Portland is one step closer to transitioning control of city operations from elected politicians to professional managers.

Portland City Council approved the city’s human resources department to hire five interim deputy city administrators for a one-year contract, with a built-in six-month severance package. The salary ranges from $204,880 to $307,300 per year for each employee hired, with another $209,000 each in severance costs, assuming all five managers are hired this year and replaced next year. 

The move is considered a major milestone in the ongoing efforts to modernize Portland’s city governing structure and fully implement the charter reform voters approved in 2022.

Last year, the council approved a new organizational chart and the creation of six service areas, which lump city bureaus together in broad categories. Each service area will be managed by a deputy city administrator, which reports to the city administrator. The new, temporary hires will come on board to start managing city departments as Portland approaches the January 2025 deadline to have its new form of government up and running. 

A council ordinance approving the hires notes the five positions span “a one-year duration, with the ability for the City Administrator to extend an additional year or terminate at any time,” in an effort to support operations during the city’s transition to a new governing structure.

The city's bureaus are now lumped into service areas. Deputy city administrators will
manage the service areas under Portland's new form of government. city of portland

Deputy city managers are a critical part of the city’s new organization chart and framework, but whether or not all five positions will be filled before 2025 is unclear. Current elected city commissioners will have discretion over who is hired for each service area, and whether anyone is hired at all.

A council discussion last week underscored lingering rifts among elected commissioners over the rising costs of charter reform implementation. It also drew scrutiny from a few residents who likened the hires to more “bloated bureaucracy” within city hall, at a time when the city is proposing to gut many programs and departments to meet budget demands.

Bob Weinstein, a former mayor of Ketchikan, Alaska, who’s now running for a seat on Portland City Council in District 4, called the hires and severance packages “the golden parachutes for all.”

“My concern lies in the fiscal irresponsibility inherent in awarding lavish severance packages amounting to a staggering $1.3 million to temporary employees whose impact on city services is destined to be short-lived,” Weinstein told the council. He implied the current bureau managers should be capable of handling operations until a new mayor and city administrator come on board. 

Weinstein’s concerns were echoed by Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, who’s been vocal about what he perceives as the shortcomings of charter reform, and its associated implementation costs.

Gonzalez implied that not filling the deputy city administrator roles could be a way to save money and prevent the future city administrator–who will likely want to choose their deputy city administrative staff–from having to terminate some or all of the interim hires.

“I share some level of frustration about both the growing price tag, as well as this particular layer of bureaucracy that voters did not approve, that was not spelled out in the ballot measure,” Gonzalez said February 14.

But not jumpstarting the new management structure ahead of 2025 could mean a bumpier road for the future city council and city administration. 

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who previously served as the state treasurer, reminded the council that the city “is a really complex organization” with more than two dozen bureaus and multiple bargaining units within the city’s workforce.

“Remember, we’ve got a $7 billion organization with 7,000 employees,” Wheeler said last week. “We’re actually light at the senior management level, compared to a lot of organizations.”

The city’s human resources staff, along with Wheeler, emphasized the need to offer competitive salaries and severance agreements, to attract qualified candidates who are willing to take on the risk of a temporary job that may leave them unemployed for several months afterward. 

When the item came back to the council for a second review and vote Wednesday, Gonzalez was the lone “no” vote. 

But Gonzalez has already publicized his pick for an interim deputy city administrator to oversee the city’s public safety service area. Last month, his office announced Mike Myers, who currently works under the mayor as the community safety transition director, would move up to oversee the police, fire, and emergency management bureaus.

Gonzalez’s announcement came before the city had voted to authorize employment agreements, and before council agreed on service area assignments for each commissioner. To date, Gonzalez has not been officially tapped to oversee the public safety service area. 

While some of the interim deputy city administrators could be internal hires, as Gonzalez intends, the council could also hire external employees. Commissioner Mingus Mapps warned that could be challenging.

“I’ve tried to recruit folks, basically, under the understanding of this particular package, which includes the severance and I’ve been turned down, from I think really promising candidates,” Mapps said. “These are dodgy, or, uncertain jobs, let’s put it that way.”

The recruiting process is part of a trio of items coming before Portland City Council this month, all related to the ongoing city charter transition. On Wednesday, the council approved two bids totaling $8.26 million, for a remodel and expansion of council chambers and council offices at Portland City Hall. The council was slated to review city commissioners’ service area assignments, but that was pulled from the agenda and referred back to the mayor’s office.