep a record of their minutes, either via written notes, audio, or video recordings. 

The governor's office provided more clarity on their stance around Oregon's meetings laws, emphasizing that public meetings are defined as those convened "by a governing body of a public body for which a quorum is required in order to make a decision."

"This task force does not have decision making authority," a statement from Kotek's office reads. "Its charge is to develop recommendations that were presented at the Oregon Business Summit on December 11, 2023."


Because the task force is a public-private partnership, there may be some wiggle room about whether or not public meetings law applies to them. However, legal experts say barring public access was the wrong move.

Portland attorney Alan Kessler told the Mercury he thinks the task force, as a body that was “created by the Governor…to advise her on policy” is subject to the law. Kessler said Oregon’s public records law is defined and interpreted “broadly in favor of disclosure.” 

Kessler also said because many of the members of the task force do a lot of business with governments, including the state of Oregon and city of Portland, “it is likely that their activities and expenditures on the task force should be reported as lobbying activities.”


“The public records and open meetings laws strike a bargain: people who are trusted with power must agree to transparency. In the case of the task force, it looks like the governor, the mayor, and an assortment of other politicians and their rich benefactors are hoping to exercise the power without oversight,” Kessler said. “They must not expect that their work would be very popular or they wouldn't be trying so hard to hide it.” 


Jack Orchard, a retired attorney who advises news agencies on Oregon’s public records and meetings law, says it’s tricky to determine whether Kotek’s task force was legally required to adhere to open meetings laws. Still, he posits, allowing the public to access and observe the policy discussions would have brought the process more in line with the spirit of Oregon’s transparency laws.

“It seems to me that it would have been helpful and would’ve been more consistent with our open government system to at least have had some of the meetings or some portion of the meetings accessible to the public,” Orchard told the Mercury. He noted a distinction in state law that dictates public meetings must be open to the public to observe, but that doesn’t guarantee a right to participate, or provide input. If the task force leaders’ concern was having interruptions, they could’ve avoided that by livestreaming or giving the public an email address to send comments to. 

“I think it’s a valuable inquiry and I think going forward, hopefully we don’t see too many more of these instances where groups are convened and the public is 100% excluded,” Orchard said.

Shepard said although there are no public records from the meetings available, “any actual policy that comes out of this will have to come through a full public process at the city, county, or state level.” 

“I think that’s an important piece. Stakeholders are talking about concepts at [the task force meetings],” Shepard said. “For the follow-through part, that will all need to go through a public process.”  

Implementation plan

Oregon Governor Tina Kotek 

Kotek said her intention in assembling the task force was to “tackle issues impacting the economic future of Portland’s Central City,” calling Portland a bellwether for the prosperity of the entire state.

“It’s no secret that downtown Portland has faced an onslaught of challenges in recent years that have tarnished some of the characteristics that people love about Oregon’s largest city,” Kotek said in a news release Wednesday, Aug. 9. “Growing pains turned into crises, exacerbated by a global pandemic, and now concerns about Portland have become a statewide economic issue. It’s time to look forward, bring together diverse voices, and focus our energy on developing concrete and equitable solutions.”

Among the task force recommendations:

  • Enact a three-year moratorium on business taxes. Business groups note Portland is “the second-highest taxed city in the nation,” behind New York City, thought it’s not clear where that data comes from, or what it accounts for. An Oregon Business and Industries report notes Portland is “well above the national average” in corporate business taxes, but stops short of putting the city in the top two tax brackets. Still, the group proposes a pause on new taxes and fees, through 2026, with a tax advisory group to study improvements to existing tax structure. The group wants to see an expansion of the Business License Tax downtown tax credit; 
  • An elevated law enforcement response in the central city. In October, Kotek deployed a handful of Oregon State Police troopers to help patrol downtown Portland, in an effort to combat fentanyl from being sold and used on Portland’s streets. The task force recommends continuing the partnership between the Portland Police Bureau and OSP into 2024, while adding more city park rangers to central city parks through April;
  • A 90-day fentanyl emergency. A “tri-government” emergency declaration that would see the state, Multnomah County, and city of Portland working together under a new state-led command center ”where daily communication, coordination, and triage of the fentanyl crisis will be carried out.” The effort would tap law enforcement, public health, and community providers, with the goal of utilizing existing resources and expanding services, where necessary;
  • A ban on using controlled substances in public. The task force suggests a state law to ban the use of drugs in public spaces, to “restore law enforcement’s ability to prosecute for attempting to deliver controlled substances to another party based on the amount of drugs in possession.” However, current law already allows police to arrest people for attempted sale or delivery of drugs. The recommendation is similar to one being floated by Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, in response to potential “fixes” to Oregon’s drug decriminalization law;
  • Bolster peer-delivered services and street outreach workers in Portland’s central city “to focus outreach … where the need is most acute to yield better client outcomes." The governor’s office did not clarify what types of outreach workers or services were recommended, or whether they would primarily serve unhoused people.
  • Expand homeless shelter capacity and access to daytime services like public bathrooms and hygiene. Efforts are underway to expand capacity at the city’s existing Safe Rest Villages and Temporary Alternative Shelter Sites. Additionally, the county will devote $9 million toward efforts to get people out of shelters and into housing;
  • Remove any remaining fencing and plywood from buildings downtown and “clean up the city” by increasing volunteer trash removal efforts and asking for $20 million in ODOT funds during the next legislative session for “trash and graffiti removal and prevention.”

While the governor’s office referenced a public process for approving each element of the plan, it’s unlikely it will come before Portland City Council. Changing state drug laws will require legislative action, but the rest of the elements don’t need council approval, the mayor’s office confirmed. This week, the mayor’s team reiterated that the task force recommendations “closely align” with Wheeler's Central City Recovery Plan, which has been underway for more than a year.

“As outlined in our Central City plan, we have and will continue to redouble our efforts to increase public safety and security patrols, created centralized teams focused on trash cleanup, graffiti abatement, and unsanctioned campsite removals, and have worked closely with business owners and residents to get them connected to resources they need most,” Wheeler said.