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April 13th, 2005 Zach Dundas | Q & A
 

TOM POTTER

Portland's new boss talks earthquakes, the FBI and remaking the city.

     
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Tom Potter
IMAGE: MICHAEL RUBENSTEIN
Tom Potter took over as Portland's mayor just over three months ago. And, boy-he really took over.

In a city with a rare "weak mayor" government, where power is usually split among the mayor and four City Council members, Potter followed through on a key campaign promise: For his first few months, he'd run everything. With all city offices under his wing, he devised a new way to write the budget and kicked off a sweeping review of how the city operates. And he's also talking up a possible rewrite of the charter rules that govern the city.

Along the way, Potter antagonized the FBI by questioning Portland's role in a federal anti-terror task force. He spurned the Mrs. Oregon beauty pageant for rejecting same-sex marriage. And he rode his recumbent bike in the motorist-antagonizing Critical Mass, the protest that ties up downtown traffic once a month.

All in all, after 100 days, the ex-police chief is nobody's weak mayor.

WW: You instituted a new approach to the city's budget, putting the four commissioners in charge of scrutinizing the bureaus. How did it work?

Tom Potter: Overall, I'm very pleased. One, it brought the City Council closer together. And it gave us a chance to look at bureaus without commissioners being responsible for them. We can make decisions that better reflect the priorities of the city, not just particular bureaus. We're asking bureaus not just what they'd cut, but how they might do business differently-and we're really putting pressure on the bureaus to determine their future.

When you took office, you promised to try to improve Portland's relationship with the rest of the state. When will we see a tangible return on that?

I'm not sure. This is a divided legislature, and I know that in other parts of the state, Portland isn't held in the highest esteem. Part of it is just about rebuilding relationships, letting people know we're interested.

Do heated, politicized issues-the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Mrs. Oregon flap-hurt your effort to reach out to other parts of the state?

You know, they probably do. I wouldn't deny that. I think, though, that I've got to be true to myself, and the commissioners do as well. My goal is to develop relationships to the point where people know where we're coming from.

So what have you found that troubles you the most about the city?

Our commission form of government lends itself to the building of silos-to people not working together. I think we've been able to do good things not because of the commission form but in spite of it. I'm really convinced that that is part of the problem.

Interesting you should say that. Someone the other day said to me, "Potter, by taking all the bureaus and shaking up the budget and all that, has basically created strong-mayor government de facto."

Well, that authority is always there.

But seldom used.

That's right. I think it was necessary, to begin with, to make some changes. But on Jan. 1, I could not have told you every detail we had in mind or how it would work out.

So you think the whole commission form of government should be on the table?

Oh, you bet. Is it the best form of government we could have? There are other charter issues, too. PDC-what should its relationship to the city and to citizens be?

You have three-or four-major efforts to create change. In the first one, the new budget process, some bureaus got beaten up publicly. Feelings are raw. Could that imperil the others?

One can never be sure. Some of them have felt-some, not all-that they haven't been treated with the respect they deserve. In some instances, they're probably right. But on the other side of the coin, they're being asked questions they've never been asked before. Sometimes that can be offensive. Part of the government culture is that once you've been in for a while, you become the expert. And those that aren't in it, are not. In the Police Bureau, we would say, "We're the police, and you're not." So there's kind of that prevailing attitude on some people's part. My own estimation is that once we get through the budget, many bureaus will see that this isn't the end of the world.

What's an issue the public isn't paying attention to right now that you anticipate spending a lot of time on in the next six months?

One of the same things I was thinking about when I left the Police Bureau. I know the Joint Terrorism Task Force is on everyone's mind right now. But beyond our ability to respond to a terror attack, there's a concern I think is even bigger. An earthquake on the scale of the one that caused the South Pacific tsunami would devastate Portland. Those early-hour responses are going to make the difference between saving lives and losing lives. And also, obviously, schools are so important. Regardless of what the Legislature does, I'm going to be going around the state and talking to people about that issue. We're creating a children's bill of rights with the county.

What's your biggest disappointment so far?

Disappointment? Well...I come to work every day excited about work. And I'm never sure how the day will turn out. For the most part, they've turned out pretty well. Trying to think about notable disappointments...I still have a very positive construct in my mind about this job.

What about your desire to spend half the day outside City Hall-have you made good on that?

No. I guess if there is a disappointment, that's it. But I knew that taking all the bureaus and getting involved in the budget process would preclude that for a while. On Tuesday evenings and Saturdays during the day I try to get into the community to meet with people. And I go over to the Portland Building to try to meet the city's employees-I think I'm up to the sixth or seventh floor. I want to meet the employees of the city and let them know there are ears they can talk into. I don't have a lack of things to do.


Potter says July 1 is the deadline for the city to finish its diversity plan, for bureaus to finalize their customer-focused approach, and for him to parcel most of the bureaus back out to commissioners.

The mayor's website is www.portlandonline.com/mayor

 
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