For years, Steve Novick was the darling of Portland progressives. His distinctive physical profile—he stands 4-foot-9 with a metal hook in place of the left hand he was born without—was paired with big policy ideas and a barbed wit. He nearly upset Jeff Merkley in a 2008 Democratic primary bid for the U.S. Senate, then breezed into Portland City Hall in 2012.
But life in that building was a struggle.
During four years as a city commissioner, Novick helped make hundreds of houses safer from earthquakes, reformed a disabled-parking permit system that had long been abused, and ended an epidemic of suicides on the Vista Bridge with a simple but contentious solution: a fence. Most notably, he persuaded voters to pass a 10-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax to fund street repairs—fighting for dollars on a pothole-strewn battleground where predecessors for years had given up. But that victory came at a cost: Novick warred with colleagues and the public, and those donnybrooks took a toll on his popularity.
In November, bookstore owner and upstart candidate Chloe Eudaly rode a wave of anti-establishment sentiment and anxiety about housing costs to sweep Novick from office with 54 percent of the vote. (WW endorsed Eudaly.)
But nothing keeps Steve Novick down for long—not even Portland City Hall.
He's been monitoring the increasingly toxic atmosphere in the building. And this week, he agreed to share with WW readers five simple steps to making Portland work a little better. AARON MESH.
BY STEVE NOVICK | ILLUSTRATIONS BY CAMERON LEWIS
Maybe you've noticed: People are unhappy with Portland City Hall.
In November, I became the first sitting commissioner to lose re-election in 24 years. Poor Mayor Ted Wheeler has barely had time to change the drapes, but people are already lining up to yell at him. And polling shows "the City Council" as a whole is less popular than any individual.
I'm not sure to what extent the public's unhappiness is based on objective failings by the City Council.
All politicians are affected by the free-flowing national anger that elected Donald Trump. Our local news media have increasingly adopted the view that only negative news about government is news.
And the specific issues people are most concerned about are rising housing prices and homelessness. These problems also plague other major West Coast cities, suggesting there simply are no silver-bullet solutions. (Many people think rent control might come close, but state law prohibits rent control, so you can't quite blame City Hall for not implementing it.)
And yet I do think something is broken at City Hall—and we need to fix it.
I spent four years on the City Council aware that we weren't facing up to some major problems. But they aren't the issues that people are protesting about. They're slow-developing, long-term issues. Those are the kind of crises that humans as a species aren't very good at dealing with—global climate disruption being the most dramatic, and far deadliest, example.
But I believe we might have a chance to harness the unhappiness with City Hall in a way that will improve its ability to address those long-term problems —by changing the basic shape of Portland's government.
Making that fundamental change could go a long way to solving a series of large problems. Here are five solutions—starting with the one that fuels all the others.
Portland's form of government must change.
Portland has an almost unique form of government, in which the mayor appoints his or her fellow commissioners to oversee various bureaus.
Commissioners—except, occasionally, the mayor—love the commission form of government. You have a lot more power if you directly control bureaus than you would in a city where councilors' jobs are purely legislative and a city manager is hired to run city operations.
But it's not a good form of government.
As soon as you assign bureaus to a commissioner, two things happen: Those bureaus become incredibly important to that commissioner, and everything else the city does becomes relatively unimportant.
Suddenly, each commissioner's primary constituents are the people in the city who care most about that bureau, and its employees—and nobody wants to bring bad news to their primary constituents.
It means the council as a whole is never truly committed to a particular priority, because every commissioner's real priority is his or her bureaus.
I've seen it happen to myself and others.
Before I had bureaus, I brought in outside experts to talk to the council about evidence-based policing; after I got bureaus, I lacked the time and energy to continue that push. In 2013, before Amanda Fritz was assigned the Portland Parks & Recreation, I don't recall her prioritizing parks in the budget; afterward, she always fought fiercely for parks to get its "share."
All of these factors make it harder for the city to take on big, slow-developing problems.
Let's take transportation. City Hall knew, since at least 1987, that we weren't getting enough money from the state and federal gas tax to maintain streets.
Other jurisdictions in Oregon came to the same conclusion, and they did something about it. Medford adopted a street fee in 1991. Washington County adopted a property tax for transportation in 1986. But Portland, which is not known for being anti-tax, did not adopt a local funding source for transportation until voters approved my proposed 10-cents-per-gallon gas tax in May 2016.
Why is that?
I think part of the answer is, there's only one transportation commissioner at a time, meaning that at any given time, there was only one member of the City Council who might make new funding a priority.
In the 1990s, Commissioner Earl Blumenauer pushed Mayor Vera Katz to spend more of the general fund on transportation. Katz said no, perhaps partly because she and Blumenauer still had bad blood from the 1992 mayoral election.
The other three commissioners could have taken Earl's side. But why would they? Not their bureau. In fact, those with general fund bureaus would have seen Blumenauer's request as a threat to their bureaus.
Now, I don't think there was anything stopping Blumenauer or any of my other predecessors from doing what I ultimately did: ask the council to send a measure to voters to raise money for streets. They just didn't happen to have the stomach for it.
Sam Adams, for example, apparently ran a much better process than I did leading up to his 2008 "street fee" proposal. His process was praised, while mine was justly criticized. But when it became clear he would have to go to the ballot, he simply gave up. I was more stubborn.
But if there were no such thing as a transportation commissioner, if transportation were a shared responsibility, any of the five commissioners, at any given time, might have decided new transportation funding was a sufficient priority to push the council to take the risk of going to voters.
The existence of the commission system reduced the universe of potential transportation champions by 80 percent.
The city would be best served by a truly normal form of government: council elections by district with a city manager. (For one thing, elections by district would mean less expensive campaigns.) But even if we kept all council elections citywide, we'd be better off without putting council members in charge of bureaus.
We need fewer police officers with guns.
Portland, like other cities, has far less serious crime than we had 20 or so years ago. In 2014—the latest year for which the Portland Police Bureau has published data—there were 35,218 "Part 1 crimes" (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, arson and motor vehicle theft).
Twenty years earlier, in 1995, there were 56,251 Part 1 crimes in Portland. Major crimes are down by more than 35 percent.
Intuitively, you would think that if crime is down, we could get by with fewer police and redirect the savings into areas where our problems have gotten worse—like homelessness and transportation.
But that hasn't happened. The number of sworn officers has declined by just 5 percent, from 1,001 in 1995 to 950 in 2014.
In the 2016-17 fiscal year, the city of Portland will spend $177 million—35.4 percent of the discretionary general fund budget—on the Police Bureau.
And the city recently approved a new police contract that is so expensive that, even with record revenues, the city is facing a deficit.
And yet the police say they need far more officers. Police leadership will say that crime might be down, but the number of calls they get is up. And that is absolutely true—partly because cellphones let people call 911 more easily than ever before. And somebody has to respond to the calls.
But the vast majority of those calls are not about serious crime, or about crime at all—such as calls to the scene of noncriminal traffic accidents, or "welfare checks" on people who look messed up.
So my question is: Why do we need sworn police officers, carrying guns, to respond to all those calls? Couldn't a lot of them be handled by unarmed staff—"community service officers," such as those Milwaukee, Wis., and Colorado Springs, Colo., are now hiring?
If you replaced, say, one-third of the armed police with CSOs, for one thing, you'd save money: In San Jose, Calif., community service officers start at $52,000 a year, while sworn, gun-toting officers start at $78,000.
You'd also dramatically expand the hiring pool, and probably get applicants whose views on a variety of issues are more consistent with those of most of the community. In a recent national survey by the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of white police officers said "the country has made the changes needed to assure equal rights for blacks"—as opposed to 57 percent of all white American adults. I don't think it's a coincidence that when a job involves carrying a gun, you get applicants with different views than the community as a whole.
And I'm pretty sure that if fewer cops had guns, cops would shoot fewer people. Police in Britain or Norway or New Zealand don't shoot a lot of people. Most of them don't carry guns.
The latest Portland police contract at least opens the door to having staff without guns. It allows the bureau to hire community service officers, who would be unarmed. That's good.
But I would be pleasantly surprised if we saw a major transformation in the composition of the police force. The mayor, like any other commissioner, comes to see the Police Bureau as a primary constituency. They're the people you spend the most time with. You don't want to upset them.
When the bureau is thoughtful and creative, that's fine. But when it isn't, it's a barrier to progress. In 2014, I proposed cutting the budget of the Police Bureau's Drugs and Vice Division. I argued that we all know the war on drugs is a failure, so why are we wasting resources on it? I lost, 3-2. I'm pretty sure then-Mayor Charlie Hales knew the war on drugs was a failure—but I was asking for something the Police Bureau didn't like.
There is, however, a ray of hope on this issue—coming from Portland Fire & Rescue. Fire Chief Mike Myers faces a very similar situation: fewer fire calls, but more overall calls, primarily for medical reasons.
But Myers doesn't want to respond by asking for more firefighters. He thinks he can stop sending a fire engine to every medical call. He thinks some calls, which aren't life-threatening, can be addressed with "nurse triage": 911 would refer the call to a nurse, who might conclude that a cab to urgent care is the best recommendation.
Myers is a rare gem. (He's like buttah.) Maybe he can inspire the Police Bureau, and the mayor, to be creative.
Let's fix our crumbling parks—and get rich people to pay.
Portland has a fine parks system, and a laudable commitment to expand green spaces to underserved areas. But there isn't enough money to maintain the parks we already have.
The City Budget Office estimates it would take an additional $14.9 million a year to adequately maintain our current system, plus $3 to $5 million a year to maintain planned new parks. So the parks, like the streets, will gradually deteriorate. Right now, the roof of Peninsula Park Community Center is leaking, and we can't afford to fix it. Ditto for the roof at the Lan Su Chinese Garden. And the terra cotta tiles of the roof apron at the Multnomah Arts Center are breaking—and might at some point start falling on people's heads. The recent parks bond, which raised $68 million, addressed only a fraction of the problem.
But parks have an advantage streets don't: There is a history in America of rich people contributing money to support public parks—especially high-profile parks in wealthy neighborhoods. That frees up public funds for humbler parks.
In New York, the Central Park Conservancy provides the vast majority of the park's $46 million annual budget. Brooklyn's Prospect Park Alliance provides two-thirds of that park's $12 million annual budget. In Chicago, a conservancy raises over $5 million a year to help maintain Millennium Park.
Now, I know New York and Chicago have more rich people than Portland does. But we have a decent number. And there might be a way to smoke them out.
What if the city simply announced that as of 2022, say, it is no longer going to pay to maintain certain high-profile parks in well-heeled areas: Washington Park, Hoyt Arboretum, Council Crest Park? That would give rich residents five years to decide if they want to keep those parks alive.
That suggestion won't come from the parks commissioner, who won't want to upset his or her primary constituents: people who care a lot about parks. No politician would, but if you're "the parks commissioner," it's much harder.
I don't love the idea of relying on private resources for public services.
But if we don't do something, we're eventually going to have to start closing facilities anyway—when their roofs start falling in.
Bring tax fairness to East Portland.
Everyone at City Hall has spent the past several years expressing their commitment to helping East Portland.
But they haven't spent much time talking about the worst injustice perpetrated on East Portland: the unfair property tax system.
Measure 50, passed in 1997, says that the assessed value of any property may grow by only 3 percent a year. In the past 20 years, the real market value of properties in inner east Portland has gone up by a hell of a lot more than 3 percent a year. Meanwhile, property values east of 82nd Avenue, and especially east of 122nd, haven't gone up so much.
Imagine if income taxes worked this way. Bill and Jill each made $30,000 in 1995. Bill's income has gone up at a steady 3 percent a year ever since—but Jill has become the new Warren Buffett. In a Measure 50-type income tax system, they would each pay the same amount in income tax today.
As a result, you see people in East Portland paying far higher tax rates than people in recently gentrified areas. The Oregonian has done good work on this issue. In a 2015 article, Elliot Njus gave the example of a house on Southeast 148th Avenue, market value $224,810, with a $3,539 tax bill, compared to a house on Northeast 17th, market value $446,540, with a tax bill of $2,048.
And every time voters pass a bond measure, homeowners in East Portland are hit much harder than those in Alberta or Richmond, relative to the value of their homes.
City Hall can't fix this problem by itself. The voters of the entire state would have to vote to change Measure 50. But City Hall could make lobbying the Legislature to reform tax inequity a top priority. Commissioners could spend lots of time begging legislators to act, and highlighting the issue in the media.
Although I did raise the issue with legislators and colleagues periodically, I certainly did not give it nearly the attention it deserves—and I'm supposed to be a tax policy wonk.
Part of the reason neither I nor any other commissioner has sufficiently prioritized this issue is simply that overall property tax fairness is not part of anyone's bureau assignments. And it's really hard for commissioners to summon up much time and energy for issues outside their bureaus.
But let's say we held elections by geographic district. Odds are that East Portland's representative would obsess over this injustice.
City Hall needs to hear from citizens—not just the white homeowners.
The city's neighborhood associations are Portland's official squeaky wheels. They also get greased with a substantial amount of city cash.
Portland has an Office of Neighborhood Involvement, which provides $2.3 million this year to regional neighborhood coalitions representing the city's 95 neighborhood associations.
What kind of citizen involvement does that get us? Well, the kind of people who show up at neighborhood association meetings tend to be middle-class white homeowners over the age of 50. In other words, the kind of people who you might expect to get involved in City Hall issues even if there were no Office of Neighborhood Involvement.
They're fine people. They just aren't very representative, and are becoming less so in an increasingly diverse city.
And they have an agenda. In the context of planning and zoning, they tend to oppose, for example, the idea of increasing and diversifying the housing supply by allowing more duplexes and triplexes ("middle housing") in single-family zones. (And some of them speak darkly of the prospect that such policies would result in—heaven forfend!—more renters.) That will be a hot issue later this year, when zoning votes face the City Council.
ONI tries to offset this bias by funding its Diversity and Civic Leadership Program ($990,000 this year), which engages underserved communities. But that doesn't change the fact that when City Hall hears from "the neighborhoods," it's really hearing from a self-selecting segment.
The city could use the money it spends on neighborhood coalitions for a different model of citizen engagement.
In Toronto, chief planner Daniel Fusca also noticed that "a disproportionate number of the people we engage in planning processes tend to be white male homeowners, and over the age of 55." So they sent letters to 12,000 people asking them if they were willing to be part of a planning review panel, and selected 28 from 500 respondents, including 13 renters, eight people under 30, and 14 "visible minorities."
As a consultant who helps assemble these panels says, panels are given "a clearly defined task, sufficient time to learn about the issue from different perspectives [and] access to impartial expertise." Oh—and they're reimbursed for child care, too.
That $2.3 million could fund a lot of citizen panels—if the commissioner in charge of ONI would make the change.
I hope that Chloe Eudaly, elected as a tribune of renters, will break the mold and reform the citizen involvement model. But it would be easier to reform the system if there were no one commissioner on whom the neighborhood associations could concentrate their fire.
Portland can be a city that works better.
Replacing the commission form of government won't automatically solve all of Portland's problems. Other cities, too, have crumbling streets, deteriorating parks, and an overreliance on police with guns. And I'm not joining the naysayers who say Portland doesn't work at all.
But it can be a city that works better.
Portland can be a city that beats guns into plowshares. It can be a city where public funds are concentrated on low-profile parks frequented by people of modest means, and where the property taxes people pay bear some relationship to what their homes are worth. Where citizen involvement means the involvement of everyone—especially renters and people of color.
I am convinced we can take a major step toward being such a city by eliminating the commission form of government.
The voters have repeatedly rejected such a change. But right now, when City Hall as a whole is pretty unpopular, the timing might be perfect. Anything billed as "shaking up City Hall" could have a real chance.
Who's up for gathering signatures to get that on the ballot?