Maybe we've been watching too much Celebrity Poker Showdown. Or maybe we took Mayor Tom Potter too literally about his "new deal" at City Hall. Either way, the mayor's shake-up of the annual debate over the city's budget reminds us of a high-stakes game of Texas Hold 'Em.
Over the next few weeks, Portland's city commissioners will go mano a mano with the bureaucrats who run city departments. How will the city slash $8 million from its $300 million general-fund budget? Who's going to hit the jackpot, and who's going to lose their shirt? With apologies to Amarillo Slim, here's a look at the action.
As soon as he became mayor, Potter took over all the city bureaus, usually farmed out to the City Council's four commissioners. Then he told commissioners to get to work on the budget, splitting the quartet into two teams, assigning each a roster of bureaus to eyeball.
That's pretty much a 180-degree reversal of former Mayor Vera Katz's approach. The budget was Vera's baby—she crunched the numbers, then handed them to commissioners. "She knew details about the budgets of our bureaus that we didn't even know," says Rich Rodgers, an aide to Commissioner Erik Sten.
Potter's betting the teamed-up commissioners, with no bureaus to puppy-guard, will be ruthless and smart as they whack city spending. But isn't the new mayor leaving a crazy amount of clout on the table?
"At first blush, you'd think so," says Commissioner Randy Leonard. "The shrewd thing is, he knows you become more powerful by empowering people."
City Hall denizens say that in the past, turf battles poisoned the budget as commissioners fought over pet projects. Bureau directors, eager to preserve their domains, could pit commissioners against each other.
Now the commissioners appear united. In hearings that began last week, the two teams started grilling bureau directors about spending.
"We've taken a blood oath among ourselves—and I'm serious about that," Leonard says. "We're leaving all that defensive behavior in the past. [Before,] we've cut services to citizens and preserved bureaucratic jobs. Why do we have planners in the Parks Bureau but no garbage cans in the parks? It doesn't make any sense."
The new process is stepping up the pressure on middle managers, planners and support personnel. "They are freaking out as we speak," Leonard says. The Parks Bureau says cuts will mean draining swimming pools; commissioners are more likely to want to lay off planners. Firefighters claim they'll have to close stations; last week, Commissioner Dan Saltzman wanted to know why the bureau pays two employees to film training videos. The tension mounts.
Will the gamble pay off? No one knows until the last card is turned. "If the teams don't produce something that adds up and works, the mayor will be under a lot of pressure to straighten it out," Rodgers says. The timetable is tight: The budget must be finished by late spring, which means the crucial hands will be played in the next few weeks.
1Texas Hold 'Em-speak for "the deal"—the three cards laid on the table first after each player has been dealt two cards.
2The fourth card—the game's heating up.
3The fifth and final card—the moment of truth.