Tim Hanlon
In his six-month career as mayor, Tom Potter has already driven a few stakes into the ground: He helped lead a vote to withdraw local police officers from the Joint Terrorism Task Force and gained favor with the cycling community by joining a Critical Mass. But his most dramatic leap will take place sometime before the end of the month, when he assigns bureaus to individual city council members. By doing so, Potter will lay out the city's game plan for the next few years.

Although day-to-day operations of bureaus like Transportation or Park & Rec are not often attention-grabbing activities, ultimately they are what give the city its form and function. When Potter first took office in January, he gathered up all the city bureaus under his control. (Unique to Portland, city council members serve as the top managers for the city's bureaus.) Potter said he wanted to evaluate each bureau, and at the time, promised to re-distribute them by July 1--a deadline that is now only moments away. Yet in spite of its immediacy, more questions than answers remain about the pending bureau assignments.

"There's no way to say [who will get what bureau]," said Marshall Runkel, a senior staff member for council member Erik Sten. "The mayor has played his cards really close to his chest," Runkel explained, adding that Potter has had "collaborative" interviews with the council members, asking for their wish lists.

Ultimately, Potter's decision will signal a change in style, vision, and direction for the city. What goals and programs will each council member bring to each bureau? Will Potter keep the troublesome Police Bureau for himself? And who will be punished with the hottest potato of them all, the Water Bureau?

A few of the bureaus are at critical stages and need immediate leadership. For example, over the past few years, the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) has suffered power struggles between city hall and neighborhood advocates. Two years ago, Leonard tried to implement neighborhood centers to serve as outposts for basic city services. That move triggered a severe backlash from residents who saw Leonard's action as a power grab from the individual neighborhood associations.

Although assignments are being kept under tight wraps, city hall insiders say that Potter plans to remove Leonard from ONI and take control himself. (It's also thought that Potter will hold onto the bureaus for Planning, PDC, and Police).

The Park & Rec Bureau also needs immediate leadership. Normally that bureau is a peach of an assignment that involves delivering fun services and activities to neighborhoods. But over the past few years, budget cuts and increasing demands have turned the parks into turf wars. But in spite of the problems, the Parks Bureau slowly has been implementing several exciting programs, from skateparks to pesticide-free parks. Assigning a play-it-safe council member like Dan Saltzman could stifle those programs, dragging them into a bureaucratic quagmire.

Bureau assignments also set in motion future relationships between the mayor and individual council members. For example, Sten has asked to maintain the bureaus he managed before Potter arrived--namely, Fire and Housing.

"With all the work on PGE, there isn't a lot of extra time available," explained Sten's staff member Runkel, referring to the city's attempt to purchase the electric company. Sten has served as the city's point person for that campaign.

But Potter may decide that Sten's workload is too light and saddle him with more responsibilities. If so, those assignments may be a fatherly kick in the butt, dictating a new alpha-dog relationship between Potter and Sten.

Potter also has a significant opportunity to help or hinder the two council members seeking re-election next year. Both Sten and Saltzman have indicated they will most likely try to hold onto their seats in the election cycle next spring. New bureau assignments could be a huge help or hindrance for those campaigns.

For example, last year Sten managed the Fire Bureau--an organization that carries a large, well organized union. On the flip side, managing the Water Bureau is as good as attaching an anchor to one's political career. Four years ago, Sten screwed up the billing system and earned some of his worst public shame in his eight years in office. The bureau was reassigned to Saltzman, who oversaw an aborted attempt to place caps on the Mt Tabor reservoirs. That decision sparked outcry from residents and marred Saltzman's reputation.

For updates and additional discussion on the bureau assignments, check out portlandmercury.com.