AS MUCH AS Portland loves to complain about its unique "commission-style" form of government—with administrative power spread nearly evenly across our tiny, at-large city council—Portland also loves keeping the damned thing around.
Which might be to the chagrin of the big-money consulting team Mayor Charlie Hales has hired to help him sort out management problems in the sprawling Portland Office of Management and Finance (OMF)—including, most notably, whether Hales ought to restore a chief financial officer (CFO) position he axed ostensibly because of budget cuts.
Because according to multiple sources in city hall, interim OMF Director Fred Miller has been meeting with individual city commissioners and their chiefs of staff about that restructuring review and raising an interesting and vexing question.
Namely, should Portland creep down the road to a partial government makeover—sapping the council's power and giving it to the mayor—by giving its next OMF director many of the powers of a proper city manager, if not the actual title?
That sentiment is quietly tucked inside a two-page briefing document (a teaser to a full report by consultant Moss Adams) first leaked to the Oregonian earlier this month. And without context from the people who've seen it, it would be easy to glide right past it. (The Oregonian, in fact, did just that—focusing instead on the document's CFO findings: Yes, Charlie, it really is time to hire a new one.)
Under a section titled "leadership solutions," a bullet point says council might want to consider letting OMF's director "perform the dual role of managing OMF and supporting citywide administration activities on behalf of the city council."
That sounds boring. Don't be fooled. Right now, the head of OMF mostly oversees back-office functions—like human resources, revenue collection, and fleet management—and the city's investments and financial planners.
Adding "citywide administration activities" to that role could give the OMF boss more power over the city's main-line bureaus, like parks and water and fire. And because the head of OMF historically reports to the mayor, that power would also flow up to the mayor's office.
Practically, it's hard to imagine city commissioners taking that kind of change seriously.
And, indeed, some sources suggest the idea is merely one end of a continuum that could even see OMF revert to a far less centralized state. They say it reflects Moss Adams' bias—they're just not used to dealing with a system as quirky as Portland's.
But there's already concern in certain quarters that Hales' office might be using the report's findings to make a strong case for consolidation.
Multiple sources say Miller, in his briefings with city commissioners, has been skillfully exploiting the closed-door, one-on-one nature of his visits. They say he's made sure to point out that the various council offices are split on the question—suggesting some room to lobby for the change.
It's not clear, of course, where Hales' office actually stands on all of this. His spokesman didn't return either of my calls seeking comment on the "city manager" question.
Instead, sources say, the mayor is scuffling with Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish over whether the restored CFO job should report to council—and not the mayor—and whether he can maybe layer those duties over an existing job.
Of course, it might help if we could see the report itself, and not just a leaked preview. Because that way a private conversation—on a controversial subject—might also become a public one. It's wonky, but it's worth it.