PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler intends to set and control the direction of city government when he takes office in January through a staggered bureau assignment process.
During an interview with the Portland Tribune editorial board last Wednesday, Wheeler appeared focused on wasting no time when he formally takes over, laying out a muscular and activist approach toward the city’s top job. And he did not shy away from suggesting the previous mayor and council might have made better decisions.
Wheeler said he has had many meetings with the continuing members of the City Council, Commissioner-elect Chloe Eudaly, and city bureau directors since being elected mayor at the May 2016 primary election. Wheeler said he has specific ideas for the directions he wants many agencies to take which he has discussed with them, and will announce his initial bureau assignments on Jan. 3, 2017.
In April, Wheeler will assume control of all the bureaus while the council process for adopting the next budget is underway. In May, after the budget that takes effect on July 1 is approved, Wheeler intends to reassign bureau responsibilities to council members.
The reassignments might change in May, Wheeler said, depending on the progress he sees each commissioner make toward achieving his goals.
“Depending on how things have been going, there might be changes if there are problems of leadership,” Wheeler said.
Assigning bureaus is one of the few powers of the mayor under Portland’s system of government, where each member of the council oversees a set of bureaus. Although it is not unusual for mayors to assign themselves all bureaus during at least their first budget process, making an initial three-month assignment may never have happened before.
Although rumors are swirling within City Hall about Wheeler’s initial assignments, he declined to discuss most of them. Wheeler said he would assign himself the Portland Police Bureau because he made improving the relationship between the police and the community a top priority of his campaign.
He also suggested he will take the Portland Housing Bureau from Commissioner Dan Saltzman because it is essential to addressing the issues of homelessness and housing affordability, which were also top priorities of his campaign.
Wheeler said he plans to take a different approach to the homeless crisis than the current administration. During his campaign, he promised to provide shelter space for half the people living on the streets by the end of his second year in office. Conceding that promise may be hard to keep, he said it will involve offering more housing options, such as emergency shelters, tiny home villages and triage centers, such as the one proposed by developer Homer Williams as part of his aborted homeless multi-service project at Terminal 1.
“Allowing people to camp outside is not a humane solution, and it’s hated by neighborhoods and businesses,” Wheeler said.
The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner
In response to a direct question, Wheeler declined to say whether he would allow Commissioner Amanda Fritz to keep the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. A recent audit by the City Auditor’s Office found it riddled with administrative and management problems, in part because it has been given many unrelated responsibilities.
Even if Wheeler keeps all the bureaus currently under Mayor Charlie Hales, who is leaving the council at the end of the year, two other important bureaus will need to be initially reassigned. They are the Portland Bureau of Transportation and the Portland Office of Emergency Communication, which operates the 9-1-1 system. Both are currently overseen by Commissioner Steve Novick, who was defeated by Eudaly and is also leaving at the end of the year.
On the subject of the budget, Wheeler said he was concerned by the recent forecast from the City Budget Office that said the council is spending money faster than it is coming in, despite record revenue growth because of the strong local economy. The forecast said the council will have to cut $4 million in annual spending over the next five years to balance its books, in part because it has recently approved approximately $12 million a year in new unfunded programs.
“I have some very deep concerns about the state of the budget. We need to focus on what works and fund it, not just on what is popular,” Wheeler said.
Work locally on global issues
Wheeler indicated he is not so inclined to fill Mayor Hales’ shoes on the international front to counter climate change.
Hales has been a leader in the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which recently honored Portland for its innovative Climate Action Plan.
The C40 cities’ work is viewed by environmentalists as more crucial than ever, given the incoming Trump administration’s indifference or outright hostility to addressing climate change.
Wheeler said he’ll stress more local issues, such as improving transit in East Portland. More residents are being pushed out of close-in neighborhoods to get affordable housing in East Portland, but the jobs are increasingly on the west side, Wheeler said.
“That is contributing to carbon emissions,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do right here at home.”
Wheeler said he’s largely in sync with the current council’s approach to infill housing and the newly updated Comprehensive Plan, which is intended to guide how the city grows during the next 20 years. The Portland area agreed to promote density in urban and suburban communities when it opted decades ago to support an urban growth boundary that restricted growth in rural, forest and farm belts, Wheeler said.
“I support density,” he said. “It will not be a comfortable conversation” with opponents of that in the city, he added.
Wheeler favors more accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, as a way to add infill housing in a relatively low-impact fashion. And he favors promoting “missing middle” housing in existing neighborhoods, such as duplexes, triplexes and small garden apartments.
Some of the neighborhood opposition to those can be addressed via good designs, Wheeler said, citing one example of an apartment in his West Hills neighborhood.
Wheeler also appears keen on experimenting with “tiny house villages” as a way to promote more affordable housing and density.
Plans for police
On public safety, Wheeler said he plans to go forward soon with his pledge in May to hold a national search for the job of Portland police chief, despite the fact that the city already has one in Mike Marshman.
Two months after Wheeler went public with his plan to fill any vacancy with a search, Hales instead replaced retired chief Larry O’Dea by naming Marshman the city’s permanent chief, rather than an interim.
Wheeler said that if he were Hales, he wouldn’t have named Marshman a permanent chief, since Hales was a short-timer.
“I would not have done it,” he said. “It’s important that I have somebody who is my police chief who has my values, who agrees with the reforms that I will seek to impose over the course of my administration.”
Wheeler said Marshman may in fact may be that chief, but a national search would boost the credibility of whoever ends up holding the job.
“He has not stated he will be part of the process. I would encourage him (to apply),” Wheeler said of the chief.
Wheeler also addressed the city council’s handling of the controversial police contract in the fall. Critics had attacked the deal as being too generous with raises without finding the money to pay for them, while asking for too little in return.
Wheeler, discussing the city’s financial situation, appeared to echo some of that criticism. “Why on earth would you negotiate a contract to increase wages” without making other adjustments to avoid “eviscerating” non-public safety programs, Wheeler asked.
He noted that the main police union concession during the contract talks, to end the controversial rule shielding officers from having to talk about uses of force for 48 hours, was only one of 10 reforms he laid out during the campaign.
After his election, Wheeler expressed no concerns publicly during the contract negotiations and public hearings despite some advocates’ calls for him to weigh in. Asked if he regretted keeping his silence, he said, “I do not regret it and I was not silent. I had plenty to say behind the scenes.” He said he spoke to the chief, the police union, Hales and City Council members about the contract privately, rather than opine publicly.
“I chose overtly after I was elected in May not to be a shadow mayor,” Wheeler said, “because there would be no end to people asking my opinion on every single subject in front of the City Council at a time when I needed to focus on my transition.”
He then appeared to walk back his earlier apparent criticism of the council’s fiscal decisions around the contract, saying, “I don’t know that I would have negotiated a different or better contract.”