It should've been a gimme: a city of Portland office devoted to making sure "everyone has access to opportunities necessary to satisfy essential needs, advance their well-being, and achieve their full potential."
Something happened to Mayor Sam Adams' Office of Equity on the way to City Council. On Wednesday, the council holds its first hearing on an ordinance Adams says will help prevent "social unrest" caused by growing racial and economic disparities.
But Adams tells WW that, after months of work, he can count on only two votes for the proposal: his, and that of Commissioner Amanda Fritz, whom he left in charge of the details. The three other commissioners have said they have problems with the plan.
For good reason. Whether or not it wins approval, the Office of Equity has become political shorthand for City Hall's failures, Adams' drifting tenure as mayor and a city government that's expanding its purview, rightly or not, beyond its basic responsibilities.
It's also become an easy target for mayoral candidates Eileen Brady and Charlie Hales, who each say the Office of Equity is unnecessary.
Adams says the Office of Equity is vital to Portland's future. "I'm not doing the 'up with people' cheer, here," Adams says. "We spend more time and attention and research to get insight into things like recycling than we do helping facilitate equal opportunities for everybody."
For Fritz, the Office of Equity is the highest-profile project she's taken on since entering office in 2009. It's gone badly. With Adams fading from view (he's not running again in 2012), Fritz will be the lone city official fully behind the Equity Office as she runs for re-election.
Fritz says she's faced resistance because she's chosen to champion an emotionally charged subject that Portlanders haven't yet faced. "We're pretty bad," Fritz says. "If you look at the Wikipedia entry for Portland…'Racism in Portland' was a whole page. Somebody has now changed it to 'Cultural Issues in Portland.'"
How did Adams and Fritz let a noble idea go so wrong?
The Office of Equity could serve as a civil-rights watchdog for city employees and root out sources of income disparity in Portland. Multnomah County has a similar office, as does TriMet. Fritz and Adams cite the Seattle Office of Civil Rights as a model. But that office has explicit enforcement powers—something Portland's proposal lacks.
Adams and Fritz have failed to explain what the Office of Equity would do. They want the City Council to approve the office, and to trust them to figure it out later.
It's remarkable the plan is so painfully vague given that Adams made it the crescendo of his State of the City speech back in February. Even people inclined to support the idea are befuddled.
"It demonstrates a commitment on their part, and is a symbol of their commitment," says Gale Castillo, president of the Hispanic Metro Chamber of Oregon. "I don't think you need a symbol. I think you need an action plan."
Castillo served on a 38-member "creation" committee for the plan—an example of a process-loving city processing a good idea to mush. Adams and Fritz haven't found consensus, even on the concept itself. "When you have giant committees like this, it's hard to do something without someone taking issue," says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who says the plan for the office is fuzzy.
The Office of Equity would compete with another city agency, the Human Rights Commission and Office of Human Relations—formed in 2008 with similar goals.
In an April 18 email to Commissioner Randy Leonard, Fritz says Human Relations "has not developed positive regard in the community." Who oversees the office? That would be Fritz herself, who has left the Human Relations Office headless since getting rid of director Maria Lisa Johnson four months ago.
Commissioners have other ideas what to do with the Office of Equity's proposed $525,000 annual budget. That's money on top of the $618,000 already being spent each year for the Office of Human Relations.
Fritz's opponent in next year's council race, state Rep. Mary Nolan (D-Southwest Portland), says the plan lacks clear authority, goals and deadlines. "If we can't articulate what outcomes we want to be different, I don't see a mechanism for how we get there," Nolan says.
The vagueness and duplication, says Leonard, is hard to justify in tight budget times. "I don't see how it survives the next council," he says.
Fritz says controversy over this relatively small budget request reflects an aversion to discussing the difficult subject of equity.
She says the council recently approved Leonard's plan to use $456,000 in Water Bureau funds to build a caretaker's cabin on Powell Butte. "I think we can spend half a million looking at race and disability," Fritz says, "and why those factors have such bad outcomes [for people], and what we can do about it.â