Last Thursday, as rain clouds gave way to a clear summer evening, the four candidates for city hall began addressing local environmental issues. Appropriately, they were outside in one of the city's most spectacular venues--the high walled amphitheater at Mt Tabor. More appropriately, just a few hundred yards away were the reservoirs that caused so much hubbub last year when city council threatened to cap them. Nearby, a few dozen skateboarders cruised the parking lot, stopping occasionally to cheer on one candidate or another--or to jeer when park commissioner and mayoral hopeful Jim Francesconi was taken to task for not pushing harder for skate parks.

It was the second installment in the Mercury's You Promised! townhall forums, in which candidates offer five specific promises for their first year in office. With about 200 attendees scattered around the park's lawn, this time around the candidates--Francesconi and Tom Potter for mayor; Nick Fish and Sam Adams for city council--spoke about park uses and the environment.

Whether it was the inspiring location or an increasing sense of urgency as Election Day looms, last Thursday found the four candidates breaking out of their shells, throwing barbs and delivering impassioned speeches on their plans to increase the city's parks and improve its environment.

But unfortunately for undecided voters, the candidates offered few clear choices and distinctions. All agreed on virtually every point, leaving the audience with only minor policy distinctions on which to base their November vote.

The EPA imposing unnecessarily strict and costly requirements on the water delivery system? Bad.

Burying reservoirs? Bad, with candidates vying for who thought it was a bad idea first.

Public skate parks? Good, with distinctions about size, style, and numbers. Potter recommended a cluster of individualized, smaller scale skate parks dropped into neighborhood parks. Adams pushed for two larger skate parks.

Measure 37, which would drastically rewrite the city's land use rules? Catastrophically bad. Adams twice delivered impassioned speeches about its dangers. Francesconi warned that it could bankrupt the city.

Pesticide-free parks? Good. Three of the candidates said they would push for pesticide-free parks during their first year in office. When pressed by an audience member to commit to five pesticide-free parks by election day, Francesconi stammered that he believed the city already was pushing for three of them--or maybe, he corrected, it was only one. "I'll have to check with my staff," he said, obviously flustered and again touching off concerns about his managerial style. (During the primary, Francesconi spent a million dollars on his campaign, which he later lamented had gotten away from him.)

And the list of common ground goes on. Fish even adopted Adams' promise about pesticide-free parks on the spot, capturing the spirit of the open forum format while further blurring the lines between the opposing candidates. (Unfortunately for confused voters, both city council candidates have been endorsed by the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and the Oregon Natural Resources Council.)

Noticeably absent were overt mentions about off-leash rules and river cleanup plans.

But what they lack in policy distinction the candidates make up for in personality, playing directly into the stereotypes they claim have been forced upon them by local media. Adams provided answers that were detailed and thoroughly studied--though he was frequently bogged down in minute details that the audience was simply not experienced enough to conceptualize.

Fish was affable and painted his ideas with broader strokes. His impromptu adoption of the other candidates' ideas showed a flexibility and openness that is refreshing compared to, say, oh, Francesconi. The event further proved the point that no matter who gets elected to the council seat, Portland can't lose.

But the candidates for the mayor's race disappointed many undecided voters in attendance, who afterwards lamented they would much rather have Fish or Adams as their candidate for mayor.

Like a broken record, Potter mentioned--at least five times--how he would develop policy by talking with members of the community (without going into any further specifics). His answer to one audience member, who was concerned that the voices of citizens were being neglected by the Parks department, sums up essentially all of his responses.

"My basic platform for running is that we need to engage citizens in all areas of government," he said. "And when it comes to how we use our parks, I think a lot of citizens have been shunned."

Though it had little weight behind it, this comment in particular set off current Parks commissioner Francesconi, who flew into a controlled rage, directly confronting the unsuspecting audience member by saying that her question was "an affront to the men and women of Portland Parks." He went on to defend his bureau and what he claims are the thousands of hours spent soliciting public input.

Earlier in the night, Francesconi attempted to call out Potter for his lack of experience as an elected official, asking him what he has done publicly in the past for parks and the environment.

"First of all, I wasn't commissioner of parks for eight years," Potter stated, drawing a ripple of laughter from the crowd. "But I'll tell you what I do personally, because I can't tell you what I've done publicly. I haven't had that opportunity, but I will after November 2nd." Potter went on to slowly tick off his personal lifestyle choices--that he drives a hybrid, doesn't water his lawn during the summer, and works with Friends of the Trees.

His statement wasn't the greatest comeback in political history, but it was the most direct and triumphant-sounding statement made in recent memory by Potter, who has been criticized for sleepwalking and showing little interest in his current campaign.

awards podium

with audience comments

GOLD: Sam Adams "Has knowledge and is more passionate," "Very specific," "The smarter of the two."

SILVER: Nick Fish "Engaging," "Funny," "Needs to develop his own ideas."

BRONZE/TIN: (TIE) Jim Francesconi: "Said some very smart things, but his pessimistic style turns people off," "Beat Tom by a hair," "This is what we have to choose from?," "He threw his pen when he got upset."

BRONZE/TIN: (TIE) Tom Potter "Smooth talker, but lacks specifics," "As in the first forum, same answer for every question," "Full of hot air."

Promises for environment

ADAMS' PROMISES -- Expand Portland River Trust to speed cleanup of the Willamette River watershed

-- Fight State Ballot Measure 37

-- Build the two skateboard parks for which the city already has money

-- Pesticide-Free Parks

-- Seek the USA's first Platinum-Level Bicycle Friendly Community designation

FISH'S PROMISES -- Brand and market Portland as the sustainable industries capital of America

-- Build public/private partnerships to rehabilitate the 45 park playgrounds that are in poor condition and bring clean bathrooms to all our parks

-- Make parks, ball fields, and trails for East Portland our first priority

-- Build community through neighborhood farmers' markets and community gardens

-- Complete pedestrian and bike connections to allow all Portlanders access to 5-mile, 10-mile, 20-mile, and 40-mile "loops" in all parts of the city

FRANCESCONI'S PROMISES -- Create a Natural Resource Division within Parks with the goal of establishing more natural areas in the city by increasing the system development charge and increasing maintenance of those areas

-- Incorporate parks and green spaces into jobs and housing proposals

-- Continue with the Centennial Mill property plan adopted by the City Council in 1994 (convert the waterfront to public parks, open space, environmental, and "other" uses)

-- Continue to work with regional partners to maintain air quality by reducing automobile dependence

-- Purchase hybrid vehicles when retiring older vehicles from the city fleet

POTTER'S PROMISES -- Reduce pesticide use in city parks

-- Be more aggressive in "green thinking"--especially in our own bureaus--for actions like disconnecting downspouts; planting natives along our creeks and rivers, and building green roofs

-- Begin to purchase some of the $14 million in electricity the city uses from suppliers who tap alternative wind sources--keeping dollars in Oregon and fighting pollution

-- Become a national leader by converting the city fleet to hybrids that pollute far less and use less gas

-- When creating community benefits agreements with businesses seeking tax abates, add the funding of micro skate parks as an option so kids can stay in their neighborhoods to skate