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January 17th, 2007 HENRY STERN | News Stories
 

Herding Katz

Ask ex-Mayor Vera Katz what she'd say in this week's "State of the City," and prepare for an earful.

     
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FORMER MAYOR VERA KATZ doesn't need coffee to get ramped up about charter reform.
IMAGE: AMY OUELLETTE
While Mayor Tom Potter puts the final polish on his annual "State of the City" speech Jan. 19, we tracked down his predecessor to ask what she'd talk about if she still had the job.

Ex-Mayor Vera Katz, who favored long to-do lists in her State of the City speeches, responded to the question with a litany of concerns worth mentioning.

After a 30-plus-year career in politics—including a 12-year run as Portland's mayor before retiring in 2004—Katz is politic and old-school enough to not publicly criticize her successor.

But even as a 73-year-old two-time cancer survivor who undergoes dialysis three times a week (she celebrated one small victory recently when her three-hour dialysis sessions were shortened by 15 minutes), Katz still pays close attention to City Hall.

In between a schedule teaching at Portland State University, volunteering in the SMART reading program at Marysville Elementary School, and channel surfing that includes MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, Katz regularly watches City Council sessions on TV.

Among her answers to our original State of the City question: the lack of job training and the city taking on roles that she thought were better left to the county (like the proposed ban on smoking in parks). Yet what was really on her mind during much of a 90-minute interview last week was an effort to change the city's governing charter.

Among the recommendations recently proposed by Potter's citizens' charter committee is moving to a "strong mayor" form of government.

City bureaus would no longer be run by commissioners, but by the mayor alone with the help of a chief administrative officer.

Katz agrees with the charter committee. She says the city has become too large (with an estimated population of 563,000) and too diverse to rely on a commission form of government in which management of an annual $2.9 billion all-funds budget isn't centralized.

"If you want a government that's responsive and manageable, you can't continue to govern with a commission," Katz said, pounding the table in a Park Blocks coffee shop, more from her passion for the issue than the single cappuccino she sipped. "Every one of the commissioners see themselves as mayor."

Ironically, Katz's tenure as mayor is cited by some opponents of the charter changes as one of the best reasons for keeping the current system. They contend a strong personality in the mayor's office like Katz can effectively keep control of the other four commissioners and City Hall by pulling bureaus from commissioners who are screwing up.

In other words, if past mayors like Katz could do that, the system ain't broke and doesn't need fixing.

Katz counters that it's asinine not to fix the system. She says she quickly realized at City Hall that there must be a better way, but felt it was self-serving to "say, 'Give the mayor more power.'"

While Katz won't be delivering a State of the City on Friday, she does expect to make charter reform an issue that brings her out of political hibernation to be vocal about, health permitting.

"I know this is wonkish,'' Katz says. "But we have to focus on it. This is a historic opportunity."


Potter will deliver his second State of the City address Jan. 19 at City Club of Portland's Friday Forum, Governor Hotel, 614 SW 11th Ave. 12:15 pm. $16 City Club members, $20 non-members. Reservations at pdxcityclub.org or by calling 228-7231, ext 203, by Wednesday, Jan. 17.
 
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