City Commissioner Jim Francesconi is facing off against Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Noelle in a spat that has some wondering about their motives. The issue, however, is not jail beds or the use of parks. It's speed bumps.
Three years ago, a small group of neighbors started pushing for speed bumps along Southwest Humphrey and Hewett boulevards, just off the Sylvan exit of the Sunset Highway on the outskirts of Portland.
Leading the speed-bump crusade is Kelly Bruun, a prominent developer who three years ago built his "dream home" on Humphrey, a $1.9-million red-brick mansion on 12 acres. Bruun says that because both Humprey and Hewett are narrow and curvy, with neither shoulders nor sidewalks, running and biking--two of his favorite pastimes--can be hairy. So he has become the de facto leader of a campaign to introduce his neighborhood to speed bumps, one kind of "traffic calmer." While speed bumps undeniably slow traffic down in residential areas, a lot of people find them annoying. Others complain that they make it difficult for fire trucks and ambulances to navigate the roads with any haste.
Under city rules, neighbors seeking the installation of speed bumps need to get approval from two-thirds of the neighborhood's property owners. So this summer, Bruun and some allies started circulating a petition.
Normally, the city gives speed-bump backers 30 days to gather the required signatures. But in this case, the Portland Department of Transportation, the agency in charge, granted 65 days, arguing that many homeowners might be spending their summers elsewhere.
Even with the extension, Bruun came up just short. Then, in a neighborhood meeting last month, PDOT Director Brant Williams told residents the deadline for signatures might be extended by another month or two. At that point, some of the neighbors who opposed the bumps wondered who was pulling whose strings. Barbara Devine, an opponent of speed bumps who lives near Bruun, says the developer is getting special treatment. Over the years Bruun has been a contributor to City Council races, giving a total of almost $8,000 to Dan Saltzman, Charlie Hales and Francesconi, who is currently the head of PDOT. Devine, however, has a politically powerful advocate in her corner: Sheriff Noelle, who lives nearby in a $388,000 home on Humphrey Park Road and says the speed bumps are unnecessary. Last month Noelle called Francesconi, who oversees PDOT, to see what was going on.
Noelle says Francesconi promptly asked him his position on speed bumps, and when Noelle told him he opposed them, Francesconi replied, "Then I guess we're on opposite sides."
Noelle followed up with a letter to Francesconi on official sheriff's stationery, noting that his office had not received any complaints about speeding along the streets in question.
Nonetheless, last Friday, Williams sent out a letter announcing that instead of requiring petitions to gain support from two-thirds of the neighbors, the city would send out ballots and allow a simple majority to move the project forward. The decision to change the rules, according to Francesconi, came because the size of the affected area and the number of homeowners is so large that a two-thirds requirement is impractical.
The decision frosts Noelle, who thinks the city has moved from a neutral stance on speed bumps to an advocacy position, which he thinks is inappropriate.
"It's kind of like saying, 'We're going to change the process to fit the vote,'" says Noelle. "If you rigged an election in Bolivia, you could probably do it the same way."
Francesconi, for his part, denies that Bruun is getting any special treatment. He says he's simply following the recommendation of his staff. Even some opponents of the plan attribute the city's zeal for speed bumps to "traffic-calming true believers" at PDOT, rather than political influence.
Bruun says the real scandal is that Noelle put out a letter on official stationery about his neighborhood battle. Noelle, however, says his intervention is based on getting lots of calls from his constituents, not his personal opinion. "I've got to live somewhere," he says.