Mayor Charlie Hales drove himself to WW’s offices this week in a city-owned Prius. He admitted he was still a bit woozy from jet lag: He’d just returned from a weeklong trip to China.
But Hales snapped awake to make an energetic defense of his first year on the job. He talked about doing yeoman’s work on the budget; spats he wishes he’d handled differently; the big plans he has for Southeast Portland; and, his No. 1 priority at the next legislative session: mental health.
His grade for his own performance this year? Hales gives himself a B.
[See WW's cover story assessing Hales' performance here.]
WW: People say you are not moving fast enough on big ideas or your promises.
Charlie Hales: It wasn’t just, “Charlie spent five months on the budget and got it done.” No, no! We’ve gone from a $21 million deficit to a $14 million surplus in six months. Find another American city who’s done that.
How do you assess the success of the effort to move homeless people camping near City Hall and in other parts of the city?
The situation of lawlessness on the sidewalk got pretty acute this summer. It got acute around City Hall. It got acute when a meeting planner from Kentucky, whom I talked to, came to check out Portland and got assaulted. We had people having sex out on the sidewalk and selling drugs right outside City Hall.
There are two related but separate issues. We’ve made some progress on the sidewalk safety issue and not anywhere near enough progress on the homelessness issue.
Did you get off on the wrong foot on homelessness issues by starting with a sweep?
Public safety is not the wrong place to start. It was very effective. We’ve changed the environment around the city’s principal public building. Citizens feel like they can come there and not be scared.
Where are the homeless supposed to go?
Exactly! That’s why we need more services and more shelters. This council made it its top priority last summer to go to the legislative session and say school funding is No. 1. This session the council needs to go there and say, “Stay there on school funding, but get serious about mental health.” A huge percentage of the folks we deal with on the streets and call homeless are more than just homeless.
You are considered someone who looks at Portland and says, “I want to change the city’s face.” What can we expect? We haven’t seen you identify big projects.
In the first week in office we told the Planning Bureau to get going on planning [around] the [Portland-Milwaukie] light-rail line that’s already under construction. We were shocked to find out that the station-area planning hadn’t started. There’s a huge opportunity there for the next big thing, like the Pearl District.
Does the public know you’re excited about that?
Probably not. We haven’t done well enough to communicate our larger, long-term plans to the public this year because we have been out of necessity pretty engaged in managing the city.
Are you surprised people in and around City Hall wonder why you haven’t done more?
A little. During the campaign I described City Hall as a hothouse. There are small things that seem important there. One thing about this trip to China: It helped reinforce there are big-picture, directional things that really matter when you’re a leader. Leaders there are making big-picture, directional decisions, some of which I disagree with vehemently. It’s just a reminder there’s big stuff and then there’s everything else. You’ve got to keep putting your effort into the big stuff.
What’s something you haven’t done you wish you had?
We’ve been spotty in our collaboration with the other elected offices in the city. I’m going to do more management by wandering around. I’m going to make sure that my staff is in constant communication with the other four commissioners and the auditor.
You’d think you’d know to do that, given you spent 10 years on the City Council.
We didn’t practice that, not because of delusions of imperial grandeur, but because we have a lean staff. We didn’t always remember to confer.
What’s going to be different three years from now when your term is up?
We will start to see things blossoming on the east side at both ends of the center city. Maybe there will be a new Southeast community center. Something will be happening at the site of the Memorial Coliseum. I don’t know what, but I am unmoved by the prospect of spending a bunch of public money to patch that thing together and just have it limp along for another 20 years.
Memorial Coliseum is an example of an issue you knew about when you took office. Yet today you’re out asking people to offer ideas.
Other city administrations have had three ideas before breakfast and not managed the city terribly well. I’ve had a deliberate approach: First, put the house in order, then entertain more visionary agenda items. The public will come with us to a bold Portland future if the basics can be counted on. If the neighborhoods are safe and we’re not afraid to call 911. If there’s a great public school down the street, if the streets are paved, if the city is in sound condition. And then people will come with me. We’ve been disciplined to a fault.
There was a meeting in June when you lost your temper at large water users who want to take control of the Water Bureau away from City Hall. Why?
We need to get rid of this act of political terrorism in the form of a corporate takeover of the Portland Water Bureau. It falls to both me and Commissioner [Nick] Fish to run a campaign against that piece of mischief.
Would you handle it the same way again?
I might yell louder. No, I’m teasing. I
probably would be a little more diplomatic. But when you’re dealing with
a deliberate act of sabotage, sometimes an aggressive approach is
warranted. That really pissed me off.