To protest the federal government's efforts to shut down the state's medicinal marijuana program, the Santa Cruz city council handed out joints this past fall. In Boulder, Colorado, to appease their environmentally giddy citizens, the council declared the entire city a bird sanctuary. Ann Arbor, Boulder, Burlington, Madison, Santa Fe and 16 other liberal city councils passed resolutions shouting down the USA Patriot Act and its intrusive reach into citizen's private lives, phone calls and e-mail correspondences. The resolutions are entirely symbolic, but represent a willingness to stand up for principles.

Noticeably absent from the list of city councils backing such resolutions is Portland, a city long heralded for its liberal, progressive and inventive politics.

In a time when the federal government is tightening its control on matters from policing to morals, city councils are increasingly becoming outposts for liberal ideas and ideals. But in a Mercury survey of a dozen liberal cities across North America--east to west, from Cambridge to Berkeley; and north to south, from Toronto to Austin--it appears as if Portland's city council has fallen behind its liberal brethren.

Other city councils lean towards social issues (like a 105-point recommendation for helping the homeless undertaken by the Toronto city council) and for providing greater access to local politics. Meanwhile, Portland's city council has stood firm with business interests, and has become increasingly sequestered. (This past summer Portland's city council approved strengthening a sit-lie ordinance, which allows police officers to move along the homeless or others loitering in the downtown area. The changes were encouraged by the downtown business lobby, say social workers.)

With Randy Leonard set to fill a vacant seat in January and the council ready to start full force on anther term, it appears that local politics only will continue this trend towards conservative practices and principles. (In his campaign, for example, Leonard supported the sit-lie ordinance.)

One immediate and fundamental difference between Portland and other liberal city councils across the country is access. Last month, Boulder's council set limits on how long its members could speak, allowing more time for public input. Madison and Berkeley's councils hold their meetings in the evening to allow work-a-week types to attend. In Portland, council meetings are held Wednesday afternoons at 2 pm.

The ideology and ingenuity seen in other city councils is woefully absent in Portland. For many councils, the dual central conflicts have become 1) a struggle between police and civil rights, and 2) a balancing act between social services for the poor and homeless, and appeasing downtown business interests.

In Madison, these issues were at the forefront of council actions this past year. Madison's mayor shut down a proposed ordinance that allowed police to issue loitering citations to people suspected of drug activity. Compare this to the Portland council's endorsement of the sit-lie ordinance and the re-enactment of both Drug and Prostitute Free Zones (where police may exclude any person suspected of illegal activity for 90 days).

Also supporting the poor and homeless, Madison's council is pushing for an ordinance that would stop landlords from denying tenants who receive housing vouchers.

Interestingly, the council in Madison, a hockey-loving city, has also been pushing through a resolution to sell the city's two municipal ice skating rinks. Meanwhile, this past year Portland's city council encouraged installing an outdoor ice rink in Pioneer Square, a $10 million move bemoaned by social agencies who have lost tens of thousands from city funding this past year. The rink has also been flogged by activists who say that it will displace protesters from the largest and most central public space in town.

But then again, perhaps the grass is always greener on the other side. Michael King, editor for the weekly Austin Chronicle, responded to the Mercury's questions with the comment: "For the record, locals usually beat up the Austin city council with variations on the phrase, 'Why can't we be more like Portland?'"