PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — As Mayor Charlie Hales nears the end of his final year in office, it sometimes seems like he is under constant siege from irate Portlanders.
Residents throughout the city complain that Hales’ homeless policies have encouraged tent camping along their streets. Homeless advocates camped outside his Eastmoreland home to protest the sweep he ordered along the Springwater Corridor.
Affordable-housing activists have marched in support of rent control. Police watchdogs and others tried to occupy City Hall to prevent the City Council from approving the contract Hales negotiated with the union representing police officers.
Some homeowners say recommendations to increase density that he set in motion will destroy their neighborhoods. And the chairman of the Oregon Republican Party called for him to resign because of the anti-Trump protests.
But on an early November morning, all was calm in Hales’ suite of offices. Sunlight seeped through the windows of his private quarters as he reviewed a five-page, single-spaced list of his accomplishments as mayor. Hales talked hopefully about adding to them during the final weeks of his administration, with council votes or deliberations on a number of items already scheduled for consideration by the end of the year.
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“After 14 years on the council, I’ve stayed undaunted by the noise,” Hales said, combining his 10 early years as a commissioner with his four years as mayor.
As Hales reflected on his time in the mayor’s office, the only disturbance that morning was a pre-arranged visit from a delegation of Lincoln High School students who support one of his final initiatives, an official ban on new fossil fuel terminals. Although the students thought the proposed ban could be tougher, the visit was congenial, not confrontational, and they posed for pictures with Hales outside his office before leaving.
City’s problems not unique
To many Portlanders upset with Hales on homelessness, affordable housing and police accountability issues, it might seem as though he is in denial. Based solely on the complaints, it’s easy to assume those issues are out of control. But Hales doesn’t see it that way. He believes all three are national problems affecting all major metropolitan areas — and that Portland is doing a better-than-average job of dealing with them because of his leadership. Among other things, Hales says the council approved the most money ever for homeless and affordable housing programs during his administration. And no African-American — armed or unarmed — has been shot by city police since he took office.
More than that, Hales argues that he has done many things in partnership with other council members that have been good for the city but don’t get much if any publicity because they are too “wonky.” They include reforms to the budget process that have increased transparency, eliminating the yearly criticism of utility fund misspending, increasing crisis-intervention training of police officers, and even bringing the monthly Last Thursday street party on Northeast Alberta under control.
“I’m very happy with the things we’ve gotten done,” Hales said.
Despite that, Hales said he is done with elective politics and will not run for another public office again. Asked about his plans after Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler takes office on Jan. 1, Hales said he plans to “take a long sabbatical, do a lot of traveling, and not pick the next gig for while.”
A little more than a week later, after days of anti-Trump protests that resulted in extensive property damage and at least 113 arrests, Hales was equally confident he and the police had handled the situation well by cracking down when the situation got out of hand.
“Look, in the last 30 days the police bureau and I have been castigated from one side for being too harsh on protesters and arresting too many people. And we’ve been castigated on the other side for not declaring martial law,” Hales told OPB.
Although Hales is prepared to argue at length that he has been a good mayor, many Portlanders feel otherwise. During informal chats at different events on the night of the general election, several political insiders said Hales had been a disappointing mayor. Although all agreed he was well intentioned, they felt he had lost focus as his term went on, eventually falling victim to the same crisis-of-the-day mentality that crippled previous Mayor Sam Adams.
“Mayors are remembered for major reforms and building things, and Hales hasn’t done either,” said Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University. “Maybe something he started will come to fruition in a few years and he’ll get credit for it.”
Moore said it is important to remember that Hales abandoned his race for re-election after Ted Wheeler, the state treasurer, announced for the office with a lengthy list of endorsers, including the three previous mayors. Hales said it was too difficult to run the city and run an effective re-election campaign, but leaked polls showed Wheeler either nearly tied or well ahead of Hales at that point.
Hales admits he made some missteps in office, most notably by trying to push an unpopular street fee proposal through the council without submitting it to the voters. The initial version, co-sponsored by Commissioner Steve Novick, floundered for months when they couldn’t line up the third vote needed to pass it. Novick eventually proposed asking voters to approve a temporary 10-cents-a-gallon city gas tax to fund street maintenance and improvement projects. It was easily approved at the May 2016 election.
After Novick was defeated by first-time candidate Chloe Eudaly on election night, one insider, who asked not to be identified, blamed Hales for his defeat. According to this theory, Hales had persuaded the less-experienced Novick to partner with him on the original street fee proposal, then withdrew from it when the going got tough.
Hales also concedes that one of his homeless policies backfired. After the council declared a housing state of emergency in October 2015, Hales announced that small groups of homeless people would be allowed to camp on unused city property overnight. In the wake of the announcement, homeless camping became increasingly visible throughout the city. Most of the tent and tarp clusters were not taken down during daylight hours, as Hales’ new policy required, prompting a growing number of residents to complain that Hales had sanctioned quasi-permanent homeless camps in their neighborhoods. At the end of six months, Hales said the experiment had been misinterpreted and he was reimposing the existing ban on homeless camping. But the situation hasn’t changed much in many parts of town.
Today, Hales insists that allowing homeless camping is more humane than prohibiting it when there are not yet enough shelter beds and affordable housing units to accommodate everyone living on the streets. He says the six-month experiment did not increase the number of homeless people in Portland, arguing that ongoing development of areas like the Pearl District, South Waterfront and the Central Eastside Industrial District is eliminating the out-of-the-way places they used to live unnoticed.
“There are fewer and fewer places that people don’t care about anymore, fewer and fewer places for the homeless to be unobtrusive,” Hales said.
Hales ran for mayor in 2012 after first serving on the council from 1993 to 2003. He still keeps a memento from the mayor’s race on a window ledge in his office, a tool belt he wore at some public events and in campaign ads to emphasize his “back to basics” campaign theme. Hales says there were a lot of problems that needed fixing at the time just to get Portland back on an even keel — including eliminating a looming $21 million deficit, increasing the upkeep of city streets after the Portland Bureau of Transportation sold its paving equipment, confronting years of deferred maintenance at the city-owned Portland Building and at Memorial Coliseum.
According to Hales, most of those problems have either been solved or are on the way to being solved. For example, city finances are in good shape, thanks in part to his work to reduce the number of urban renewal districts and return more than $800 million in assessed property back to the general tax rolls. Street paving has increased from 35 miles a year to over 100 miles a year, and will grow even faster with new gas tax money. And a $195 million renovation of the Portland Building is finally underway.
Work has been delayed on the coliseum, however, because it needs more than $100 million in upgrades and the city has identified only $20 million in urban renewal funds for those.
Police reform agenda
Some efforts are ongoing, such as police reforms. Hales talked repeatedly about the need to reform the police bureau when he ran for mayor, calling for an emphasis on community policing after a series of controversial shootings of minorities and the mentally ill.
He had his opportunity by negotiating a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which had begun investigating whether Portland police had a history of using excessive force against the mentally ill. A federal court approved the multiparty settlement, which Hales set about implementing. He says the city is meeting most of its requirements, including increasing crisis-intervention training for officers and helping to fund a regional mental health crisis center. He says the biggest failure is the requirement over which the city has the least control, the creation and operation of a Community Oversight Advisory Board intended to give citizens more influence over police policies and operations.
“The police settlement is one issue where Hales may deserve to get credit down the road,” said Moore, the Pacific University professor.
The biggest current issue Hales did not originally campaign on is the affordable housing crisis. Hales has long advocated so-called smart growth policies to make cities more livable by creating denser mixed-use neighborhoods connected by alternative forms of transportation, including public transit.
“That’s what interests me, how do you change the world by changing cities? People are moving to cities all over the world. How do you make them livable?” Hales said.
But Hales seemed slow to react to the growing popularity of such neighborhoods, which resulted in increased housing values, controversial demolition and infill projects, and oversized replacement houses and apartment buildings.
Renter and homeowner complaints grew very loud before Hales reacted, and even now some proposed solutions — such as rezoning two-thirds of existing single-family neighborhoods — are splitting the city. It is one of the recommendations proposed by the staff of the Residential Infill Project, which Hales created within the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability last year in response to community concerns.
Although Hales’ checklist says it will be completed in December, the actual City Code changes will not be drafted and presented to the council until next year, when there will be a new mayor.