Wearing an orange and yellow backpack over a checked flannel shirt, Paul Phillips led his guide dog, Charger, to the stately table at the center of Portland's City Council chambers.
This summer morning, Phillips was one of five people who signed up to address the council during the 15-minute public comment period that opens each weekly meeting. The June visit was his 14th this year, meaning he's adressed more than half the council's Wednesday meetings.
When he'd signed up to speak a week earlier, Phillips, 52, wrote that he intended to use his allotted three minutes to talk about "Reverse Polish Logic." Before he could begin, Mayor Tom Potter said, "I'm not sure what you're going to say, but we don't allow bigoted remarks in this chamber."
"Bigoted. Are you familiar with that phrase?"
"Not totally, but I don't think I'll make any reference to it, though," said Phillips, who is among a handful of "frequent flyers"—folks who sign up to speak each week, often addressing issues well beyond the city's purview.
Last week, Potter introduced a new rule that would limit Phillips—along with everyone else—to one appearance per month. The idea is that people like Phillips are not only boring commissioners with oft-repeated and odd diatribes, they're preventing people with more pressing concerns from being heard.
The council is expected to pass the new rule Aug. 16, with Potter getting support from Commissioners Randy Leonard, Dan Saltzman and Erik Sten.
Former council candidate Amanda Fritz supports the limit, writing to city officials that she repeatedly sought time on the agenda last spring to talk about public campaign financing, "but all the spots for three weeks were already tied up by folks who use them repeatedly." Auditor Gary Blackmer says someone is turned away almost every week.
Commissioner Sam Adams says Potter's measure is a solution in search of a problem, citing figures that two-thirds of the council meetings in 2005 had open slots. (The number's closer to one-third this year.) He says the changes would make Portland's public-comment rules more restrictive than in "conservative" cities such as Lubbock, Texas, and Provo, Utah.
"I'm uncomfortable putting city government in the position of limiting what is the people's soapbox in our electronic town square," Adams says. He proposed a compromise: If all five slots were full and a newcomer wanted to speak, they'd get priority. Painting the Portland Building hot pink might have gone over better.
Back on June 21, Phillips rambled about the Pope, then read aloud from a Willamette Week story about shady doctors, wasting 14 precious seconds trying to remember the word "pedophilia." He read to the commissioners with the aid of a $3 yellow magnifying glass-compass-thermometer-whistle, which he holds inches in front of his 20/400-vision eyes.
"I hope that I pronounced his name properly," Phillips said of WW reporter Nigel Jaquiss. "He was the same gentleman who wrote about Neil Goldsmith [sic]. He won a Pulitzer Surpri-, uh, Prize."
Abruptly he stopped, turning to Potter, "This isn't billigatory is it?"
When the electronic tone sounded to mark the end of his three minutes, Phillips still hadn't arrived at his point but vowed to pick up the next time.
The question before the council now is whether next time should be a week later or a month.
By his own admission, Phillips doesn't have much to do. He sits real close to his 52-inch TV and watches action and adventure DVDs. He takes Charger for walks at all hours.
His life story is a bit hard to follow at times. Born one of six legally blind children to well-sighted parents in Pendleton, Ore., Phillips hasn't worked in 25 years since injuring his arms in a Lewiston, Idaho, hospital laundry. He claims he once turned himself in to the police along with a satchel of marijuana in order to get someone to listen to the problems he was having collecting disability benefits.
"I couldn't get any other legal representation," he says.
Nor is Phillips really able to articulate what has kept him coming back before the City Council week after week or what he thinks he's been accomplishing.
"At least I get my idea across," he says.
Don't expect to see him addressing the council anytime soon. After last week's council meeting, he took his name off the agenda for Wednesday, Aug. 9.
"I'm not going back there with them acting like that," he says. "'We don't want you here'—that's what it seemed like the mayor was saying."