Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler
's annual "State of the County" speech
today to the City Club of Portland turned into a test-run for how this ambitious pol would handle some of the state's most pressing issues.
But first came his meat-and-potatoes rundown of the issues facing the county.
Entering the final year of his first term and facing little opposition
in his re-election bid so far, Wheeler gave a 40-minute speech touting the county's successes despite yearly budget cuts and an economy in freefall.
"We used it as an opportunity to think and act anew," Wheeler said of the recession, citing his efforts to boost the SUN Schools program, open a comprehensive domestic-violence center with the city and build a mental-health crisis center by 2012.
Wheeler also took the opportunity to break news, announcing for the first time a new low-income health and dental clinic the county will open this year in Rockwood with the nonprofit CareOregon
The chairman took a moment to address friction with interim Sheriff Dan Staton
, who opposes Wheeler's efforts to bring local jails under control of the county commissioners.
"I respect Sheriff Staton," Wheeler said. "We have an honest disagreement on the structure of the county jails. But it's up to the community ultimately to decide" the best way to run county corrections.
Perhaps to the discomfort of Portland Mayor Sam Adams
, City Commissioner Amanda Fritz
and other city officials in the room, Wheeler brought up the 2006 death of James Chasse Jr
. in police custody, saying "no crisis has focused my administration more."
The county last summer settled for $925,000 with Chasse's family, while the city of Portland remains the only defendant in the family's massive pending civil-rights lawsuit.
An audience member asked Wheeler if he believes the city attorneys' contention that an unbiased jury can't be found in Portland for the Chasse trial. The city is seeking to move the trial for that reason. Wheeler said he disagrees.
"I do believe you can find impartial people in this community on any subject," Wheeler said. "The key is finding people who are not afraid to be wrong."
For those who have followed Wheeler's political career — from his first bid
for office in 2006 to his rapid rise as one of the most respected public officials in the region — the Q-and-A session provided a glimpse into his thinking on statewide issues.
It was interesting because while Wheeler has been coy about whether he aspires to higher office, observers and people who work with him believe a future run is highly likely.
Asked what he thinks of the Legislature's decision this week to block Gov. Ted Kulongoski
's bid to reform the kicker
, Wheeler railed against what he called a "boneheaded" and "completely dysfunctional" revenue system in Oregon.
Wheeler said he would scrap the entire system and start from scratch, including canning the kicker, which gives back tax revenues that exceed state economists' forecasts by more than 2 percent.
"I took economics," Wheeler said. "Most economists can't find their way to the classroom
, much less predict state revenue within 2 percent."
Another audience member asked Wheeler about predictions that PERS will bankrupt the state. Wheeler said there's little chance the Democratic-controlled Legislature will take on the problem, and the responsibility rests squarely with the governor's office.
"I believe that's an executive decision," Wheeler said.